Jump scares are incredibly hard to pull off, which is interesting, because they’re so often criticized as being used to for easy, cheap moments to get a reaction out of the audience. A jump scare can be used just to keep audiences excited and to keep them screaming, but most of the time, it will only have that effect once.
A good jump scare takes a lot of effort. It’s incredibly difficult to build up a moment where you can genuinely surprise an audience in a way that will actually scare them instead of just getting them to react. It is even harder to do it in a way that will creep them out on a second viewing, let alone a third or fourth.
These are beloved horror features that are made by master filmmakers and that mastery of the genre is responsible for sequences that are truly chilling, no matter how many times you see them.
The Clapping Scene in The Conjuring
This is the most recent entry on the list, but I’ve seen it a few times now and it has not lost its impact at all. The scares in The Conjuring work because James Wan is an incredibly skilled director who knows how to scare the living hell out of an audience. This scene is so scary because it’s so well directed. The set up is obvious, but that almost makes it creepier. You’re expecting this one and it still works. That’s pretty impressive.
Caves are scary. Being trapped in the dark in a claustrophobic setting is scary. What I love most about The Descent is that it’s so long into the movie before the monsters actually show up. It works, too. When we see that first crawler, it comes out of nowhere and changes the course of the entire film. It’s in the background. Suddenly, it’s just there and it works so well. My only complaint is that I wish the trailers hadn’t spoiled this moment.
Barlow’s First Appearance in Salem’s Lot
This was probably the one that terrified me most as a kid. Barlow’s scary enough on his own in this movie without needing any kind of jump scare, which only makes this scene all the more terrifying. There’s a glimpse of his hand as the jail cell opens, it starts to fog up and then BOOM. Barlow’s face is revealed in a full close up and he snarls. Poor Ned Tibbits is so scared he can’t scream and no one watching it can blame him.
The Medicine Cabinet Scene in Candyman
While I’ve always loved Candyman, I never realized until I saw it on the big screen what a frightening movie it actually is. It’s truly scary. There’s a sense of dread that hangs over the whole thing, but at home I’d never even truly understood that there were legitimate jump scares in it. But when Candyman’s hook bursts out of the medicine cabinet, absolutely everyone in the theater in 2016 let out a scream, including myself. That’s a sign that something really, really holds up.
The Chest Defibrillation in The Thing
Some of the best jump scares completely come out of nowhere. There’s no build up, no suspense, it just happens and when it does, everything changes. Of that kind of scare, this moment in The Thing might be the very best. It’s a defibrillation scene and there’s no reason not to expect it to go normally—but instead he brings the paddles down and the chest opens up and eats his hands. It’s one of the best moments in horror. Not only is it terrifying, but it’s like a magic trick as the audience tries to figure out how the hell they pulled it off.
Jason Popping Out of the Lake in Friday the 13th
In some ways, this could be my favorite jump scare. There’s one I think is scarier, for sure, but I honestly think this moment works really well. Even if everyone expects it. The thing that really makes this scare is the score. For most of the feature, Harry Manfredini’s music is very ominous. The whole score is mostly comprised of harsh strings to put the viewer on the edge. But then when we get to this scene, the underlying music is really sweet. Everything about that score tells us the film is over. That’s why it’s so shocking when Jason bursts out of the lake. It still might be the scariest he’s ever been.
The Nurse Station Scene in Exorcist III
This is it. This is the crown jewel of jump scares. I think this is the best of the best, and I know that talking about it so much should diminish its power, but it doesn’t. That’s how powerful this moment is. Ultimately, what makes this scene so horrifying is that it’s so perfectly directed. It’s a static, expertly choreographed shot. And it goes on for so long. This scene puts you on edge immediately, then it keeps you there, and then it waits until you think “OK, it’s been a few minutes, nothing’s going to happen.” That’s the moment it happens. A single scene builds your guard up, breaks it down, and then it drops the scare on you.