This article is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
A good jump scare is hard to find, or so the saying goes. And it’s true: many a horror flick has confused startling its audience with scaring them, ruining a fair share of inner eardrums in the process. If blasts of noise are all it takes for an effective spine-tingling spook I’ll go down to a marina and stick my head in a foghorn. Probably be a lot cheaper than a movie ticket, I’ll tell you what.
But we of discerning taste know that jump scares aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, when deployed carefully they can result in some of the genre’s most memorable and traumatizing scares. In this way, perhaps jumpscares are the truffle oil of the horror pantry; putrid in excess, but marvelous in moderation. Maybe the scare subverts expectations, raises the stakes or reveals something new about a space or a character. We’ve had enough “gotcha” moments thank you very much. We’ve had better and won’t settle for less!
And so, friends, hold your brows high and demand more from your screamers. Defend the good, deplore the bad, and keep reading for the top ten jump scares that don’t feel cheap as voted on by Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Jacob Trussell, Kieran Fisher, Rob Hunter, Valerie Ettenhofer, and myself.
10. Caught on camera in The Descent (2005)
Neil Marshall’s story about cave exploration that goes woefully wrong isn’t a favorite of mine. Many horror fans would place it amongst the century’s best and I’m sure a number of my comrades in #TheBooCrew would rank it highly as well, but for me, it’s just ok. With that said, there is one scene that makes me clam up with fear faster than Mike Pence seated next to a woman that isn’t his mother-wife. Of course, I’m referring to the creature reveal through the night vision setting on the handheld camera. At this point in the film, we’re already trapped in a dark, claustrophobia-inducing cave, unable to see a thing, and then we have this thrown in our face out of nowhere? Naturally, it causes me to let out a high pitched scream that lands somewhere between Ned Flanders and the Blood Brothers. Not cool, Neil, not cool. And perhaps I like The Descent more than I lead on? (Chris Coffel)
9. Hallway run in Shock (1977)
Shock is a mixed bag on the whole, but in addition to a few other highlights, it also manages one hell of a scare. It’s an in-camera gag—one crafted without the use of outside effects—and it is as simple as it is effective. A child runs towards the protagonist and viewers, and as they get close they dip out of frame due to their height, but just as they leave our view a full-grown man/monster rises into the frame in front of us. It’s fantastically chilling no matter how many times I watch. (Rob Hunter)
8. Nighttime lawn mowing in Sinister (2012)
Sinister is a stone-cold classic ghost film. Or is it a monster movie? A killer kid flick? Whichever way you slice and dice it, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s blending of genres is a compelling twist on a lot of classic takes, including a refreshing villain in its central baddie Bagul: the Pied Piper of Long Island. Bagul doesn’t get his hands dirty – he leaves that for his brood – and no kill is dirtier than the lawnmower scene, a perfectly crafted jumpscare. We know something is coming before we even see the mower; the tension building from shaky innocuous footage outside a family’s house. But when the light is shining directly above the mower, illuminating it and the patch of grass in front, our focus is forced into the pool. And when there is an eruption of noise, it acts as a jumpscare for the character as well, making what typically feels cheap slightly more grounded. It’s not just a manufactured sound, but a guttural scream from another one of Bagul’s victims. (Jacob Trussell)
7. Doorway man from It Follows (2014)
As with Mario Bava’s chiller above, the scare in It Follows comes through a bedroom door. It’s an impeccably crafted sequence that shifts from an exhilarating chase to a necessary calm as heart rates are allowed to slow down. A scare is teased with no follow-through which leaves viewers even more relaxed when the door is opened a second time to reveal, once again, no threat. And then the monster appears from the shadows, and all bets are off. (Rob Hunter)
6. “Are you not the babysitter?” in The House of the Devil (2009)
Ti West’s The House of the Devil is such a well-built slow burn that by the time the first body drops, over a third of the way through the movie, you’ve almost forgotten you signed up for a horror story. Poor Megan (Greta Gerwig), our protagonist Sam’s (Jocelin Donohue) chatty best friend with Farrah Fawcett curls and a dorky-cool demeanor, is just looking for a light. After ditching Sam at a deeply strange babysitting gig, she pulls her car over to smoke a cigarette. When her lighter fails, a hand comes out of the darkness, lighter held aloft. This itself is a slight jump scare, but it’s nothing compared to what comes next. The lighter belongs to a man (A.J. Bowen) who makes no move to explain his presence. After an awkward moment of small talk, he asks Megan, “Are you not the babysitter?” She says no, and the man shoots her in the head mid-sentence, her gore instantly splattering on the windshield and dashboard. The House of the Devil is brimming with conspiratorial dread, and this sudden, context-less killing pushes it over the edge into a chain of propulsive thrills that bring us home to the all-in climax. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
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