Ask anyone about their favorite scary moments in horror movies and games and nine times out of ten, they'll tell you about a jump scare. They may not realize it's a jump scare. In fact, like many of us, they may claim to hate jump scares in #Horror, when they really just hate bad jump scares.
Why We Hate Jump Scares
In many cases, a jump scare is one of the cheapest, most poorly used devices to instill fear in #VideoGames. In fact, forget the word fear, because a poorly made jump scare doesn't actually scare us, it startles us. There's a subtle, but important difference. Being scared requires build-up and it often stays with you, more a mood than a reaction. I'm startled when my coworker touches my shoulder while I'm working with my headphones on (thanks Steve). I'm scared when my coworker's face appears outside my 4th floor apartment window, whispering my name as I try to sleep (thanks again, Steve).
The reason why many of us hate jump scares is because they don't put in the work to actually frighten us. Anyone who's played a dime-a-dozen indie horror game made in Unity has sighed at this kind of jump scare many times. You're walking down another abandoned asylum hallway made from stock unity assets, usually with messages in blood on the wall written in what looks suspiciously like a computer font. You cross the invisible trigger line and BAM! You're hit with incredibly predictable scare involving a spooky ghost screaming directly in your face.
These jump scares might be great fodder for YouTubers like Pewdiepie and Markiplier, who hoover up views with their cartoonish screams, but they're not really frightening. In fact, if they succeed in startling the player, they actually serve the opposite effect, they release the tension, rather than build it. Once that spooky screaming ghost face makes you jump a little in your chair, you're no longer on the edge of your seat, you're settled comfortably into it, laughing at yourself.
Why We Love Jump Scares
If these jump scares don't succeed at scaring us, what does? A good jump-scare understands one fundamental thing: that the climax of the jump scare, the loud sound and screeching creature, is the least frightening part. The best jump scares lie in both the build-up and the aftermath. Let's look at one of my favorite jump scares in games to get an idea of what I'm talking about.
In the first Silent Hill, as you explore the town's Elementary School, a suspicious banging can be heard coming from one of the lockers. Opening it treats you to a sharp cut, a loud yowl and a cat that leaps out and runs away.
So far, so dull. That is until later, when the school shifts into its 'dark' version. You're forced to reenter the same locker room, where once again a banging sound emanates from a small locker that's leaking blood. You creep forward, tentatively hit the 'use' button and... nothing, the door swings open to reveal an empty locker.
You sigh slightly in relief, turn around and take a few steps back towards the exit, which is when a horrifically mangled corpse tumbles out of a different locker right in front of you.
The first time I encountered that scare, it made me fall out of my seat. Afterwards, I was on edge for ages, because the game had anticipated and subverted my expectations. The moment I thought I was safe was the moment the struck.
The Five Nights At Freddie's series provides another excellent example of well constructed jump scares. Many people criticize the games for their reliance on the animatronics shrieking in your face, but the beauty of #FNAF is that the jump scare isn't random, it's a punishment for failure. As you desperately try to manage your resources and keep your eyes open for threats, the looming threat of that scare hovers over you the whole time. It doesn't dissipate the tension, because every time it happens you're reminded of the price of failure.
We love a good jump scare for the same reason we love a good joke. The best jokes aren't just about the punchline, they're in the set-up, the structure and the release of suspended tension. A bad jump scare, the kind where an evil face screams at you and then disappears, is like someone yelling the punchline of a joke out of context. Frankly, in a world where Resident Evil 7 in VR exists, you've got to do a lot more than throw a creepypasta in my face.
Do you despise jump scares or do you kind of love them? Do you have a favorite jump scare moment? Let us know in the comments!