Oculus is a fine film and easily one of the best horror movies you’ll see in 2014 (read our review). The story is small but clever, the characters simple but likable, and the scares frequent but effective. Like most modern horror movies, it often relies on jump scares. You what those are, right? Moments where a character, an animal or an object suddenly enters the frame, usually accompanied by a loud noise on the soundtrack. It’s a moment that’s meant to get you to jump out of your seat (hence the name) in surprise and they’re the bread and butter of modern genre moviemakers.
When utilized correctly, jump scares are capable of providing some of the most memorable jolts you’ll ever see on-screen. Since Oculus does such a good job of making them work, let’s honor that accomplishment by journeying back through the years and picking out 10 of the most memorable (and traumatizing) jump scares in horror history.
Shocking moments may have existed before Steven Spielberg unleashed Jaws on to an unsuspecting populace in 1975, but the infamous “Ben Gardner’s boat” sequence created the modern jump scare as we know it.
While on the hunt for the killer shark that’s been terrorizing the town of Amity Island, Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody and Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper investigate Gardner’s sunken boat, with Hooper actually strapping on scuba gear and taking a closer look. Things seem quiet (too quiet!), but Hooper gets the scare of his life when the lifeless, mangled head of Gardner suddenly floats into view, accompanied by a sharp sting on the soundtrack. Few scares have ever been so influential — it’s hard to imagine what modern horror would look like if Ben Gardner hadn’t become shark bait.
One year after Jaws, director Brian De Palma attempted to up Spielberg’s jump-scare ante with Carrie… and many horror fans will argue that he succeeded. Much of the film is leisurely paced and traditional, all part of a slow build to the infamous prom massacre where Sissy Spacek’s bullied telekinetic unleashes her fury on the entire senior class.
From that point on, things only escalate, growing crazier and louder until Carrie destroys her home and buries herself in a deep pile of rubble. It’s only when the movie is apparently over that De Palma pulls out his biggest shock: a dream sequence where Carrie’s hand shoots from the rubble and grabs the ankle of a surviving classmate. Dream sequence jump scares have become a cliche these days (along with fake outs like cats jumping into frame), but no one has ever topped this one. People who don’t know it’s coming will literally jump out of their seat when it happens.
Friday the 13th (1980)
Carrie set the template and countless horror movies followed suit, to the point where it became commonplace for horror films to end with surreal, inexplicable jump scares for the sole purpose of sending the audience out of the theater screaming. These days, it’s hard to find a horror movie that doesn’t end with the bad guy suddenly rising from the grave for one last “Boo!”
One of the best and most famous of these scenes comes at the end of the first Friday the 13th. As any horror fan worth his salt knows, the masked, hulking Jason is not the killer in this film, but he does make a brief cameo as he emerges from Crystal Lake to give the film’s lone survivor the shock of her life. It’s an effective scare, but more importantly it’s an effective scare that introduces one of the most famous characters in all of horror filmdom.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the gnarliest horror movies of the ’80s, but it’s not exactly chock-full of moments that make you jump out of your seat with surprise. It’s mostly interested in generating dread and grossing viewers out with some of the wildest creature designs of all time. So when the film does break out its big jump scare over an hour into its running time, it’s one of the most unexpected surprises in all of horror.
If you’ve seen the movie (and surely you’ve seen it), you know what we’re talking about. A member of the large ensemble cast goes into cardiac arrest and a defibrillator is put to use to revive him. From there, the victim suddenly and violently reveals that he is actually the deadly alien organism of the title by turning his stomach into… well, if you haven’t seen it, just watch the clip and enjoy.
The Exorcist III (1990)
Horror sequels generally have a tough time living up to the expectations set by their initial entry, but the sequels to The Exorcist have it particularly rough. Unlike the second film, The Exorcist III is actually an extremely effective chiller that’s worthy of your time and doesn’t completely embarrass the original. It also has one of the best jump scares of all time.
Like the best jump scares, it literally comes out of nowhere, arriving only after a truly agonizing buildup. Yes, there’s a reason you spend nearly two minutes watching a nurse wander around a hospital hallway — the scene is simply lulling you into a sense of safety before unleashing the scissor-wielding maniac.
Se7en isn’t a traditional horror film, but as one of the most disturbing and genuinely upsetting thrillers ever made, it more than earns a spot in any discussions of the best horror movies of the ’90s. As the detectives played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt hunt a deranged killer who selects and punishes his victims based on the seven deadly sins, they encounter one horrifying situation after another.
The worst of them is undoubtedly “Sloth.” The duo discover the victim strapped to a bed, a big pile of skin and bone and bedsores that looks like a week-old corpse. A police officer leans in for a closer look and — wait for it — he’s still alive! The sudden reveal should rattle the soul of anyone with a pulse, and unlike so many jump scares it lingers in your brain for hours (days, weeks, forever). That person who no longer looked like a person was actually alive the entire time. Leave it to David Fincher to create a jump scare that will truly unsettle you to the core.
The Ring (2002)
One of the most imitated horror films of the ’00s, The Ring is the rare popular horror movie that actually surpasses the hype built up around it. Many fans will rightfully bring up the utterly bonkers third act when they’re asked about the most memorable and frightening parts of the film, but the film’s big oh-my-God-I-just-crapped-my-pants jump scare actually occurs relatively early on.
It’s a cruel prank on the part of director Gore Verbinski: he introduces a sudden cutaway into a simple expository dialogue sequence, punctuating a character’s revelation with imagery that will be burned into your brain. From that point on, nothing in The Ring feels safe and you just know that anything can happen at any moment. The fact that Verbinski never uses another jump scare of that magnitude is a work of genius. There is never any relief for your dread.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
The Paranormal Activity films are the cinematic equivalent of carnival haunted houses. You move through darkness, wafting for something to jump out at you until something actually jumps out at you. You scream, yank your friend’s arm and keep walking. Repeat. It’s a template that’s served the franchise well over five entries, but nothing has quite matched the first movie, which takes that “send ‘em screaming” philosophy and pumps it up to 11.
After over an hour of bumps in the night and misdirection, the film sends its demon-plagued central characters into found-footage hell in the final scenes, deliberately withholding vital moments and keeping enough off camera to build tension. And then a body is flung straight at the screen, followed by a serious case of demon face. It’s not a real ending and key questions remain unanswered, but it sure is one satisfying jolt.
Like Paranormal Activity, Insidious is so jam-packed with jump scares that you might as well stand up while watching it. Insane things happen like clockwork, with a new horrible thing suddenly appearing on-screen every few minutes. But there is one jump scare so unexpected, so fast and so audacious in its simplicity that it has become iconic only a few years after the film’s release.
After being teased through creepy descriptions and even creepier drawings, the movie’s Big Bad finally makes his first appearance in the middle of a fairly boilerplate scene of exposition. The film simply cuts back to Patrick Wilson AND THERE HE IS! Sure, he may look like a Darth Maul drag queen, but he sure knows how to make an entrance. Director James Wan would go on to make another very successful scary movie with The Conjuring, but this is undoubtedly the single most effective scare of his horror directing career.
Like any modern horror movie worth its salt, Sinister has plenty of sudden jumps and shocks, with most of them occurring in the creepy, violent short films that Ethan Hawke’s writer protagonist finds in his attic. Director Scott Derrickson wisely makes the contents of each film wildly different in tone and execution (pun intended) from the rest.
The best and craziest video involves the violent use of a lawnmower and it’s a doozy, using an intentionally nauseating sound mix and score to deliver one of the biggest jolts in recent years. Sinister is creepy from beginning to end, but this is the kind of jump that sticks to your soul and plagues your nightmares for awhile.
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