Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.” And he wasn’t wrong. Ever since Georges Méliès’ Le Manoir du Diable, the genre has always been at its best when the terror was earned, not forced down the audience’s throats. When the correct elements are at their best — a perfect blend of pacing, score, and tone — a genuinely scary moment has the potential to work.
Sadly, however, one of the most common tropes that too many horror movies resort to is the jump scare. Instead of relying on these collective elements to incite a sense of dread, characters popping out onto screen, accompanied by a swell in the score, tends to be the go-to trick. It’s cheap, but effective (a jolt is a jolt is a jolt), and horror movies refuse to let this gimmick die.
That said, there are some occasions where the jump scare actually works. When overseen by someone who clearly knows what they’re doing, a cheap trope can actually make for a true scare. So, in case you’ve lost hope in the genre, keep reading to explore 16 Horror Movie Jump Scares That Actually Scared The Hell Out Of You.
16. The Witch On The Bureau – The Conjuring
Having launched a handful of franchises within the genre (Saw, Insidious), James Wan seemed at his most comfortable while making The Conjuring, a horror film based on the actual experiences of demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren. Throughout the film, Wan is nodding to classics like The Changeling and The Haunting, opting for shadows on the wall over blood and guts. And it works. But every so often, Wan can’t help but toss in a jump scare just for good measure.
Only, when Wan goes for a jump scare, it’s actually effective.
This particular moment happens when the daughters of Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston, respectively) hear noises coming from their bureau. However, after discovering that the bureau is filled with nothing but clothes, they look up to see Bathsheba the Witch watching them from above.
While technically not an all-around jump scare, seeing as the attention of both the characters and the audience are directed towards the witch, the jarring, shock-scare element gives it a pass. If Wan has proven to be successful at anything, it’s diverting attention and dishing out the unexpected.
15. Lawnmower Death – Sinister
Every so often, a horror film will try to reinvent the genre. Night of the Living Dead did it with zombies, Scream did it with slashers, and Sinister did it with ghost stories. Or at the very least, it made a valiant attempt. Subverting expectations works perfectly in horror movies, because in order to keep someone scared, you’ve got to give them something they’d never see coming.
Sinister is filled with these moments. It takes its time setting the stage, as well as detailing the mythology of its villain, which is exactly why the end result works as well as it does. By the final act, the dread is earned.
Maybe this is why one of the film’s few jump scares actually works. Ethan Hawke’s Ellison is viewing footage from the old home videos he’s found in his attic. In one of the reels, the cameraperson is pushing a lawnmower and aiming the lens at the ground. Without a single swell in the music, a bound and gagged person is revealed on screen for barely a second before the mower is pushed right over them, doing what lawnmower blades across the face tend to do to a person.
14. Dallas’ Death – Alien
Ever since the first Alien film, the series has been nothing short of relentless. With hordes of xenomorphs, gunfire aplenty, and action/adventure-friendly pacing, the sequels are proud of their no-holds-barred explosiveness. What they don’t really adhere to, however, are their roots. Ridley Scott’s original Alien is a claustrophobic thriller far less concerned with warfare than it is with old-fashioned fear.
Which is exactly why it’s found a spot on this list to begin with.
Scott is clearly not afraid to add a fair amount of jump scares into his film (the facehugger jumping out the egg, the chestburster busting out of John Hurt’s chest, the hissing cat), so once this scene comes along, it’s hardly out of place. Where it differs, however, is in how much more effective it is.
Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is in a dark shaft, trying to follow through with his plan to trap the alien, but he hits a hitch in his plan. The alien is actually trapping him. It reaches out of the darkness, followed by a shrill cry for man meat, and Dallas’ fate is a done deal.
13. Man In The Road – Insidious: Chapter 3
In the third chapter of the Insidious franchise, the series goes back in time. Not in the way that the first sequel literally introduces time travel into the series, but in the form of a prequel.
Now, the Insidious films don’t necessarily seem like the kind of movies that care about shying away from jump scares, but you’d be surprised. Though some cheap horror gags are heartily sprinkled throughout the series without question, the fear is legit. In fact, it just so happens that one of the series’ most effective scares of all happens in the third installment.
Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) has been seeing visions of a creepy old man in a hospital gown. He pops up at random in various locations, but it’s not until he shows up in the middle of the road, catching both Quinn and the audience off guard, that the film delivers one of its most startling moments.
12. Hanging – The Woman In Black
Harry Potter in a horror movie? Sounds like…well, sounds like a recipe for disaster, to be honest. Having drawn in young audiences with his boy wizard franchise, you’d think you would have been safe in assuming that his follow-up film — horror or otherwise — might be just as kid-friendly. As it turns out, you’d have been dead wrong.
The Woman in Black is an atmospheric, haunting, and deeply depressing horror movie. The fear is strong with this one. Even when it’s relying on the much-abhorred jump scare.
While exploring the old manor by the marsh (as one does in a horror movie), Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps is well aware that the titular woman in black is haunting him. In one of the manor’s bedrooms, the suspense may as well be ticking away like a time bomb, and while the audience waits for one of the many creepy elements in the bedroom to step up to the jump scare plate, the woman’s ghost drops into frame from the ceiling, hanging from a noose, and scaring the hell out of Jo Rowling’s boy wizard and his devoted fanbase.
11. Stabbed In The Neck – The Exorcist III
More often than not, any sequel made after a classic is nothing more than a cash-grab. Now, exceptions do exist, but they’re rare. And even at their best, they’re only giving studios the wrong message: that every solid movie requires a follow-up. And another one. And then a few more just for good measure.
The Exorcist III is not one of the good ones. However, it does manage a few scares in its hour and fifty minute running time — the most effective one taking place in a hospital.
The scene happens in a single wide shot down a hospital corridor. A nurse is making her rounds, and we follow her moving this way and that. After exiting a patient’s room, she leaves, closes the door, and proceeds to carry on with her duties. Then, a character draped in white sheets appears suddenly from out of the door she just exited, aiming a pair of giant scissors straight at the back of her neck.
10. The Nightmare – An American Werewolf In London
An American Werewolf in London isn’t an especially scary movie. That said, it’s an incredibly effective scary movie. Director John Landis (Animal House) has no trouble balancing out the horror with the comedy, and that’s precisely why it all works as well as it does. When audiences have no way of seeing what’s coming, scares land like seasoned paratroopers. Even when dream sequences are used as aggressively as they are unashamedly.
During his time in the hospital, David (David Naughton) is the victim of an over-the-top nightmare involving zombie werewolf Nazi soldiers. They show up out of the blue, killing his entire family, and while the scene itself isn’t especially frightening, their introduction comes so far out of left field that it’s hard not to react.
This scene is especially effective, given that there’s not one, but two jump scares. And it happens in a dream-within-a-dream moment. David wakes up, his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), explains that she has just the thing for him, but as she draws back a curtain — BOOM! Another zombie werewolf Nazi soldier attacks, stabbing her in the chest.
9. Bathroom Sink – The Amityville Horror
With the original being such a classic, The Amityville Horror probably didn’t need a remake. But then again, what movie really does? It’s a haunted house story that differs enough from the first outing that it may as well have been an original film. But licensing sells, so can you really blame studios for trying?
For what it’s worth — despite its poor use of CGI — this movie isn’t half-bad. Ryan Reynolds has unnaturally sculpted abs, which do nothing to help normalize his everyman-type character, and the house’s motive is recycled from better movies at best, but when it’s scary, it works. And yes, even when it opts for a jump scare.
Michael (a young Jimmy Bennett) is afraid to use the bathroom at night on his own, and for good reason (he lives in a colonial-style crypt). However, when he finally braves the darkened hallways of his haunted home, his trip to the can is a success. That is, until he goes to wash his hands, and one of the house’s many ghosts is revealed to be casually crouching right beside him, watching him do his thing.
8. The Camera Flash – Saw
Saw is unashamedly shocking. And bloody. And gross. It’s basically everything that the average person hates, and yet it’s one of the most successful horror movies ever made. Go figure.
Why it works, though, is due to some masterful directing. Say what you will about “torture porn,” but James Wan did a solid job at its first official go. He weaved together mystery, gore, and a thick, unnerving atmosphere to create a world that managed to bring a grotesque subgenre into the mainstream.
In one of the non-gory but equally unsettling scenes of the movie, Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay) believes that there is someone in his apartment. With the electricity out and no other source of light to help him see, he utilizes the flash on his camera as a source of brief illumination. Though it works, it does more in elevating the suspense, what with the audience knowing well enough that someone or something is bound to pop up any moment. Which is exactly what happens — much to Adam’s dismay.
7. Corpse In The Closet – The Ring
Gore Verbinski is somehow very efficient in making “grotesque” look “glossy,” which has become a trademark of his since as far back as his kid-friendly (but still comedically dark) Mouse Hunt in 1997. With The Ring, it’s no different — even when disfigured corpses are found dumbfounded and rotting in their bedroom closet.
The Ring itself is one of the horror movies that is so reliant on mood and lighting that it can almost be accused of focusing more on style than substance, even though that’s hardly the case. Verbinski clearly took a page out of the Jeff Cronenweth cinematography handbook, and it shows in the best ways possible. Again, even when he’s going for the shock effect.
After Katie (Amber Tamblyn) has already met her gruesome fate after watching the cursed videotape that she’s already been thoroughly warned against watching, her mother is explaining to her sister, Rachel (Naomi Watts), what it was like when she found her. What the audience likely isn’t expecting, however, is a smash-cut to the brief flashback revealing Katie’s horrified (and horrifying) corpse seated in the closet. Especially in the pace and tone that Verbinski’s already set up until that point, it’s a jump scare that no one could have seen coming.
6. Hand From The Grave – Carrie
It wouldn’t be fair to list horror movie jump scares without paying tribute to the original. So, even though Sissy Spacek’s hand coming out of her grave at the end of Carrie may not be especially scary these days, the same can’t be said during the time of its release. 1976 was the year of Rocky and All the President’s Men. It was a year that wasn’t exactly keen on frightening its audiences, so much as it was trying to give them something fresh.
That said, scary though it might have been, this particular scene was certified fresh. No one at the time had been accustomed to what is now a cliche (even Randy [Jamie Kennedy] in Scream says, “This is the moment when the supposedly dead killer comes back to life, for one last scare.“). It’s been done to death, but in Carrie, it was new. It was groundbreaking. (Get it? Her hand breaks through the ground?)
So, every time you’re moderately spooked at the end of a scary movie when the villain inevitably gives that “one last scare,” remember that it was Brian De Palma who did it first — and in some people’s opinions, did it best.
5. Demon In The Dining Room – Insidious
In some cases, a reaction can speak louder than words. In fact, in some cases, they can be more effective than the sort of wham-bam-thank you ma’am effect of classic jump scares. Instead of the moment relying on the sound mixer testing just how high he or she can boost the decibels, the scene relies on something much more simple: a character’s face.
In Insidious, we can all thank Barbara Hershey’s face for the jump scare coming in around halfway through the flick. Her character, Lorraine, is trying to describe the demon she had dreamt about the night prior. Only, by the end of her monologue, and after explaining that she can still hear its voice, she looks over Patrick Wilson’s shoulder and — lo and behold — the demon is right there, staring directly at her.
4. The Creature Caught On Camera – The Descent
For the first half of the movie, The Descent is mostly about relationship woes and claustrophobia. A group of friends are cave-diving, but end up finding themselves in a bit of a tight mess. At first, they’re tasked with trying to find a way out of the caves, but they are quick to discover that being lost underground hardly compares to the man-eating creatures hunting them in the darkness.
What is worse than creatures merely showing up to feed, however, is how they show up. One of the characters is filming their expedition, with the camera set to night vision mode, and in a moment that is already ripe with tension, she catches an unexpected visitor in the frame.
It’s a perfectly paced — and absolutely unexpected — moment, made all the worse in how inhuman this creature looks. The audience has been following this group of friends for the entirety of the film up until this point, so to suddenly meet someone else (or some thing else) is all the more unsettling.
3. The Nightmare Hobo – Mulholland Drive
Far be it from David Lynch to stray from the bizarre. He’s the man who created the the Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead, the Phantom from Inland Empire, and the Mystery Man from Lost Highway, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’d try to top himself in any of his other films.
Take Mulholland Drive, for instance. It’s arguably one of his most “approachable” films, but that’s not to say that it’s running short on nightmare-friendly material. Dan (Patrick Fischler) is telling Herb (Michael Cooke) about how he dreamt that he had eaten at the very diner they are sitting in. He explains that he saw a man by the dumpster, and that he needs to see for himself that the dream was, in fact, just a dream.
When he goes outside and takes a look, however, who shows up but the man from his dream. The man appears to almost slide into frame and, combined with his grotesque appearance, the moment is genuinely haunting. In fact, it’s so frightening that Dan dies from sheer fright.
2. The Man In The Room – The Sentinel
The Sentinel is one of those horror movies that doesn’t get nearly as much love as it deserves. It’s a classic ghost story from the ’70s, it has an unexpected and satisfying twist at the end, and it has one of the most frightening jump scares ever put on film. Even though the scene is of nothing more than an old man crossing a room.
Alison (Christina Raines) is already well aware that some sort of evil is afoot in the apartment she’s just moved into — but that’s putting it lightly. The apartment isn’t just haunted, it’s essentially the root of all evil.
She enters a room with nothing but a flashlight, not entirely sure what she should be expecting (to which the audience can totally relate). The jump scare is as simple as this: there is a shadow on the wall as she opens the door — which is revealed to be an old, half-naked man who proceeds to simply walk from one end of the room to the next. That’s it. But in the context of the scene, it’s a bonafide bone-chiller if there ever was one.
1. The Defibrillator – The Thing
In Halloween, John Carpenter was happy to rely on simplicity. And with a budget of just over $300,000, he didn’t really have a choice. But when he got around to remaking The Thing, it’s safe to say that he had fun with the effects department — an effects department that clearly had money to spare.
The Thing sets itself up to be a stark and chilling reflection on the Cold War, but it takes an expected turn. In fact, to be more specific, it takes an unexpectedly SFX-heavy turn, beginning with a moment simply devoted to one character trying to save his colleague by way of a defibrillator.
As Dr. Copper (Richard A. Dysart) presses the defibrillator onto Norris’ chest (as played by Charles Hallahan), he doesn’t save his life. But that’s only because he isn’t given a chance to. Norris’ entire torso is revealed to be an alien mouth that rips open and gnaws Copper’s hands off at the wrist — defibrillator and all. Why it works so well (and why it ranks at #1) should be obvious enough, because who the hell could have ever anticipated something as demented as this? Well, you know, besides Carpenter himself…
What other jump-inducing scenes do you think deserve a spot on our list? Let us know in the comments!
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