10 Truly Terrifying Horror Movie Jump Scares

By  · Published on February 7th, 2012

by David Christopher Bell

If you’re anything like me you probably would take a good psychological scarring over some dick in a mask jumping out at you any day of the week – at least when it comes to horror films. Nowadays it seems like the best is behind us when it comes to the genre, and what’s left is less a collection of disturbing concepts and more so the movie equivalent of a carnival spook house. That being said – I do like carnival spook houses – a fleeting scare is good when it’s done right. Sure, in the end these scares don’t hold a candle to say, the end of Rosemary’s Baby, but we can’t deny them either. So that’s what this list is: me sucking it up and admitting that the dick in the mask totally got me.

I should tell you that I don’t wish to demerit these films for having jump scares in them; most of them have plenty of psychological scarring as well… take number ten, for example.

10. The Thing – Chest Attack

Yikes. That’s like… the last thing you want someone’s chest to do.

First off, let me just say that Rob Bottin is amazing. He’s the special effects artist you have to thank for having the image of a mans severed head crawling around like a spider burned forever in your nightmares.

What I love about this scare is that the characters are already in a bad situation trying to save the guy’s life – and then in the blink of an eye it’s a total 360 and suddenly they are making sure he never moves ever again. It’s horrifying the first time you watch it too because you’re not really expecting a scare, let alone expecting the scare to be so… unusual. And before you can recover you are treated to a barrage of carnage so bizarre and disturbing that you’ve completely forgotten about the jump that introduced it all. The Thing is truly a spectacle of amazing practical effects, disturbing grotesque, and glorious man beards.

9. Se7en – Sloth

I can’t tell if it’s the jump that gets me here or what the jump reveals – that the tattered corpse tied to a bed isn’t a corpse but rather what remains of a guy who is currently having a very bad year. The whole scene leading up to it is bad enough when it is explained just what happened to this guy, and we realize that it is probably the worst murder of the film… But then finding out that the job isn’t even finished is down right bananas – a word I don’t easily throw around, mind you.

There’s no way to see this coming because well… why the hell would we? This isn’t a movie where corpses just come to life willy-nilly, as far as we know the rules in their world are the same as the rules to ours. Even with the cop getting way too close to the guy (who must smell awful mind you) making the situation perfect for a scare, it just doesn’t seem like that kind of film. Never would we suspect the idea that someone who looks like that guy does could possibly be alive in any capacity – which is exactly what this scare is betting on.

8. The Decent – Night Vision Creature

You know, I loved this scare but I wasn’t actually surprised by it… the reason why is because some ass decided to stick it in every preview for this film when it was coming out, making everyone who saw it thoroughly ready for the best scare moment of the entire film. I hate that – it’s like when they stuck the ending shot to Quarantine on all the movie previews and posters… did no one stop and say “Hey guys… maybe it’s not a good idea to reveal the end of our movie in all our ads…” That kind of seems like advertising 101.

Anyway – it was only years later when I watched this with a friend who hadn’t seen the previews did I witness just how good the scare is. Firstly – if they didn’t set it up so quickly you’d see it coming, but you don’t have time to realize that. Secondly they actually give you a second to see the creature without indicating it with any scare chords or anything. It’s this nice silent moment that lasts barely a second where your heart drops into your stomach, then a boom of sound and action. It’s not the most original thing in the world, but it’s very solid and perfectly timed.

7. Signs – The Pantry

I’ll probably get some shit for this one – and I wouldn’t blame anyone for it either. I’m not a huge fan of this film but I do think it has its moments – I just wish it didn’t try to be more than what it was… which goes for all of M. Night Shyamalan films, actually.

There are several moments in this film that got me – another that comes to mind is the alien arm in the basement, and also the TV reflection part… but this one really did it for me because it relied on no external sounds or music. It was that lack of scare chords that oddly enough made me jump. It felt, well… alien – off in pacing. There’s this tension buildup of trying to see what’s on the other side of this door, and then when he walks away and comes back you expect at the least a second buildup, if only for a moment. But instead we instantly get the scare without any warning and any indication in the sounds – just the natural clicking of the claws of the hand and it’s over.

6. Psycho – Meeting Mother

Psycho is a really hard film to put into perspective. Most people know the ending of the film before they’ve even seen it – that alone puts the movie at a complete disadvantage to modern audiences. So far I’ve only met one person who didn’t know the end – and when finding that out I promptly sat them down to watch it, only to have someone walk into the room and spoil the ending half way through. You can imagine my anger.

Now – obviously there is another scene I could mention here, a scene that did have audiences jumping their seats because not only was it unexpected in a fleeting sense but also because no movie had really ever just killed off their star that suddenly before. However I really think this scene is scarier as a jump, firstly because we see the killer coming in the shower scene, and secondly because this one has two reveals right after another. The initial reveal of mother’s corpse is slow but also a huge blow to the audience, and then before they can put it all together we are hit with the classic Psycho chords and our first and only sight of Norman in all his drag glory – his face deranged and desperate as he is held back from stabbing this woman to death.

It’s just so much in so little time.

5. Jaws – Ben Gardner’s Boat

Most of what makes the film Jaws work is actually how anti-jump scare it is, after all, we see the shark’s POV for half the attacks so we not only see them coming, but know exactly when they are about to happen. Obviously it’s the suspense of watching it happen that makes it so goddamn scary, and also makes what jump scares the film does have that much more unexpected.

The obvious would be the shark’s brief ‘hello’ to Sharif Brody that results in the ‘bigger boat’ line – but if I had to choose from this film it would absolutely have to be Ben Gardner’s one-eyed head popping up on Hooper as he inspects the shark’s giant tooth. As you will see in that video up there – the idea was so last minute that it was shot in the damn film editor’s swimming pool, but boy was it worth it. It comes at just the right point in the film to really spread the scares out.

4. The Ring – “I Saw Her Face…”

OK, really mean, guys. Seriously – this is so freaking cheap as a scare, but I can’t really deny it either because… well… holy shit. There is absolutely no way to see this one coming. The best part about this scene is watching it with people who haven’t seen it before and watching their reaction.

It’s not even the quiet conversation juxtaposed with the jump inducing sounds either – it’s what we see, the image of that mangled face curled up in the closet really haunts you. It’s just so… tormented. I think it’s that twisted face that makes this more than just one of those cheap YouTube scare videos where you stare at something for like a minute and then they splice in a loud noise and scary face – this was clearly something the filmmakers put time into and knew was going to be a very important scare of the film. After all, after you watch this scene you never really feel safe for the rest of the movie because you literally never know when something’s going to jump out.

There are a lot of things in this movie that couldn’t compare to Ringu, but this was by far a superior jump scare than anything in the original.

3. The Exorcist – Spider Walk

I think this counts… Sure, it wasn’t in the original release because you could see wires holding the actress up, but thanks to later advancements they stuck it in the rerelease. You know, I’d probably put it on this list if it never made the rerelease anyway; it’s really freaky.

You know the moment the mother turns around that she is looking at something real messed up, and it’s nice that they give us that brief moment where she sees it but we can only speculate. Then of course we know exactly what she means when she says ‘Oh my God’ as we watch Regan use stairs in probably the least efficient way imaginable. And the noise she makes at the end! It’s like the cries of a thousand old people as the blood drips out of her mouth. I love it as a jump because it’s not a fast one – it doesn’t jump out at you in terms of sound or editing or anything like that because it doesn’t need to; a girl descending stairs upside down and twisted backward is really enough to make your heart skip a beat without any extra stimulus.

2. Insidious – The Demon

I certainly didn’t choose this for my number two because it was the first time a movie has done this kind of scare before – let me make that clear. The reason this is so high in my mind is because if there were ever a textbook on making horror films, this would be in it; it is the best example I can think of for the jump scare formula.

I’ll explain – first you have unsuspecting quiet daytime dinner table scene, it’s safe. Then the shot itself, which if you notice, throughout the scene gradually sets itself up by getting closer and closer to the subject’s head, but it’s gradual enough that we don’t suspect anything by it. Then the woman’s scary story about the demon, cut in with visuals of her story – that’s key. We have two worlds presented here – a safe one and a scary one – and we’re going back and forth. We don’t’ expect any jump in the safe one because we think that point of the horror is in the story she is telling, not the world where the story is being told. It sets us up perfectly for comfort, then shock. And of course the shock chord itself – it’s an original but effective sound in that it isn’t typical to jump scares, but not alien to them either. It’s perfect.

Oh and that dude’s face is wicked scary. He looks like Darth Maul after spending a year in a Russian prison or something.

1. The Exorcist III – The Nurse’s Station

I’m not going to sit here and try to tell you that the third Exorcist film is good. Watching it, I can say that it’s not the worst film I’ve ever see but also not particularly remarkable as a horror movie either. But there is a shot in it – the shot you’ve hopefully just watched – that has stuck with me since my sister first showed me this film as a kid. For half my life I didn’t even know what movie it was in, but I remembered that hallway. Finally when I started digging up examples for this list I stumbled upon the scene once more and thankfully my childhood memory did not distort how incredibly scary this single uncut shot is.

That’s why I love it too – no cuts, they didn’t need editing for this scare; just a really mundane buildup followed by a fast zoom and horrific screeching sound effect… that and a knife wielding sentient bed sheet. OK maybe that’s not exactly what that is – but the getup is part of the freakiness because it’s so bizarre but so basic at the same time.

There are so many elements to this scare that feels unconventional to me – you don’t see many fast zooms incorporated into most jump scares, and yet this shot shows just how effective they can be. I think the simplicity of all the movements made is the key here – simple blocking with the actors, a simple camera shot, and a simple camera move – not much is going on, but it all puts together a great moment of fright.

Of course, I know there are some really good scares that I missed. After all, I started with like 20+ examples written down… so tell me, what are some of your own favorites?

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