The Importance of Jump-Scares
This is a piece I wrote about one of my favorite topics that demonstrates my expository writing tone, and my controversial opinion regarding scary movies.
When it comes to horror films, the majority of people really seem to hate jump-scares. Look, I get it - when a jump-scare really catches you off guard and gets you, you feel frustrated, or even tricked. Sometimes, it feels cheap. Rather than scaring you by building tension via atmosphere or dialogue, the movie played on your senses by (most likely) using a sudden loud noise or a quick appearance of something visually alarming, eliciting a primal reaction from you, probably accompanied by an increased heart rate or even a shot of adrenaline. There are even websites devoted to cataloguing horror movies with each jump scare timestamped so that viewers can safely navigate past them. I think that’s silly. It’s like going to eat at a hamburger joint when you’re a vegan. Sure, you can get fries or something, but you’re kind of missing the point. The jump scare is the bread and butter of the horror movie genre, and to hate it is to hate horror films.
What makes the post-scare chagrin even worse is when it wasn’t even anything scary, but a cat jumping out from behind a trash can or something of the like. The movie got the best of you, you were helpless to stop it, and now you’re mad. But how many art forms are capable of doing that? How many times have you experienced a piece of art in any medium that has elicited a real, physical response from you? A good jump-scare to the average viewer will raise their heart rate, release their adrenaline, and bring them to feel legitimate, tangible fear. Isn’t that the point of any art - to make us feel some measure of emotion? It’s rare to come across a painting powerful enough to bring you to tears, or a song that brings you to dance, but so many horror movies bring you to feel that fear.
However, the physical reaction to a jump-scare is not even its most valuable facet. We’ve all experienced them enough to expect it. You think you’re smarter than the movie when you anticipate it correctly, making it through a scare adrenaline-free. But the most effective jump-scares happen when we least expect them, and any horror movie worth its salt is going to get you at least once. This game of cat-and-mouse played between the film and the viewer has developed to the point where jump scares can be genuinely hard to anticipate, so for the entirety of the time that you’re watching, you’re on your toes, anxiously awaiting the inevitable. This expectation is invaluable to the horror genre and the experience of watching a horror film, because for the duration of the film, the viewer is anxiously awaiting the physical discomfort they will face when a jump-scare catches them off guard.
The most valuable aspect of the jump-scare is not the spike of adrenaline they get in the moment, but the dread they feel while watching the entire film, waiting for it to happen.
Most horror films are unsettling enough to bring us some level of unease on a purely thematic level. This happens to varying degrees, ranging from mildly uncomfortable to existentially horrifying. And of course, there are countless movies that are equally scary without the inclusion of any jump-scares at all, such as horror genre stalwarts like Rosemary’s Baby or The Blair Witch Project. But even when those films neglect the jump-scare, they are made so much more effective by the expectation of one. That is how potent jump-scares are; they don’t even need to be present for you to be affected by them. Their mere existence has you on the edge of your seat, anxiously awaiting one. And when jump-scares are present in a film that is thoroughly scary on a thematic level, the film can be an emotional and sensory onslaught that leaves the viewer genuinely terrified.