If you ask any modern horror fan what their issue with the current state of the genre is, it’s almost a guarantee that the overuse of jump scares will form the core of their argument. Even more acclaimed mainstream horror films such as this year’s It will be the target of criticism from enthusiasts. The comparison is often drawn between jump scares and laugh tracks, whereby instead of laughter indicating to the audience when they should be laughing, a startling noise accompanied by a new figure suddenly filling the frame is there to remind them that they’re watching something scary. It’s an old trick that became much more commonplace during the slasher craze of the 1980s (although there are notable examples from the previous decade), that is met with disdain if one mentions the landscape of mainstream horror today.
It isn’t fair to form a direct correlation between poor quality and an established trope, though. The response to It is a key example of firmly establishing a tone that consumers can form a positive relationship with. The film does marry intense orchestral overtures with things that go bump in the night, but it wouldn’t be fair to break the film down purely to how it goes about creating fear. There is still well-written dialogue that connects and a sense of adventure to guide the viewer through the twisted world being presented to them. Dismissing everything a film gets right due to jump scares is unfairly ignoring the effort that has been made.
Get Out is the breakout horror film of the year and has garnered a myriad of positive responses from both critics and audiences. But it is arguably a thriller, with the most horror-themed scene of the film punctuated with multiple jump scares. Sharp violin strokes and sudden movement in the background serve to compose fear as protagonist Chris makes his way through an unknown house in the dead of night, and it’s unnervingly effective. Granted, the exploitation of such methods is sparsely implemented, but our recognition of them as qualifying the text overall as horror speaks volumes. The deeper down the rabbit hole alternative horror goes, the scarcity of jump scares increases. The Babadook and The Witch won’t throw them at you, but crediting the achievements of such to a lack of jump scares undercuts the high level of writing and production design that lends itself so well to the atmosphere.
A simple interpretation to ascertain would be that horror films are cheap to make and easy to market. Horror considered for mass consumption is typically geared towards a demographic that skews young; teenagers and twenty-somethings who are after some cheap, 90-minute thrills. It’s become more of a challenge to truly instil fear in an audience in this day and age, the real world is simply too horrifying for fiction to chill us. The classics played on the fears of the time. The Exorcist used single motherhood and the death of religion to evoke strong reactions from its victims, for example. In the subsequent decade, the rise of the slasher exploited teenage drug use and sex as a tool with which to extract our screams. What can studio horror provide now that can truly scare us? Television shows like Most Haunted are responded to as farcical by most, with the idea of the supernatural being a parody of its former self. The reason horror is subject to more praise on the independent side is because they’re exploring themes that resonate more, what worked for the studios 30 years ago has lost its lustre.
Ultimately, a wider cultural context must be examined before tarring poorly made horror films with the jump scare brush. The events that have formed the present day social conscience were once unknown to preceding generations, the people in charge of producing horror films don’t have the same societal inclinations as their target market. Jump scares are not an outdated element of the art, but when contextualised with a threat that we as a society can’t relate to, the intention of the work is lost amidst a sea of hard cynicism and desensitisation. There is little to be afraid of within fantasy when the reality is truly horrific.