Can we have a chat about jump scares?

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Guy admits to a grave intolerance in his movie-consuming diet that has ruined his ability to enjoy a wider spectrum of films: the humble jump scare.

I blame Rebecca de Mornay.

With my boyish features and negative-figure height advantage, my chances of sneaking into an age-restricted showing were next-to-impossible, and so The Hand That Rocks The Cradle was my first 15-rated experience at the cinema. It was therefore the first time I experienced the potency of a jump scare in the way the filmmaker intended: a sustained passage of pin-drop silence punctuated by a Dolby-powered orchestral stab to accompany the sudden on-screen reveal of Becky wielding a shovel.

Readers, I was not impressed.

The vast majority of those present in the auditorium seemingly had the same healthy reaction. They all made some brief vocalisation to express their surprise – some rather louder than others – giggled a bit, fleetingly chatted amongst themselves about how the film had ‘got’ them, before settling back down in anticipation of the next shock to be delivered by this two-star thriller.

This was in direct contrast to the area where I was sitting with my older sister and a group of mutual friends. My sister was glowering at me with incredulity having just been punched very hard in the thigh by my involuntary reaction to having been ‘got’. I didn’t notice at first, because I had entered a trance-like state that I would later identify as an attempt to channel the ‘fight or flight’ reaction that had been triggered in a way that didn’t result in my either fleeing Screening Room 2 or continuing to harm those around me.

You know those YouTube videos where Americans scare trick-or-treaters around Halloween? Most targets scream and then laugh their heads off, don’t they? But there’s always one chap who instinctively reacts by raining a shower of punches on the poor costumed prankster that’s just jumped out on them. “Not cool,” admonishes the off-screen cameraman as the self-preservation mechanism wears off and the shaken victim of this psychological assault is made out to be the bad guy by those conspiring to scare the poo-poo out of him. But I’m with that poor confused dude standing over the weeping teenager in the Scream outfit.

Look, I get that I’m an outlier here. Most people like being made to jump – it’s a movie tradition that goes back long before the popularisation of the slasher flicks at the beginning of the 80s and that continues to go from strength to strength through the output of James Wan and Scott Derrickson. But I can’t be the only keen consumer of film that just goes… nope. Not for me.

The thing is, if it were just the jumps themselves that put me off, I would still be able to stomach watching this kind of flick. But it’s the anticipation that makes them essentially unwatchable for me.

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle was so generic in its jumpy-thriller stylings that it acted like the opening level of a videogame, teaching me the rules and formulae of this particular form of scare tactic. So, I learned that when the soundtrack disappears completely – especially if the on-screen action is of the creepy-creepy tippy-toe variety – it’s just to create a contrast for the noisy “boo” that’s about to hit. If a character is framed in an unusual way where they’re not centre-screen and there’s a lot of suspicious ‘empty space’ behind them, it’s because something is probably going to suddenly occupy that space in an unexpected way. And if any tension is broken by a seemingly innocuous source – an alarm clock, a pet, a toy – it’s a fake-out designed to lull you into a false sense of security before the real scare is delivered.

The problem with subconsciously learning these rules is that my attention is almost entirely focused on anticipating the next jump as soon as I suspect one is on the way, and this feeling of sustained dread and morbid expectation is viscerally unpleasant for me. The moment I’m suspicious a film is setting me up for a quick scare I immediately stop having fun – the anxiety builds, I steel myself, and I stop paying as much attention to what’s happening on-screen in the hope that my dissociation will dampen my response. Again, I completely appreciate that this might not be normal – or that most people feel the same way but enjoy these internal sensations – but I would go as far as to say that it temporarily ruins my enjoyment of a film.

I guess it’s like really spicy food; some people enjoy the sensation – it fires off endorphins instead of adrenaline. But I’m in a rarefied camp that looks around at the overjoyed audience who are grinning like maniacs after having been made to jump out of their seats thinking ‘what is wrong with you people?!’

Don’t misunderstand me; I like to be thrilled. I like tension in a film – it’s one of the reasons Uncut Gems is so high on my list of ‘must-see’ flicks. But there is a clear distinction. It’s the difference between going on the rollercoaster or entering a ghost house at the funfair: one is channelling your building adrenaline through a sustained series of accelerations and twists and ups and downs, the other is forcing you to store it up to be released as an explosive ‘bang’ at a specific time of the director’s choosing.

I love the former, but despise the latter.

To bemoan the jump scare as “cheap” would be to do a disservice to a convention that has stood horror fans in good stead over the years, but my own personal preference is for a shock that is born out of revelation or incredulity. I fare better with gore or disturbing imagery (up to a point). For me the CPR scene in The Thing is thrillingly bonkers and enjoyable. It was the bit when McReady put a hot needle to a petri dish of blood that made me question whether I wanted to watch through to the end.

Maybe it’s because I get so invested when I watch a film – so immersed – that this particular way of surprising an audience gets under my skin to such an extent. It’s a shame, because there are so many films that I want to see but that I fear will be rendered unwatchable by an expected reliance on this technique.

But that’s not the real problem. No, no… the real problem is when the jump scare is employed in a type of film other than the slasher/horror. Because I can avoid this phenomenon easily enough if it’s confined to its birth genre, but when it starts popping up in Spielberg films and fantasy epics and gritty crime dramas (special thanks to Mr Sloth in Seven), well then I have a problem, don’t I?

While this may sound contradictory, the less sign-posted the shock the more I can cope with it. If I don’t see it coming then I’m not squirming in my seat for 10 minutes waiting for it to happen. A good example would be Bilbo going briefly monstrous in Fellowship Of The Ring or any one of the dozens of occasions when a car being driven in a matter-of-fact way is suddenly rammed by another vehicle driving into the camera. I can forgive these because they come and go in seconds; like pulling a plaster off with one rip.

But when my PG-rated film decides to start adhering to the rules of the jump scare set-up – when that soundtrack drops out, and our hero starts creeping around, and the tension is ratcheted up – the unpleasant expectation overrules any enjoyment I was otherwise experiencing.

It’s one of the reasons I’m in what’s probably a tiny minority of people who are kind of glad that Scott Derrickson is no longer working on the Doctor Strange sequel. Because “Marvel’s first horror film” would still have been a PG-13, and that would have meant a liberal sprinkling of one of the few horror conventions allowable in a PG-13 film (and one of Mr Derrickson’s favoured tools).

So there you have it. I’ve opened myself to the ridicule of others by admitting that I won’t watch Get Out – as much as I want to – because I suspect a character might say “boo” at some point during its runtime. Surely I can’t be the only one out there? If you share my affliction, do let us know in the comments. And if you don’t, feel free to share your most memorable examples of the jump scare being utilised (it’ll give me a useful list of films to possibly avoid).

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