Horror cinema loves the jump scare. There’s nothing that draws as visceral a reaction from an audience as something scary leaping from the shadows or the unexpected reappearance of a supposedly dead evil. It’s a technique as old as time and indeed one that the genre will remain in love with for a very long time yet.
But what are the best jump scare moments that cinema has ever produced? There are spoilers ahead.
10. Audition – The moving sack
The opening half an hour of Takashi Miike’s sick masterpiece is a slow-paced, dramatic piece that almost veers into romcom at several points. However, this moment quickly turns the tide of the film.
Waiting for Aoyama to call, Asami is shown sitting beside the phone with a hair covering her face. The only other thing inside her apartment is a huge sack. As the phone rings, a demonic grin spreads across her previously innocent mouth… and the sack rolls across the room.
It’s a great jump scare moment and it helps the audience realise how much danger Aoyama is in. It also begins to reveal the true extent of the depravity occurring. It’s genius.
9. The Shining – The Grady girls
Stanley Kubrick is the greatest director to have ever lived and The Shining sits near the pinnacle of the horror genre. This jump scare moment typifies Kubrick’s eye for tension and causes an almighty jump that sits the audience right on edge for the rest of the film. It’s one of the few occasions where absolutely glacial pacing really works.
Danny Torrance is exploring the Overlook Hotel when he discovers two near-identical young girls. They invite him to come and play, but are soon replaced by a vision of their mutilated corpses.
8. Sinister – Lawn work
There’s a lot to be said for modern horror films. It’s true that some of them rely too heavily on unoriginal tropes, but when it’s done as well as in Sinister or in this year’s The Conjuring, it’s difficult to care.
After a whole film of eerie Super 8 videos, this jump scare moment takes the scary biscuit. The lawnmower trundles along seemingly forever and the anticipation of something horrible builds to such an effective and terrifying climax that it’s impossible not to leave your seat in fright.
The fact that it shows such a terrifying murder whilst resisting the gore is an admirable show of restraint. We get the scare without the catharsis.
7. Cat People – “Lewton Bus”
With this moment in 1942 suspense classic Cat People, producer Val Lewton left indelible footprints on horror cinema with his own trope: the Lewton Bus, which is now a term for whenever a jump scare is caused by something innocuous.
Alice is stalked by the feline Irena through dark streets and, just as the threat seems to be getting closer, the sudden arrival of a bus terrifies her.
It’s so simple and, yet, it remains one of the best jump scare moments in the history of cinema.
6. Psycho – The two forms of Mrs Bates
The baffling few who dislike Hitchcock’s monochrome horror classic Psycho often focus on the heavy dose of exposition provided by a psychiatrist at the film’s climax. However, the full depravity of Norman Bates is in fact revealed in this slightly earlier scene.
Lila Crane heads down to the basement of the Bates household, where she is greeted by the preserved dead body of Mrs Bates and then by her crazed, knife-wielding son Norman, who believes that he is his mother.
The genius of the jump scare is in the contrast between the silence of the grisly reveal, then the deafening score of Norman’s attack. Anthony Perkins’ facial expression in that moment is one of the scariest sights in cinema.
5. Se7en – Sloth
David Fincher’s relentlessly grim 90s thriller Se7en has many genuinely creepy scenes, but the discovery of the Sloth victim contains one of the best jump scare moments outside of traditional horror movies.
Se7en is one of the most tense films ever, with this excellent shock really setting the tone for John Doe’s increasingly violent and depraved crimes.
4. The Descent – Night vision
Neil Marshall’s 2005 chiller The Descent is one of the best horror movies of the new millennium thus far. It capitalises on its claustrophobic setting and great direction to maximise an unbearable feeling of tension and suspense, even before its demonic Crawlers appear.
Stuck in an increasingly dark part of the cave, the group of girls decide to get out their night vision camera. Panning around the area, the camera suddenly picks up a terrifying beast standing behind them.
It is nothing short of scream-inducing and turns the film right up to 11 for the rest of its pulse-pounding runtime.
3. Carrie – Hand
The “One Final Scare” trope is something of a tiresome horror film trend. However, with Stephen King adaptation Carrie, Brian De Palma showed just how well it could be done. This year’s remake with Chloe Grace Moretz has a hard act to follow.
After the chaos of the school’s prom and Carrie’s brutal revenge, Sue visits the burnt remains of Carrie’s house and leans next to a memorial crucifix. As she places flowers on the site, Carrie’s hand reaches through the ground and grabs her.
It’s a perfect jump scare and rounds off a creepy film with a stunning final shock.
2. Jaws – Deep sea decapitation
Best known for its scenes of suspense and suggestion rather than outright jump scares, the original summer blockbuster has this gem of a jump scare moment hidden away about halfway through.
Looking for signs of shark attacks, Hooper dives down and discovers the wrecked boat of Ben Gardner and a huge shark tooth. He is shocked though when the dismembered head of Gardner appears.
It’s an absolutely pant-wetting jump scare and helps to cement Jaws as the masterpiece that it was and still is.
1. Mulholland Drive – Behind the diner
I defy any human being not to completely shit themselves at this one. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive isn’t an easy film to enjoy, but the diner sequence is quite simply a masterclass in how to build tension to an unbelievable pay-off.
After describing a horrifying dream to his friend, a man is forced outside to confront the seemingly farcical image he imagined. In a true moment of shock, his worst fears are confirmed as a deformed figure appears.
Few moments of cinema actually made me scream aloud. This was one of them.