10 Great Jump Scares in Horror!


The thing about revisiting jump scares is, they’re just never quite as effective the second (or third, or fourth, or ninetieth) time around. So when putting together this list, I made a point of seeking out the ones that a) still have an effect on me, even after repeat viewings; b) boast some level of real craftsmanship beyond just “aahh! it’s dark! and there’s a cat! jumping!”; c) stick in the mind long after the initial scare has come and gone; and/or d) display some combination of the above traits.

So what did I come up with at the end of it all? Check out my final ten below, then log your own picks in the comments.

10. Friday the 13th (1980) – He’s still there

With its swell of triumphant music, golden blanket of early-morning light and the sight of sole survivor Alice (Adrienne King) dreamily gliding her hand across the still surface of Crystal Lake, all cues in this penultimate Friday the 13th scene indicate the grisly nightmare is finally over – until, that is, the zombified pre-adolescent body of long-dead Jason Voorhees leaps over the side of the canoe and drags the poor girl under the water. At the time of the film’s release, the now-ubiquitous “one final scare” tradition had yet to be firmly established, and audiences of the early 1980s were no doubt less prepared than modern-day viewers would’ve been for this legendary bushwhack. Even by today’s standards, though, it remains a superior fright moment.

9. An American Werewolf in London (1981) – Nightmare within a nightmare

It’s pretty difficult to choose between the jump scares in American Werewolf, as there are several in the film that rank among the very best in horror cinema. And while I nearly chose the jolt that occurs just before the death of the young couple during David’s (David Naughton) post-transformation killing spree (“Did you hear something?”), I ultimately gave the edge to the “dream within a dream” sequence that sees the protagonist “waking up” from a horrifying “Nazi monster” nightmare only to discover that he’s still asleep – in the most startling way imaginable. The reason this particular bit works so well is twofold: first, the audience is mercilessly lulled into a false sense of security after being convinced that David has re-entered the waking world. Second, the clever device of having Nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) open the curtains – something we’ve seen her do in the film at least once before – adds yet another layer of “normalcy” to the scene by its very repetition. Of course, what we find on the other side of those drapes shatters the finely-tuned illusion like a kick in the gut.

8. Jaws (1975) – Ben Gardner makes an appearance

The opening attack on Chrissie is still (in my opinion) the scariest scene in Jaws overall. But when we’re talking about jump scares, the moment when Ben Gardner’s head drifts into frame during Hooper’s (Richard Dreyfuss) underwater search of the fisherman’s shark-ravaged boat effectively takes the chum-cake. Evoking a “subaquatic haunted house” feel by shooting the sequence at night, Spielberg is greatly aided here by John Williams’ Oscar-winning score – starting off with a simmering string-and-piano section, it seamlessly morphs into a low-key rendition of the famous “shark” theme just as Hooper discovers a giant tooth embedded in the ship’s hull. Naturally, this audio/visual combination puts the audience on edge right away, but the brilliance of the scare is how it happens much sooner than we expect, with the sudden appearance of Gardner’s pale visage accompanied by a soundtrack swell that sounds vaguely like the shriek of some inhuman creature. Perhaps the “cheapest” jolt in the film, it nevertheless serves a plot function as well, with Hooper’s shocked reaction leading him to drop the shark tooth – a piece of evidence that would have been necessary to persuade Mayor Vaughan (Murray Hamilton) to close the beaches for the 4th of July. Oops.

7. Alien (1979) – Dallas gets the shaft

From an aural perspective alone, Veronica Cartwright is a perfect match for the horror genre: no other actor I can think of, living or dead, is as capable of heightening the suspense of a scene through the very sound of his/her voice. Case in point: the terrifying “shaft” sequence in Alien, in which Cartwright contributes mightily to the build-up of the final jump scare via her uber-distressed vocal delivery (“Oh God! It’s moving right towards you!”). Of course, director Ridley Scott (not to mention the film’s crackerjack sound-effects department) has to take the majority of the credit for the nerve-shredding moment, which sees cool and collected Dallas (Tom Skeritt) getting a nasty surprise as the beam of his flashlight reveals the titular creature – all metallic fangs and one wicked, ear-splitting shriek – crouching just inches away in the dark.

6. Seven (1995) – Sloth surprise

David Fincher’s Seven features a number of queasy moments, but none quite as immediately effective as this ghastly bit. Finding the emaciated, sore-ridden body of one of John Doe’s victims (a confirmed drug dealer and child molester) strapped to a bed in a grimy apartment, Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) discover through a dated sequence of photographs that he’s been kept that way for an entire year. Simultaneously, one brazen officer makes the ill-advised decision to lean directly into the man’s corpse-like face and mutter a single callous phrase: “you got what you deserved.” Given the victim’s decayed appearance, at this point the audience of course shares the detectives’ assumption that the man is dead – until, that is, they find out that he’s not, in one heart-in-the-throat instant that is as unexpected as it is nauseating.

5. The Thing (1982) – Tainted blood sample

Best remembered for Rob Bottin’s peerless gore effects, John Carpenter’s The Thing also boasts one of the greatest jump scares ever. While the famous “defibrillator” gag certainly provides a nice jolt (no pun intended), it can’t compare to the moment when Palmer’s (David Clennon) blood literally leaps out of its container during the nail-biting “blood test” scene. What makes this scare so potent is that instead of following an extended moment of tense silence, it instead comes a mere second after a throwaway dialogue exchange between MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Garry (Donald Moffat). Had Carpenter made a different decision in terms of timing, it wouldn’t have proven nearly as effective.

4. Carrie (1976) – Sue Snell pays tribute

Timing is everything, as they say – and it’s certainly key to the legendary shock scare at the end of Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Reportedly shot “backwards” to give the scene a more dream-like effect, audiences are put at ease by a saccharine score and celestial lighting as Sue Snell (Amy Irving) kneels to put flowers on the telekinetic hell-raiser’s “grave” – only for the reflective mood to be shattered as Carrie’s bloodied arm abruptly emerges from the soil. Even after watching the film close to a dozen times over the years, this perfectly-executed moment still has the power to rattle me.

3. Day of the Dead (1985) – Calendar shock

Romero catches us off guard in the very first scene of his 1985 threequel, which opens on a similar shot to its 1978 predecessor Dawn – single woman against monochrome background – but sustains the moment for over a minute, as Sarah (Lori Cardille) eyes a calendar on the far wall and approaches it slowly, John Harrison’s repetitive synthesizer score giving the simple visual an almost hypnotic feel. Of course, the key to this bit is the way Romero shrewdly exploits the security we tend to feel during a horror film’s opening minutes. After all, they aren’t going to throw anything at us this early…right? And yet Romero does, in one of the greatest shock moments in horror history.

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) – Don’t turn on the light

Though stylistically different and not nearly as terrifying as the first entry (to be fair, it wasn’t really meant to be), Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 nevertheless boasts a more effective jump scare than anything seen in the original. The moment comes as radio DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams), preparing to leave the station for the night, comes upon Chop Top (Bill Moseley) sitting in the lobby. During a tense exchange between the two, the mortified woman ends up standing right beside a darkened doorway – always a sign of impending danger in a horror film. And yet instead of going for the easy scare – i.e. killer leaps from the darkness at his/her intended victim – Hooper cleverly catches us off guard by waiting for the light to be turned on before unleashing Leatherface (complete with jarring chainsaw buzz) on his unsuspecting target.

1. The Exorcist III (1990) – Off with your head

There are a number of reasons for the striking effectiveness of this famed jolt. From the jarring, metal-on-metal musical cue, to the precise framing, to the utter banality of the extended long-shot that directly precedes it, the “nurse’s station” shock in The Exorcist III is so perfectly calibrated it makes me jump every single time. While certainly not as accomplished a film as The Exorcist, nothing in Friedkin’s installment has quite the (literally) convulsive power of this scream-worthy moment.

  • VoorheesAJollyGoodFellow

    I think the other dream in AMERICAN WEREWOLF made me jump more. The one where she’s walking toward David’s bed and he’s looking all peaceful and asleep and then he opens his eyes and bares his fangs. I nearly jumped out of my skin!

  • JorgeSolis

    The Thing and alien are my favs in this list.

  • Danny-E

    My dad took me to see Friday the 13th in the theaters when it came out. I was 11 and that last scene scared me so bad I screamed. The whole movie scared the shit out of me. After that day … I was obsessed with horror movies. Thanks Dad.

    • djblack1313

      Danny-E, that’s awesome! my dad (who’s passed away many years ago) always took me to horror movies. THE CHANGELING, a double feature of HALLOWEEN 2 (Carpenter’s film) & THE FUNHOUSE, each FRIDAY THE 13th film as it came out, etc, etc all movies my dad would take me to see! thank you Dad! :)

      • jchano123

        ugghh. that sounds super awesome to watch those big films in theaters as they come out. I was born in 1996 and I had strict parents that wouldn’t let me watch me R rated movies until I was 14 (of course I disobeyed them and watched things like The Shining, The Exorcist, Scream, Saw, Amityville Horror (remake), When A Stranger Calls, The Ring, and The Grudge when I was 11). The first horror movie i saw in theaters was My Soul To Take (2010). :/

  • BelaManiac

    As soon as I saw the title of this, I knew the ending of Carrie had to be here. Watching this as a little girl, my father (having already seen it) decided to sneak up behind my sister and I right at the moment to scare us. Still a scary scene 20 years later for me.

  • Slasher_Lover23

    the attic jump scare in Rec/Quarantine and when Micah gets thrown at the camera in Paranormal Activity are the biggest jump scares I’ve ever seen on screen. as far as today’s horror films go.

    • A-Devils-Reject

      Totally agree on Rec! My friend damn near hit the ceiling when I watched it with him. That and The Descent when the monster is first revealed standing right behind her when she turns on the nightvision camera. Saw it in theaters and that was the loudest theater i’ve ever been in when that scene appeared

      • sweett8er

        I agree with the Descent. That one got me where not many movies have.

  • djblack1313

    Chris Eggertsen I LOVE YOU for putting THE EXORCIST III hallway scene in the #1 spot!!!! this movie is in my top 3 favorite horror movies ever (i love it a million times more than i do the first EXORCIST)!! this scene is even better when seen in context of the whole movie. by the time this scene takes place, the viewer (at least i was) is already on edge and immersed in the disturbing things we’ve learned about the Gemini Killer. i love this list!

    also, the jump scares in these movies work. they are used to enhance already tense scenes/movies. i hate the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies because all they are are cheap jump scare/stingers. there’s no tension or dread in those films so the “BAAM!” loud noise stingers really piss me off (hence the PA films).

  • divisionbell

    Excellent call on Exorcist III, that scene always spooked the hell out of me. Also the creepy scene with the old person crawling around on the ceiling.

  • evenscarier

    Great list! I remember seeing the Exorcist III in the theatre and nearly ending up on the floor at that scene!

  • http://www.facebook.com/glyn.culliford Glyn Culliford

    What about the decent where they are looking through the video recorder and the thing is standing behind them

  • staindFAN

    Love the TCM 2 one! Still gets me every time!

  • Darkness69

    Great list! Also, the scene in “In The Mouth Of Madness” where Sam Neill first dreams of the mob in the alley, then wakes up next to the zombie policeman – and then finally wakes up. Amazing scare!

    • Evil_Flip

      I freaking love Exorsist III, that movie is just insane. I mean that scene where they just barely save the girl from getting her head cut off, that’s just freaking awesome. Anyways good list, but I’m missing the end scene from Prince of Darkness. It’s kinda cliche, but (to me) still a classic.

  • Joe-Banger

    Killer list! Except for day of the dead, that movie sucked!

    • horrorking95

      Oh no! Day of the Dead’s great!

  • SuperKilla

    The French film “Inside” when the cop gets his face blown off. I jumped like jerk when I saw that scene and even though it is not a horror film, the scene from “Pulp Fiction” when Marvin gets his face blown off. Just a coincindence both characters get thir faces blown away.

  • coldblood

    That scene in Exorcist 3 stuck in my head for weeks. There’s a great shock scene in Sinister too. Don’t want to give it away, but it made the whole audience jump. Those who have seen it know which scene I am talking about.

  • but-sir-the-piranha

    solid list, kudos especially to an american werewolf… and se7en!

  • Marty McFly

    Well, Exorcist 3 sucks but that scene did make me jump when I watched the movie. Friday the 13th is classic. The Thing is also great.

  • Mylo_89

    I really like your list, but I have to disagree with your choice about the jump scare in Friday The 13th being one of the best “jump scares”. It was a great choice, but I thought the ending in Friday The 13th Part II trumped the ending to Friday The 13th, because in Part II, the scene that happened after Jenny said “Come here Muffin” nearly gave me a heart attack at the ripe old age of 10. Just as I was about to calm down & fall asleep, my Aunt’s dog suddenly jumped in bed with me from behind, and I passed out from shock. True story! LOL.

  • ThunderDragoon

    Sinister’s lawnmower scene should definitely be on this list. I’ve never been scared more at any jump scare in my life.

    • evenscarier

      That was great! I jumped and nearly dropped my sno-caps.

  • doomas10

    What about the descent where the crawler pops in behind the girl? Also , Carpenter’s Halloween where Myers stabs the guy in the kitchen! I was shitting bricks for weeks!

  • MachetAY

    Oh man… we are way to trained with a modern eye. Placing some of these movies in their time period brings some other heavy hitters to the table…

    Phantom of the Opera… mask off scene
    Psycho… mothers turn around
    Night of the Living Dead… 1st zombie attack on Babs
    The Ring/ Ringu… chick comes through TV
    PA… Katie gets dragged down the hall

  • horrorking95

    What about [REC] with the boy in the loft? That makes me feel so tense every time, and Ialways jump!
    I also agree that Sinister’s lawn mower scene should be there. One of the best scares in recent years!

  • niceguyeddie1971

    The final act in Burnt Offerings with Karen Black and Oliver Reed scared the shit out of me when I was a kid.
    The closet scene in the beginning of The Ring caught me off guard. And that creature and the midget running around in the daytime in Insidious was a good scare.
    But for me the number ome scene is the double fist across the back when Damian was tying the demon’s feet to the bed in the Exorcist.