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.