Let’s talk about jump scares. Not everyone likes them. In fact, ever since some of our favorite franchises took the inevitable plunge into action horror, jump scares have become the bane of many a horror fan’s existence. Dead Space has been criticized for relying on them too heavily, Doom 3’s abundance of monster closets were a common complaint, and more recently, Capcom tried to toss a few into Resident Evil 6 — Leon’s campaign in particular — in their attempt to make it appeal to horror fans. That obviously didn’t work, but sometimes, a jump scare can be well designed. Like any good scare, timing is important, as is building up to the moment (and I’m not talking about fading the music before a loud noise — I’m looking at you, Hollywood).
You might not be a fan of them, but when they’re well done they can be great. Here are six games that did them particularly well.
That’s A T-Rex! – Dino Crisis
After that abysmal third game, Capcom decided to sweep Dino Crisis under the rug. I imagine it sits in the darkness of that big, evil rug, patiently waiting next to other prematurely shuttered franchises like Red Faction and Prince of Persia for another chance. The thing is, as a series, Dino Crisis was actually one of the best. The first game was especially terrifying, as it mixed terrifying, long-extinct monsters with classic staples of the genre, such as item conservation, puzzles, and an atmosphere thick with dread.
But we’re not just talking about Dino Crisis, so let’s get specific. One of the most terrifying moments ever is when the T-Rex busts through the window and tries to eat you. Usually, it succeeds in finding its snack, though that’s mostly because 99% of gamers dropped their controllers out of sheer fright (the other 1% died on the spot — rest in peace, you guys).
The Broken Neck Woman – Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly
If you haven’t experienced the horrifying series that is Fatal Frame, there’s a good chance you’re young and live in the States. Sadly, the latest game in the series hasn’t made it stateside, so the last Fatal Frame game you could’ve played — barring any shady black market dealings you might’ve had — was with Fatal Frame III back in 2005. That’s a long time to go without the unique thrills that only that franchise can provide, and I’m sorry, but Spirit Memoir sucked.
It was surprisingly easy to pick my favorite scare (though I’ll admit I never finished The Tormented, so I’m mainly drawing from the first two games here). It’s the Broken Neck Woman. Sounds spooky, huh? That’s because it is. This wicked spirit gets her kicks by introducing herself to you in the same manner in which she passed on: by dropping down on your unsuspecting ass from above. Did I mention she emits a blood-curdling scream as she falls, because she totally does. She broke her neck when she fell, so that’s how her ghost makes itself known, and I hate to say it, but I think that may be more effective than my technique of violently swinging open a bar door and winking at the nearest waitress as I confidently request she pour me a pint of their strongest lager.
It Isn’t Dead – Dead Space
Just wait a second before you angrily scroll down to the comments where you plan to prepare the meanest of rants that absolutely tears me a new one for including a game from a series that’s practically brimming with jump scares. As much as I love this series, I’ll agree that it might rely a little too heavily on loud noises and things suddenly jumping out at you, but for every one of those is an incredibly well-designed scare that actually works. I almost went with the multiple times a Necromorph managed to creep up behind me from a vent I forgot was there, but then I realized Visceral Games did something far more interesting.
They gave the Necromorphs the ability to play dead. Its effect might’ve worn off after the third or fourth time, but the first time a Necromorph I thought I had sent to that bloody Ishimura in the sky reanimated itself in front of me, I lost it. It’s such a simple scare tactic, but as they say, some of the best ideas are often the simplest.
Locker Room – Silent Hill
This is easily the most cleverly set up jump scare on the list. Team Silent has proven themselves adept at the art of mindfucking — seriously, I could dedicate a weekly series to the crazy things from the first three games — but they were at their most sadistic, and perhaps their most playful, with the cat in the locker. The first time you visit the locker room you’re drawn to that specific locker by a loud banging. Forgetting that curiosity killed the cat, or perhaps in this case, freed it, you investigate. As soon as you open the locker door a harmless feline leaps out. You were expecting it, so the scare is minimal, but little do you know that Team Silent was only setting up the foundation for the real scare.
Upon returning to the locker room, now in its rustier Otherworld form, you hear the banging sound again. Because you’re a glutton for punishment, you again move in to investigate. This time, when you open the locker you’re greeted with a grisly, bloodied interior. As you walk away from the locker, recently disturbed by its macabre contents, an unidentifiable corpse bursts out of a nearby locker and lands with a sickening thud.
Bath Tub Scare – Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
This is one a few of you brought up in my lists of some of the most horrifying moments in gaming (feel free to read part one and part two if you haven’t already), but since it’s more of a jump scare I decided to give it a mention here. Eternal Darkness was an underappreciated horror game from Silicon Knights, the studio that also brought us the disastrous flop that was Too Human.
I could go on and on about Eternal Darkness and how amazing and ambitious it was, but I feel like I’ve done that every time I’ve mentioned it in a list, so let’s instead focus on the random scare that is the bathtub scene. Now, as far as jump scares go, this takes the classic approach. It waits for you to drop your guard, and what better place to do that than in the equally as underappreciated safe haven that is the common bathroom, before it throws a unsavory scene of a woman’s corpse lying in a tub filled with blood paired with a crazy loud scream. It’s a scare you might not fully appreciate until after your ears stop ringing.
The Doberman – Resident Evil
I surprised no one by including this often discussed scene in this list. A list about video game jump scares is not a list worth reading unless it gives the classic Doberman jumping through a window scene in the original Resident Evil a well-deserved nod. Even those who haven’t played the game have likely heard about it somewhere. It was a simple, yet extremely well crafted jump scare, because you just knew that pack of dogs that chased you into the Spencer mansion were in the woods surrounding the place, it was really just a matter of time before one or more of them found a way in. In related news, if you played the fantastic Lost in Nightmares add-on for Resident Evil 5, Capcom paid homage to that moment by having a bat burst out of the window when you visit another of Ozwell Spencer’s estates, which just happens to be designed to be identical to the original mansion. They packed more fanfare into that expansion, including unlockable classic camera angles — though honestly, that’s the one thing from the original games I can do without — so if you never played Lost in Nightmares, I definitely recommend it.
I’d also like to give an honorable mention to another moderately iconic moment from the first game (that was also mentioned in Lost in Nightmares). It happens when Jill is reading the diary of a man who had been infected by the T-virus. It’s where the phrase “itchy. tasty.” originated from, and after you set the book down the reanimated corpse of the man who wrote it jumps out of a nearby closet. Also a great scare, it’s just not as iconic as the Doberman scene.
That’s it, folks! Or rather, that’s it for this list. I’m sure I missed a moment, or two, or a dozen, that you feel should’ve been given a mention. If you’re feeling betrayed that I would do that to you, I suggest setting me straight in the comments below.