No cinematic technique receives as much criticism or derision as the jump scare, a trope used to get a quick rise out of an audience in a horror film. Jump scares are frequently pointed to when discussing why horror films aren't what they used to be, but a well-placed jump scare can keep an audience on its toes. When used correctly, a jump scare can be a horror film's most effective technique - a notable example being the final scene of Carrie.
That said, more cheap jump scares exist than good jump scares, and this list provides a rundown of the most egregious examples. In many cases, predictability plays against a jump scare, especially when an audience already saw the scare in an earlier film. On other occasions, a jump scare simply doesn't make sense - what friend grabs your shoulder without announcing themselves first?
Certain jump scare tropes show up regularly, and their best and worst uses appear here. Remember, a jump scare works like a hammer - it’s only as effective as the person using it. Unfortunately, not every director wields their tools with grace.
The Best Friend
AKA: The Fake-Out, OH HELLO!
You Know The One: This jump scare turns up in numerous films and arrives in a variety of permutations. Maybe your protagonist just escaped a masked killer early in the first act, and as they round a corner, BOOM, they run into their best friend. Or someone jumps out of the side of the frame like they're going to attack the protagonist, but it's just a friend barreling at them to say "hi," because that's totally what normal people do. Why is your protagonist friends with people like this? Maybe the protagonist should make new friends after they're killed off one-by-one. This also shows up as a shoulder grab, but that's usually committed by an authority figure/red herring.
The Scariest: Scream definitely isn't the first slasher film to use this jump scare, but by commenting on the trope, Wes Craven infuses it with more meaning. For instance, when Billy jump-scares Sidney, it's meaningful because he's the killer. Another great subversion of this trope happens in Shaun of the Dead when Pete continually pops up prior to being turned into a zombie.
The Most Played Out: The fake-out takes up most of the runtime of every slasher movie set at a summer camp - Friday the 13th, The Burning, Madman. In these movies, either someone tells a story, and then the prankster camper pops up wearing a mask, or the protagonist walks through the woods and gets scared by another camper. You also see this scare a couple of times in The Prowler each time Pam barely escapes the masked killer.
The Final Gotcha
AKA: One More Thing, The De Palma
You Know The One: Your protagonist survived the night/prom/haunted house in space. As they go to leave flowers on their fallen friend's grave, a hand reaches out of the ground and grabs them by the wrist before the film cuts to black! This is a cheap scare that's rarely effective beyond its first viewing.
The Scariest: If Carrie isn't the first film to employ this technique, it definitely elicits the most mileage out of the moment. In Brian De Palma's film, one of the few survivors visits Carrie's grave, only to have her hand grabbed by the dead psychic teen. The final moments of Candyman offer up a stellar version of this trope when the main character's deceased ex pops up to stab him to death.
The Most Played Out: The first Friday the 13th film essentially rips its last scare from Carrie when the corpse of Jason Voorhees jumps from the water to grab the final girl. The Strangers also features one of these scares, which is really only effective the first time you see it. Once you think about it, it's like, why would this shot be in such a well-paced Sam Peckinpah-type movie?
Something In The Mirror
AKA: The Mirror Bit, There's Something Behind You, The Fridge Scare
You Know The One: In some instances, this trope occurs when someone stands alone in front of a medicine cabinet. In most cases, they open the cabinet then close it and, oh no - there's someone else there! It doesn't have to involve a medicine cabinet; this can also occur with a refrigerator. Even if you've never seen a horror movie before, you've seen a version of this trope. It pops up in everything from classic horror films to sketches on SNL. This may be the most used trope in the history of horror, and when used correctly, it's incredibly effective.
The Scariest: One of the earliest examples of this scare comes from Roman Polanski's Repulsion. In this film from 1965, a woman picks out some items from a closet, and when she closes the door, a man's silhouette appears in the reflection. A wonderful subversion of this trope occurs in Candyman when Helen is in her bathroom. She opens her medicine cabinet and lets it stay that way. Before she can close the mirror, Candyman just punches through the wall with his hook and little regard for the trope.
The Most Played Out: You need not look far to find the nadir of stupidity for this trope. The film Mirrors is full of this kind of thing, and while some of them are more effective than others, the sheer volume makes the trope lose its edge. The Kevin Bacon so-'90s-it-hurts vehicle Stir of Echoes features one of the worst jump scares of all time because it does nothing to move the plot forward. In the film, a woman closes a medicine cabinet to reveal a dead girl that she doesn't see, so it's just there for the audience, which makes zero sense upon deconstruction of the scene.
Smash Cut To Titles
AKA: TITLES! Typography-phobia!
You Know The One: You're just hanging out and watching a movie, and then holy sh*t, it's the titles.
The Scariest: A lot of modern horror films use jump scare titles, but the best uses of this trope occur within Funny Games - a film so antagonistic that you'll long for a jump scare; and Cabin in the Woods, a movie that's riffing on horror tropes while gleefully playing into them.
The Rest: There really aren't any movies that screw this trope up in any major way, but it's more like the filmmakers mistimed their titles. Turkish what-the-f*ck fest Baskin uses a jump scare title at the end, but audiences are so emotionally drained by then that it feels like a waste of effort. The Insidious series uses these, too, and while the first film does it well, the audience is ready for the jump by the third entry in the series.