15 horror films that showcase the history (and the art) of the jump scare

15 horror films that showcase the history (and the art) of the jump scare

From the original Cat People to Smile, this is how a 1940s parlor trick became one of horror’s most tried and true tactics

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Clockwise from bottom left: The Thing  (screenshot), Insidious  (screenshot), Alien  (screenshot), Friday The 13th (screenshot)
Clockwise from bottom left: The Thing (screenshot), Insidious (screenshot), Alien (screenshot), Friday The 13th (screenshot)

You might love them or you might loathe them, but you cannot deny that the jump scare has flourished, developing into a cornerstone of modern horror moviemaking. Their presence (or lack thereof) has the power to dictate a film’s entire pace, and can ramp it up from a slow burn to a tense, thrill-a-minute rollercoaster.

Like all movie conventions, the jump scare has evolved over the decades—and it has only grown more commonplace as audiences demand more terror for their ticket fees. So as the world enters a new year of horror films, from M3GAN to Scream 6—all of which will likely make crowds leap out of their shoes—we’ve charted the history of the jump scare. This way, you’ll know the full backstory of what’s making you soil yourself.

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Cat People (1942): The bus

Cat People (1942): The bus

Cat People (1942) - Stalked (4/8) Scene | Movieclips

In the early ’40s, as Universal was creating one classic monster movie after another, RKO was using shoestring budgets to crank out high-profit B horrors. The apex of that output was Cat People, a mystery thriller that compensates for its lack of effects with compelling tension. In it, a woman is convinced she’s inherited a curse that turns her into a big cat—whether or not it’s actually true. The film invented cinema’s jump scare with its scene of a character being stalked by an unseen panther, only for its “hiss” to turn out to be a bus braking as it slides into the shot.

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The Thing From Another World (1951): The door

The Thing From Another World (1951): The door

The Thing from Another World Best scene

Although Cat People pioneered the jump scare in 1942, it would take three decades for the tactic to fully catch on. Filmmakers in the ’50s instead mostly looked to the stars to generate their chills, with the backdrop of the space race making extraterrestrials the horrors of the day. This made for such camp classics as Them! and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. But in 1951 The Thing From Another World made room for one particularly effective jump scare amid the creature thrills, when its alien-hunting crew swings a door open only for the baddie to be right there and ready to attack.

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The Tingler (1959): The chairs

The Tingler (1959): The chairs

The Tingler Loose In The Movie Theater | The Tingler | CineClips

Director William Castle turned the movie house into a fun house by adding real-life gimmicks to his films. It started with 1958’s Macabre!, which gave each filmgoer a $1,000 life insurance policy in case they should die of fright. The next year’s House On Haunted Hill swung a model skeleton from the ceiling, before The Tingler used “Percepto” technology to encourage audiences to squeal. During one scene, a tingler—a parasite that can only be scared off by screaming—escapes into a theater. Then the film goes black. At the same time, the cinema would make certain chairs vibrate to jolt some unfortunate attendees.

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Psycho (1960): The shower

Psycho (1960): The shower

The Shower - Psycho (5/12) Movie CLIP (1960) HD

Psycho does not begin as a horror film. The story unfolds instead as a crime thriller, with Marion Crane stealing $40,000 from her employer and legging it, and the Hitchcockian tension coming from her interactions with unknowing salesmen and police officers. But then comes the shower scene. When Marion’s finally safe and relaxed, the curtain’s yanked back by a faceless figure with a knife. Suddenly, there’s a gruesome murder—and Bernard Herrman’s violin stings stab just as hard as the knife that ends our protagonist. Stunningly, the film’s not even halfway done by this point.

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Jaws (1975): The head

Jaws (1975): The head

Jaws — Hooper finds Ben Gardner’s boat

A jump scare is like the punchline of a joke: the more out-of-nowhere and unexpected it is, the more effectively it works. Few films demonstrate this better than Jaws. The only true jump scare of Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough conditions the viewer to expect it’s the shark that’ll freak us out: Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is scuba diving alone, while the orchestra’s horns play a leitmotif lifted from the beast’s theme music. But then a severed head floats right into the oceanographer’s face, complete with an alien-sounding sting. After that, the jumpcut back to that vacant eye socket just as everyone’s calming down is downright cruel.

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Carrie (1976): The grave

Carrie (1976): The grave

Carrie (1976) - Sue’s Nightmare - Ending [HD]

You could easily argue that Carrie is the reason why the jump scare has become such an essential building block of modern horror. Brian De Palma’s twisted coming-of-age masterpiece ingeniously leaves its scariest moment to the penultimate shot, when the audience should be at their calmest. As classmate Sue dreams of leaving flowers on the now-deceased Carrie’s grave, a bloody arm (provided by Sissy Spacek, who volunteered to be buried alive for the sequence) reaches out and grabs her, eliciting a scream and overblown orchestra. The scare, itself inspired by Deliverance, was an influence on slasher moviemakers who’d later thrust the technique into the mainstream.

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Suspiria (1977): The window

Suspiria (1977): The window

Suspiria (1977) Jump Scare - Pat At The Window

Despite being another essential influence on the 1980’s slasher explosion, early giallo films were far from jump scare-obsessed. Instead, this Italian craze was more focused on vibrant colors—especially the color red. Classics like Deep Red and Zombi 2 pushed the boundaries of cinema’s gore and body counts. A prime exception, though, is the start of Suspiria, where dance student Pat Hingle is murdered in the most alarming and bloody fashion. After an arm punches through a window from out of nowhere to slam her face through glass, she’s stabbed multiple times then thrown through a ceiling with a makeshift noose around her neck.

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Alien (1979): The vents

Alien (1979): The vents

Alien (1979) - Dallas Dies Scene (4/5) | Movieclips

Alien, the greatest sci-fi/horror film since Universal’s Frankenstein, comes with a trio of iconic jump scares. The first shatters the ominous silence with a facehugger flying towards the camera. Then there’s the chestburster sequence, which splattered the cast in blood without preparing them ahead of time. However, the freakiest of the trilogy has to be the alien killing Dallas. Not only does it happen in a claustrophobic network of air vents, but it strikes just before you expect it. The music hasn’t quite crescendoed and the victim has barely stopped moving, the lack of room to breathe letting the pitch-black extraterrestrial jolt you all the harder.

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Friday The 13th (1980): The boy in the lake

Friday The 13th (1980): The boy in the lake

Friday the 13th (10/10) Movie CLIP - He’s Still There (1980) HD

As a film, Friday The 13th is basically a compilation of ’70s horror’s greatest hits—strewn with sex, gore and jumps throughout. It ruffled many a critic’s feathers as a result, yet its box office profit and fast sequel affirmed the ascendancy of the slasher subgenre. Whether you hail or hate the film, don’t lie: that final scare got you. Fusing Carrie’s subversion of the tranquil happy ending with the abrupt, stabbing strings of the Psycho shower, it made sure moviegoers went home shivering. The fact that the emaciated and boyish Jason emerges from that lake at inhuman speed only amplifies the impact.

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The Thing (1982): The defibrillation

The Thing (1982): The defibrillation

The Thing (1982) | Death by Defibrillation in 4K HDR

Both the greatest remake of all time and the scariest use of purely practical effects on film, John Carpenter’s The Thing doesn’t waste its premise of an alien that can turn into anything. Its mix of sci-fi, whodunnit, and body horror tropes makes for a cavalcade of shocking scares, but none are better than the defibrillator scene. A seemingly human crew member at an Antarctic base is having a heart attack, yet this is merely a ruse for the alien to open up its chest and bite another man’s arms off. What follows is a nightmare of puppetry so hellishly inventive that it must be seen.

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The Exorcist III (1990): The scissors

The Exorcist III (1990): The scissors

Exorcist III ‘Legion’ - Nurse Station Scene - Scariest Ever Movie Scene

Despite being nowhere near as famous as its 1973 predecessor, aka “the scariest film of all time,” The Exorcist III is a murder mystery well worth a watch. By and large, it prefers being a suspenseful slow burn to recreating the profanity-laden effects fest of the original—yet its sole jump scare is frequently heralded as the most startling ever. For an agonizing, near-silent minute, a nurse toils on the far side of an empty hallway and closes a door. Then there’s a crash zoom, an unyielding shriek, and a figure power-marching towards her with neck-high sheers. You will yelp.

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REC (2007): The zombie in the attic

REC (2007): The zombie in the attic

[REC] (2007) Jump Scare - Boy In The Attic

Following the runaway success of 28 Days Later, the zombie became a mainstream icon after more than three decades hobbling away in horror’s underground. The monster was the core of everything from Shaun Of The Dead to Resident Evil, but Spain’s Rec went above and beyond by tethering the undead to the then-nascent found footage movement. As a result, it offered a very real-world display of the panic an apocalypse would incite, while also shoveling in some claustrophobic jump scares. And although the zombie at the end of that 360-degree POV panorama of an attic isn’t totally surprising, its hiss and the fact it’s just a child still shock.

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Insidious (2010): The red face

Insidious (2010): The red face

Insidious: A Face Made of Fire (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne 4K HD Clip)

After Paranormal Activity’s wide release saw the low-budget horror film recoup its budget almost a thousand times over, jump-happy haunted house stories became the flavor of the day. The likes of Sinister and The Conjuring were released in the aftermath and jolted their audiences incessantly—potentially, as some have argued, to the point of overuse. However, the red-faced demon’s emergence in Insidious is genius. The jump follows an unnerving ghost story from matriarch Lorraine: just when she’s finished talking and you think the opportunity for a scare’s come and gone, it hits. Even in one of the jumpiest films ever, this is a standout.

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It Follows (2014): The tall man

It Follows (2014): The tall man

It Follows (2014) - The arrival of a tall man

The jump scare-packed thrill rides of the early 2010s quickly spawned a counter-movement towards the middle of the decade called “elevated horror.” These films brought the psychology back to horror and often used their monsters to embody such real, #MeToo-era traumas as abuse and sexism. It Follows uses a curse passed on through sex as an allegory for assault, and its experimental approach is spotlighted by the tall man scare. There’s no sting or sudden movement—just a giant with hollow eyes walking up to someone from behind. Yet the way he’s framed and emerges from blackness fills you with terror from the stomach up.

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Smile (2022): The neck

Smile (2022): The neck

SMILE Official Trailer (2022)

Admittedly, the most famous scare of 2022’s jump-crammed Smile was spoiled by its marketing. It depicts tormented psychiatrist Rose in her car after visiting her sister, who rushes outside and knocks on the door. Then her neck swings down to reveal a grinning visage. The scare’s so effective that it was swiftly plucked from its context by internet users and went viral on Twitter and TikTok. Such inadvertent grassroots marketing suggests a fascinating new future for the jump scare in the 2020s: it can function as its own mini-movie on apps where short-form yet rewarding video content amasses enormous numbers.

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