There you are — sitting in a dark, eerily quiet theater seat. Clutching your soda drink until Dr. Pepper thrusts through the straw like Old Faithful at Yosemite National Park. You know it’s coming, but you can’t look away.
The screen is dimly lit. The music–that effin’ scary music–is blaring in the surround sound speakers. The characters are idiots. I mean, can’t they see what is bound to happen behind?!
Of course not. Then, it happens…
See? You know a scare is coming and you can’t help but shrill like a schoolgirl seeing Shawn Mendes without a shirt on in concert. That’s the brilliance of a “jump scare.”
Some horror movies do it superbly, like a surgeon, placing them in exactly the right place. Then, there are the others where even Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder could see that thing coming a mile away. That doesn’t scare anyone; yet, the attack of the meh gets us in a few B-list horror movies.
Back to the brilliance, you remember your favorites. The ones that made your Milk Duds shoot out of the box and land six rows down?
Here are the top 15 best jump scares in movie history.
15. Carrie (1976)
That music on loop didn’t help the creep factor as sweet Sue (Amy Irving) was screaming like crazy. It was awesome and no one saw that one coming (at least, at the time).
14. Jaws (1975)
We have already discussed how this shark movie is a horror flick. In 1975, people swore off ocean vacations for decades. And while this movie was essentially looming horror with that ingenious theme from John Williams. (Dum-bum. [pause] Dum-bum.)
Yet, this movie set the prototype of what a jump scare would be — Chief Brody is cleaning the boat and shoveling chum when that damn shark showed up. To make the scare so famous, the great Roy Scheider never opened his mouth, keeping that loosey firmly pierced between his lips. (BTW, the “bigger boat” line was the best as-lib in movie history.)
Always effective, regardless how old this movie gets.
13. Alien (1979)
Poor Dallas (Tom Skerritt). You know the scene. I mean, Dallas is rummaging through a dark tube. This won’t be good. Xenomorphs are everywhere and dude is going in blind, unsure of what to expect.
This, of course, made us unsure of when to expect it. We all knew what, but that explosive surprise in the tube made a few people hurl an expletive or two (or more) in theaters when it happened. Call him all you want, Ripley. He ain’t coming back.
12. It Follows (2014)
A horror movie that should get more love than it does is David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. This is home to one of the best jump scares ever, even if this is a spoiler. See that girl? And wait for it…
Dang, that dude could play center in the NBA. The hell was that?! The scene is perfect because it couches whisper talk and eerie score together to punch you right in the mouth with Giant Ugly Dolt McPherson there.
11. Hereditary (2018)
The power of a jump scare is when your heart is racing, your blood pressure is climbing, and nothing has happened…yet. That’s, well, basically the entire movie of Hereditary. One of the best ones takes something so innocent like the clucking of a tongue and makes your butt pucker in seconds. And, please, you know yours did right along with Toni Collette’s. Perfection in jump scares here.
10. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Frodo, fresh from being stabbed by a Ringwraith, is having a docile moment with Bilbo. Sweet, gentle, old Bilbo. Then, that friggin’ ring calls him and that’s where this happens. So, so genius in the last place we’d expect it.
9. The Ring (2002)
It’s a kitchen scene. What could go wrong? Well, if you saw this movie, you know quite a bit, even if for only a couple of seconds. Rachel (Naomi Watts) is talking about the haunting tips of the day with her mom, Ruth (Lindsay Frost). Then, Ruth musters up the courage to breathe out, “I saw her face.”
Then, we do too.
It’s Katie, Rachel’s niece, decaying away in the closet. Once again, people like Gore Verbinski (imagine a better name for a horror movie director), shows jump scares can hop in the least suspecting place.
8. Sinister (2012)
A dusty film projector that provides grainy footage looking like discount store flashlight and a dark hallway. Of course, a jump scare is coming, but where? We are looking at the film footage along with Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) when we all get the feeling the jump is closer than we think.
A lawnmower? What’s so bad about that?! Watch with the volume up. In the dark. You’ll see. Grab the heart medication first. (And I stopped mowing my lawn for two months after this.)
7. Scream (1996)
The master of macabre, Wes Craven, knows a few things of jump scares, but the gem he placed in Scream was absolutely “BOO” at its worst. Popcorn went flying in theaters everywhere when Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) got the crap scared out of her in this scene. That stupid Ghostface mask didn’t help with the eerie glare through the window either.
We knew she was going to see something, but the sudden shriek made this jump scare a permanent fixture on any list of the sort. The slap in the forehead with a phone made it cheesy quick, but she was about to die. It’s okay. We got the payoff.
6. The Conjuring 2 (2016)
While not as spooky as the original, the noteworthy scene with Valak and her creepy portrait did exactly what you didn’t think would happen. Sure, something was coming alive but for a body to start running?! You knew as soon as Ed made that ugly piece of art it would come back to haunt us later. But no one thought the stew of CGI, music, and scream would affect us like that. So good.
5. The Visit (2015)
Maybe because it’s most recent. Maybe it’s because I have a soft spot for M. Night Sham-a-lang-a-ding-dong. Whatever the reason, this jump scare is lovely.
POV perspective. Dark room. Barely silent scene. All the ingredients was there. Sitting there watching the innards of Grandma’s house, when that damn, scary old broad jumps out of the floor causing cardiac arrest for everyone who knew something was coming, but wasn’t sure what. Oh man! That was a rush.
4. Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
Jump scares are old hat these days, which is why the masters need to reinvent the thing and find different ways to deliver them. That’s when “live” movies happened (i.e., The Blair Witch Project) and technology. Say, camcorders.
What Paranormal Activity did for horror was a refreshing this genre terribly needed. The diverse POVs allowed us to see terror in different ways and from different angles, but during a different time? Like, daytime?!
There is a creep factor going on in Kristi’s (Sprague Grayden) house, but hey, there is nothing more settling than a fresh PB&J, right? Well, if it’s this kitchen, hell to the no. This was a great scene because of the volume, timing, and sudden explosion.
3. Insidious (2010)
Many call it “The Face of Fire.” Others weren’t sure. But if you saw this in the movie, you called it only those special names you hear in military boot camp or junior high as kids are learning how to curse.
This scene is harrowing, largely because of the set-up with the shadow figure in the previous cutaway clip. It tricks the audience because you think you already got the jump scare and survived to talk about it.
Not so much when… BOO! Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) goes crazy and no one knows why, except us. I laughed when it happened, but I’m screwed up in the head that way. This scene was amazing.
2. The Conjuring (2013)
He has already taken us on a heart-palpating ride of terror — the staircase, the basketball, the lightbulb. Yet, nothing prepared us for this.
Again, genius architecture to build a scene where you know something is coming. You begin to form a perfect fetal position in your chair when…
Oh dear Gawd! It was the best jump scare of the decade and freaks people out every single time. Think about it: the scare was so good, they made a trailer out of it. And who didn’t pee a little during that trailer?!
1. The Exorcist III (1990)
If you are a true fan of William Peter Blatty’s classic, you weren’t much of a fan of the sequels. But, the dude knew how to scare the hell out of you. Take this jump scare in the third installment of his franchise, which absolutely is near the top of every list of heart attack moments in film.
Lovingly known as “The Nurse Scene,” this is easily the best part of the movie and definitely perfect classic jump scare material here. (Then, the body bag? C’mon. That’s greatness.)
Sweet nurse making her hospital runs. It’s sterile to hear, like no sound at all. Then… some dude who looked like he got caught playing tag in the laundromat comes out of nowhere! So does the music. And the zoom lens? Shoot. The set-up is so smart. Boring scene. Paranoid nurse. Simple background. And a locked door (twice).
Trust me. Watch this sequel. Turn up the volume full blast. This scene will immediately get etched in the back of your medulla. It was that good. Truly masterful at scaring the bejebus out of anyone.