Some may call it a cheap plot device, while others wait for it with chattering teeth. There’s no doubt that horror films today tend to rely heavily on this trope to scare audiences. While it may be a way to spearhead the intended reaction, jump scares can and have been effective. What makes a jump scare work is proper set-up, followed by a worthwhile pay-off. Nevertheless, there have been too many films that improperly set up a scene that ultimately has zero shock value. The absolute worst of the worst include the best friend playing a joke on the protagonist, a bird flying past the frame, or a cat jumping out of the darkness. That is a cheap way to shoehorn an obnoxious sound effect into a scene in order to force a visceral response. While this may be momentarily effective, the tension of the scene is gone. There is no mystery or suspense because the filmmakers have shaped the audience to expect everything.
However, over the course of film history there have been many sequences where the jump scare was used properly. Whether through silent tension or a powerful and unexpected moment, notable horror films give equal attention to what comes before and after. The atmospheric set-up and dreadful suspense of a scene is where the horror comes in, and then the jump scare is the release of tension. It should and has been used as a cathartic way to liberate the anxiety that has been built up over the course of several minutes.
Updated February 23rd, 2023: To keep this article about jump scares fresh and relevant by adding more information and entries, it has been updated to reflect higher standards of quality and even more scary movie moments.
The art of the jump scare comes down to timing. Too small amount of time before the jump could preemptively deflate the ballooning tension and interest, while too much time could be boring for audiences as they begin to overcome their fear. Along with timing, factors like sound, lighting, and camera placement are all important to pulling off a jump scare. The following films and sequences have utilized these tricks and executed some of the most effective jump scares in horror.
13 The Conjuring (2013)
The bedroom scene in this modern horror classic proves how clever James Wan is behind the camera. His positioning of the frame’s lines and how he builds the tension in this scene alone makes him stand out amongst the masses. Most notably is how he shows us the creepy figure on the cabinet before pushing in on her gruesome face.
That push in was paired with a terrifying sound effect that made audiences jump out of their seats.What makes this scene work is that we knew what we saw was scary, even before the film told us so. We see it with our own eyes for two seconds in pure silence. Then The Conjuring set our assurances by releasing the tension and closing the scene efficiently and perfectly.
12 The Exorcist III (1990)
While the sequels will never pair with the masterpiece that’s the original film, The Exorcist III expands upon the lore and has a few prominent scares (at least more so than the abysmal sequel). The most infamous sequence takes place in one long shot in the hallway of the hospital. It is a very quiet few minutes, with seemingly nothing happening, but something just feels off.
That tension of what could happen causes our brains to play tricks on us; as author C.K. Webb quipped, “Sometimes the things in our heads are far worse than anything they could put in books or on film.” Asking ourselves “what’s going to happen” causes more fear than just seeing something play out in real time. The anticipation builds up as the nurse walks from room to room until she is followed, and her shift is ultimately cut short… no pun intended.
11 Sinister (2012)
Sinister is a film that was marketed as a shock-fest. It was an ambitious movie with a unique concept that utilizes cinema itself to generate scares. Having Ellison (Ethan Hawke) see old film reels showcasing massacre after massacre allows us to empathize with him in these moments.
While we know that he is in no imminent danger, we still feel his anxiety about not knowing what to expect on these tapes. One in particular showcases a lawnmower being used in a way that surely wasn’t intended. It is so unexpected and built up over an extended period of silence. The perfect combination of setting uneasy expectations, followed by an explosion of utter horror which ends this sequence in true terror.
10 Carrie (1976)
Brian De Palma’s twisted coming-of-age horror Carrie leaves its scariest moment to the final scene – Sue Snell’s nightmare sequence. When Sue (played by Amy Irving) kneels to put flowers on the now-deceased Carrie’s grave, the bloodied hand of the titular character (provided by Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, who was not afraid to be buried alive for the jump scare) reaches out of the ground and grabs her. After this scene, which homages the 1972 gripping thriller Deliverance where a hand emerges out of a murky lake, audiences have started to expect the ‘final scare.’
9 Hereditary (2018)
Ari Aster’s masterpiece will set a precedent for how horror should be executed. The last ten minutes of Hereditary are essentially an entire jump scare that was set up by two hours of tension. However, within the ending scene, we see Peter (Alex Wolff) unknowingly lurked by his possessed mother. He walks around his quiet home as she hovers over him… and us.
What Aster achieves is a suspense tactic that was established and proven by Hitchcock himself – have the audience be aware of something that the characters are not. It’s simple but highly effective at achieving suspense. When Peter stumbles upon his burned father and all hope seems to be lost, his mother bursts through a darkened corner of the wall in an unexpected jump scare that seals the deal.
8 Psycho (1960)
The classics can never go unnoticed. What Alfred Hitchcock achieves in this entire film by not showing everything leads to more shock value than putting it all on the screen. Again, the imagination is often more powerful than any practical or special effect ever shown on film. While Psycho is more mild in terms of its visuals, it still holds up with its chilling soundtrack and shocking subversion of narrative structure.
As the detective wanders around inside the Bates’ home, the tension builds with the intensifying score until that iconic Bernard Herrmann track arrives. Mrs. Bates protrudes from the darkness and slices the detective in plain sight. Shocking for the time, but what makes it hold up is how the soundtrack is ironically the instrument playing our emotional state. We are riding the wave that the music produces for us, and it is still effective after many decades, imitated tirelessly and obnoxiously to this day.
7 Lights Out (2016)
Adapted from a praised horror short of the same name, Lights Out is technically astounding in its execution. The darkness is a horror filmmaker’s best friend because it allows them to utilize cheaper practical effects and allows it to play tricks on the viewer’s mind. But all comes to a climactic standoff when our lead characters (Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman) are trapped in the dark basement and our supporting character Bret (Alexander DiPersia) finds himself in a fight with the unknown.
With only his cell phone as his guide, the darkness surrounding him is his greatest threat as it is the pathway for the violent entity to maneuver the room. The realistic looking figure is horrifying and startles us at every moment because we expect it to be anywhere at any time. This is one of the few films which relies almost solely on jump scares and yet completely works.
6 [REC] (2007)
The original [REC] is one of the most terrifying found footage films of all time. The movie uses its limitations to its advantage, since the single camera cannot cover every angle, and horror thrives on the unseen and unknown. The sequence toward the end of the film is especially intense, as we are only shown what remains in the light; we are well aware of the ravenous monsters lurking in the darkness, but they could be anywhere.
This film is chaotic at heart and, throughout its runtime, we begin to anticipate that chaos to continue. During moments of silence, then, we are left completely uneasy. When the cameraman climbs the attic stairs and searches the room for any kind of answers, he is met with a carnivorous being that has been waiting there the entire time. We see it when he sees it, and it’s right in our faces, and we jump, too.
5 What Lies Beneath (2000)
With one of the most tasteful jump scares in horror history, What Lies Beneath often floats under the radar when it comes to 2000s horror. In one of Harrison Ford’s only villain roles, the story is set up for him to get away with both the previous murder of an old mistress, as well as his current wife. When running a bath to drown his paralyzed wife, Ford is terrified when he sees the ghostly reflection of his former kill. He springs backward, smashing his head into the sink, and giving his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) the chance she needs to survive the encounter.
4 Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
While the franchise has become quite commercial, there are memorable moments in some of its installments, specifically in Paranormal Activity 2, the sequel to the widely popular, box office-crushing first film. One of the most notable sequences takes place in a kitchen. There is pure silence as Kirsti (Sprague Grayden) simply goes about her business with the room in complete daylight. That is, until the entire kitchen explodes and every cabinet and drawer flies open. Metal pots and pans fall in this brief but powerful burst of paranormal energy. This memorable sequence gives Kirsti and the audience quite a sudden jolt that holds up to this day, demonstrating that ‘the jump’ is often most effective amidst banality.
3 Insidious (2010)
The Science of Scare Project from Broadband Choices has attempted to rank the biggest jump scares by heart rate. Host’s and A Quiet Place Part II’s jump scares resulted in 129 BPM and 123 BPM from viewers. The Conjuring and Sinister forced 130 BPM. But neither could compare to James Wan’s Insidious.
The biggest increase during Insidious’ scariest moment – the red-faced demon’s emergence – was 133 BPM. The scene with Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) seeing the red-faced demon showing up behind absolutely terrified Josh (Patrick Wilson) is something out of nightmares that instantly imprinted on our brains.
2 Jaws (1975)
There are many scares in Steven Spielberg’s classic horror-thriller shark movie Jaws, but maybe none as memorable as when Ben Gardner’s bloated corpse pops out from the hole in his semi-sunken boat. The scene is set as Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) drunkenly take Hooper’s boat out in search of the massive Great White Shark. As Hooper nervously gets into the water and finds a shark’s tooth he needs for proof, Gardner’s corpse, along with John Williams’ supreme score, startles both the audience and Hooper, causing him to drop the tooth into the depths below.
1 Se7en (1995)
While more realistic and dramatic in its subject, Se7en is widely regarded as a horror film for its visceral and disturbing depiction of crime and serial killing. As law enforcement stumbles upon the decaying dead body of another victim, we’re left to assume that we’ve seen all there is to see at the moment. However, the dead body isn’t completely dead, as a single, startling cough is enough to shock viewers and everyone in the room into a frightened jump. What’s more terrifying than that moment of shock is the thought of how this person has been surviving in such a state of decay. The jump scare is the catalyst to a train of thought and considerations that leaves us disturbed every time.