In defence of the jump scare
It was getting towards the end of David Cronenberg's The Brood and things were getting a bit icky.
The titular troop of bizarre mutant children, now revealed as being linked to Nola's (Samantha Eggar) moods, were no longer hiding in the shadows furtively peeking out. Instead they were on full gruesome display, attacking Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed). Meanwhile, in the downstairs room, Nola is licking blood from her fingers, having given birth to the next brood member, via a growth on her side. Like I said, 'icky'.
The Brood is noted as a 'nasty' film. There's a murder in the middle of a schoolroom, there's the aforementioned gruesome end, there's the pretty unsavoury genesis of the film, relating to Cronenberg's break-up with his then wife, and there's a few more elements beside that add up to a) an 18-rating (originally X) and b) a feeling of nastiness at least potent enough that the notes with the new Blu-ray release draw attention to it.
The thing is, I don't think there was a single point during The Brood when I felt noticeably scared.
Perhaps it's worth defining 'noticeably scared'. I find this rather easy. 'Noticeably scared', to me, means: 'involuntarily or voluntarily turning away from, or otherwise averting your eyes from, the image of the film'.
I can name two recent occasions where I've felt myself doing this and, to be fair to The Brood, they were both cinema screenings; The Woman In Black and The Innkeepers.
Both of those films feature a much-criticised element of Horror, often used in conjunction with the words 'lazy' or 'predictable': frequent use of the jump scare.
The 'jump' bit of the jump scare is most often the target for Horror fan's ire. It's normally the sudden entrance on to the screen of something scary, or unpleasant, accompanied by a loud or unexpected noise. It is, the naysayers will say, almost the same every time and easy to accomplish.
In actual fact, the jump scare works because of exactly the opposite elements. The thing introduced to the screen scares us because it has arrived at an unpredictable moment, in an unpredictable way. Anyone unfortunate enough to have been involved in something unpleasant - a traffic accident, say - will know that they are impossible to predict, happen in a flash and are deeply, deeply, terrifying. The same principle, applied to cinema screens, inevitably manifests itself in what we know as the jump scare.
The best jump scares, such as those in The Woman In Black and The Innkeepers, work because they fit in with, play off and accentuate the tension and atmosphere the rest of the film has built up. They work in The Woman In Black because the protagonist chooses to reside in a deeply creepy house, where we know bad things have happened. They don't work in films like Paranormal Activity because it takes place in a recognisable, distinctly non-scary, setting. Films such as those are soulless and empty. The fault lies not at the hands of the jump, but in the quality of the wrapper around it.
Particular umbrage can be taken by those who use the jump scare to accusations of laziness. Is it any lazier to shock with the sudden appearance of a ghostly woman than it is to have a woman licking her fingers of blood? Both are simply elements, chosen from a tool box. Neither necessarily connotes lazy or active film-making.
The next time you're watching a film featuring jump scares, don't dismiss them as lazy. Take a closer look. Are they working? Are you scared? Perhaps not as lazy as you might think then.