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The 20 Best Jump Scares in Horror History


There’s no doubt that horror films today tend to rely heavily on jump scares to terrify audiences. Some fans may call it a cheap plot device, but jump scares can and have been effective. What makes a jump scare work is proper set-up, followed by a worthwhile pay-off. Nevertheless, there have been too many films that improperly set up a scene that ultimately has zero shock value. Whether through silent tension or a powerful and unexpected moment, notable horror films give equal attention to what comes before and after.


The atmospheric set-up and dreadful suspense of a scene is where the horror comes in, and then the jump scare is the release of tension. It should and has been used as a cathartic way to liberate the anxiety that has been built up over the course of several minutes. The art of the jump scare comes down to timing. Along with timing, factors like sound, lighting, and camera placement are all important to pulling off a jump scare. There are quite a few films that have effectively utilized these tricks and executed some of the most effective jump scares in horror history.

The following article may contain mild spoilers.


20 The Conjuring (2013)

James Wan’s modern horror The Conjuring is the story of a family being haunted after the move to a very old house. If it sounds like the classic “haunted house” movie, that’s because the film is a high-profile iteration of the concept by one of today’s most prominent horror filmmakers. He just adds the “based on a true story” element brought on by the presence of ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, and makes the film a notable standout in modern horror.

The Jump Scare in The Conjuring

The bedroom scene in this modern horror classic proves how clever James Wan is behind the camera. His positioning of the frame’s lines and how he builds the tension in this scene alone makes him stand out among the masses. Most notable is how he shows fans the creepy figure on the cabinet before pushing in on her gruesome face.

That push-in was paired with a terrifying sound effect that made audiences jump out of their seats. What makes this scene work is that viewers knew what they saw was scary, even before the film made it clear. It’s clear to see for two seconds in pure silence. Then The Conjuring set our assurances by releasing the tension and closing the scene efficiently and perfectly.

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19 The Exorcist III (1990)

William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III isn’t quite connected with the franchise. It’s more of a police procedural that takes a turn towards a religious setting. However, it’s all the more eerie how the film lands a logical connection between real crime and the supernatural. It’s truly one of the most underrated sequels in history.

The Jump Scare in The Exorcist III

While the sequels will never pair with the masterpiece that is the original film, The Exorcist III expands upon the lore and has a few prominent scares (at least more so than the abysmal sequel). The most infamous sequence takes place in one long shot in the hallway of the hospital. It is a very quiet few minutes, with seemingly nothing happening, but something just felt off to viewers.

That tension of what could happen causes the brain to play tricks; as author C.K. Webb quipped, “Sometimes the things in our heads are far worse than anything they could put in books or on film.” Asking “what’s going to happen” causes more fear than just seeing something play out in real-time. The anticipation builds up as the nurse walks from room to room until she is followed, and her shift is ultimately cut short… no pun intended.

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18 Sinister (2012)

Sinister

Release Date
March 29, 2012

Rating
R

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister is widely considered to be the scariest film according to science. And if science says so, then it must be correct. The film tells the story of an author who uses his new house for inspiration to write a new novel. The problem is that he finds a box of tapes that reveal that the place he moved his family to may not be safe at all.

The Jump Scare in Sinister

Sinister is a film that was marketed as a shock-fest. It was an ambitious movie with a unique concept that utilized cinema itself to generate scares. Watching Ethan Hawke’s Ellison view old film reels showcasing massacre after massacre allowed viewers to empathize with him in these moments.

Viewers assumed he wasn’t in imminent danger, yet his anxiety over the tapes is nonetheless palpable. One tape, in particular, featured a lawnmower being used in a way that surely wasn’t intended. It is so unexpected and built up over an extended period of silence. The perfect combination of setting uneasy expectations, followed by an explosion of utter horror ended this sequence in true terror.

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17 Carrie (1976)

Carrie tells the story of poor Carrie White, a troubled and shy teenager who’s the victim of bullying by classmates and her excessively religious mother. Somehow, she gets a date to the prom, where she will be played the ultimate prank. Only Carrie will have her awakening that night. And her revenge.

The Jump Scare in Carrie

Brian De Palma’s twisted coming-of-age horror Carrie leaves its scariest moment to the final scene – Sue Snell’s nightmare sequence. Sue (played by Amy Irving) kneeled to put flowers on the now-deceased Carrie’s grave.

The bloodied hand of Carrie (provided by Sissy Spacek, who was not afraid to be buried alive for the jump scare) reached out of the ground and grabbed her. After this scene, which homages the 1972 gripping thriller Deliverance where a hand emerged out of a murky lake, audiences started to expect that final scare.

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Related: 27 Scariest Cold Opens in the History of Horror Movies, Ranked

16 The Descent (2005)

the descent

The Descent

Release Date
July 8, 2005

Cast
Shauna Macdonald , Natalie Jackson Mendoza , Alex Reid , Saskia Mulder , MyAnna Buring , Nora-Jane Noone

Rating
R

The indie box-office hit The Descent is not for the faint of heart, and those with an aversion to tight, dark spaces were in for quite the ride with the pulse-pounding horror flick. A group of thrill-seeking friends decided to go spelunking in uncharted caves in this Neil Marshall-directed knockout. The film continuously built tension as the young women realized they’re way over their heads. After the passage they’re exploring in collapsed, they become trapped in the caves.

The Jump Scare in The Descent

Audiences everywhere were left gasping for air right alongside the frightened characters. The extremely tight quarters and ominous atmosphere ultimately gave way to the arrival of the terrifying cave-dwelling creatures known as Crawlers. In one unforgettable scene, Sarah (Shauna McDonald) and her friends encounter the decrepit flesh-eating creatures while using a night vision camera. They grew increasingly on edge in the chilling build-up as the camera revealed a creature standing behind them. Chaos ensued as the crawler attacked before retreating back into the darkness.

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15 Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary

Hereditary

Release Date
June 7, 2018

Director
Ari Aster

Rating
R

Hereditary is the story of the Grahams, a family struck by a recent tragedy who start experiencing supernatural events as they grieve. Everyone experiences a different thing, and when another tragedy occurs, the mother, Annie, decides to try and contact someone in the afterlife. This will reveal something extremely important about her family.

The Jump Scare in Hereditary

Ari Aster’s masterpiece will set a precedent for how horror should be executed. The last ten minutes of Hereditary are essentially an entire jump scare that was set up by two hours of tension. However, in the ending scene, Peter (Alex Wolff) was unknowingly lurked by his possessed mother. He walked around his quiet home as she hovered over him and terrified fans.

What Aster achieves is a suspense tactic that was established and proven by Hitchcock himself – to have the audience be aware of something that the characters are not. It’s simple but highly effective at achieving suspense. When Peter stumbled upon his burned father and all hope seemed lost, his mother burst through a darkened corner of the wall in an unexpected jump scare that sealed the deal.

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14 Psycho (1960)

psycho

Psycho

Release Date
June 22, 1960

Cast
Anthony Perkins , Vera Miles , John Gavin , Martin Balsam , John McIntire , Simon Oakland

Rating
R

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho tells the story of Marion Crane, a woman running from the law after she decides to steal some money to help her lover, and run away with him into the sunset. The problem is Marion gets too tired after driving on a rainy night, and she decides to rent a room in Bates Motel, a road motel where she will pay the ultimate price.

The Jump Scare in Psycho

The classics can never go unnoticed. What Alfred Hitchcock achieves in this entire film by not showing everything leads to more shock value than putting it all on the screen. Again, the imagination is often more powerful than any practical or special effect ever shown on film. While Psycho is milder in terms of its visuals, it still holds up with its chilling soundtrack and shocking subversion of narrative structure.

As the detective wanders around inside the Bates’ home, the tension builds with the intensifying score until that iconic Bernard Herrmann track arrives. Mrs. Bates protrudes from the darkness and slices the detective in plain sight. Shocking for the time, but what makes it hold up is how the soundtrack is ironically the instrument playing viewers’ emotional state. They are riding the wave that the music produces, and it is still effective after many decades despite being imitated tirelessly and obnoxiously to this day.

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13 Lights Out (2016)

lights out

Lights Out

Release Date
July 21, 2016

Director
David F. Sandberg

Rating
PG-13

In Lights Out, Rebecca is contacted by her stepbrother’s school because, for some reason, Martin’s parents can’t be reached. Rebecca steps in and learns Martin has experienced a series of supernatural events where his mother speaks to entities hiding in the dark. Of course, the kid is onto something, and Rebecca finds out what it is the hard way.

The Jump Scare in Lights Out

Adapted from a praised horror short of the same name, Lights Out is technically astounding in its execution. The darkness is a horror filmmaker’s best friend because it allows them to utilize cheaper practical effects that can play tricks on the viewer’s mind. It all comes to a climactic standoff when our lead characters (Teresa Palmer and Gabriel Bateman) are trapped in the dark basement and our supporting character Bret (Alexander DiPersia) finds himself in a fight with the unknown.

With only his cell phone as his guide, the darkness surrounding him is his greatest threat as it is the pathway for the violent entity haunting them to maneuver through the room. The realistic-looking figure is horrifying and startled viewers at every moment because it could be anywhere at any time. This is one of the few films which relies almost solely on jump scares and yet completely works.

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12 [REC] (2007)

[REC]

[REC]

Release Date
November 23, 2007

Cast
Manuela Velasco , Ferran Terraza , Jorge-Yamam Serrano , Pablo Rosso , David Vert , Vicente Gil

Rating
R

[REC] tells the story of a journalist who, in the middle of recording an episode for her midnight show, jumps on a truck to accompany firemen as they investigate a strange occurrence in an apartment building in Barcelona. When they arrive, a tarp is thrown over the building, and they’re put in quarantine. Apparently, there’s something loose inside and authorities want to keep it there.

The Jump Scare in [REC]

The original [REC] is one of the most terrifying found footage films of all time. The movie uses its limitations to its advantage, since the single camera cannot cover every angle, and horror thrives on the unseen and unknown. The sequence toward the end of the film is especially intense, as viewers are only shown what remains in the light, and are well aware of the ravenous monsters lurking in the darkness that could be anywhere.

This film is chaotic at its heart and, throughout its runtime, the audience can start to anticipate that chaos will continue. Moments of silence then only add to the unease. When the cameraman climbed the attic stairs and searched the room for answers, he is met with a carnivorous being that has been waiting there the entire time. Viewers and the cameraman see it at the same time right in their faces, causing everyone involved to jump in terror.

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11 What Lies Beneath (2000)

The very underrated What Lies Beneath tells the story of Claire Spence, a housewife who believes her house may be hunted, after she begins experiencing supernatural events. When she tells Norman, her husband, his reaction makes her suspect she may be hallucinating, and may be losing her mind. Or is she?

The Jump Scare in What Lies Beneath

With one of the most tasteful jump scares in horror history, What Lies Beneath often floats under the radar when it comes to 2000s horror. In one of Harrison Ford’s only villain roles, the story is set up for him to get away with both the previous murder of an old mistress, as well as his current wife.

When running a bath to drown his paralyzed wife, Ford is terrified when he sees the ghostly reflection of his former kill. He springs backward, smashing his head into the sink, and giving his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) the chance she needs to survive the encounter.

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Related: Best Horror Movie from Each Decade in Film History

10 Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

Paranormal Activity 2 is sort of a prequel to Paranormal Activity, where Kristi, Katie’s sister (Katie is one of the leads in the first film), begins experiencing supernatural phenomena in her home where she lives with her family. It sounds like a generic found footage film, only everything makes sense in the sequel to Paranormal Activity. You just have to give it a try.

The Jump Scare in Paranormal Activity 2

While the franchise has become quite commercial, there are memorable moments in some of its installments. Paranormal Activity 2, the sequel to the widely popular, box office-crushing first film, features one of the most notable sequences. There is pure silence as Kristi (Sprague Grayden) simply goes about her business in the kitchen during the daytime.

When the entire kitchen explodes and every cabinet and drawer flies open, she wasn’t the only person jumping. Metal pots and pans fall in this brief but powerful burst of paranormal energy. This memorable sequence gives Kristi and the audience quite a sudden jolt that holds up to this day, demonstrating that ‘the jump’ is often most effective amidst banality.

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9 Play Dead (2022)

While most viewers put on horror movies for the thrill of being scared, they all secretly love a good story behind it. Play Dead is the perfect combo of an interesting background story and some brilliantly terrifying, alarming, and downright terrible scenes. The story follows Chloe, an over-protective sister who fakes her own death to get into a morgue. She hopes to steal evidence that could condemn her younger brother. Her little risky visit quickly takes a very dark turn when she realizes that she has been trapped inside with the coroner.

The Jump Scare in Play Dead

She discovered he operated on and sold the organs of people while they were still alive. When Chloe enters a room full of dead people, she soon learns that are all still alive and waiting for the doctor to operate on the rest of their organs. One of them opens his lone surviving eye after one of the coroner’s operations and begs Chloe to help him. While it’s a fantastic jump scare, the real terror comes from putting the viewer in the tied-down and dying old man’s shoes. This is a very underrated horror thriller.

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8 Signs (2002)

signs

Signs

Release Date
August 2, 2002

Rating
PG-13

Signs followed two small-town Pennsylvania brothers (Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix) as they fought to protect their family from invading alien forces. After unexplainable crop circles appeared in their fields, they soon discovered their farm had been marked by extraterrestrials. And some point they decide to land and attempt an invasion.

The Jump Scare in Signs

Phoenix’s ex-minor league baseball character Merrill first witnessed the world’s shocking new reality while watching the news alone in the living room, engulfed by darkness as he literally sits on the edge of his seat. The intimate and deeply personal moment in which Merrill stares in horror at the footage is downright spine-tingling, as he jerks back in shock when the cameraman captures an alien being walking slowly across the scene. The moment was extremely impactful as much of the film thus far had been a slow burn, with the aliens only being alluded to but never actually shown. While it may not be as outright scary as the other jump scares on this list, the alien reveal in M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi horror masterpiece still delivered the thrills and chills.

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7 Jaws (1975)

jaws

In Jaws, police chief Martin Brody is in charge of taking care of people living in Amity Island, and summer is coming. The problem is that there’s a shark trapped in the waters of Amity, and the creature isn’t exactly fasting. It’s up to the chief to try and stop the mayhem, and for this he hires a crew. The other problem is they will need a bigger boat than they thought.

The Jump Scare in Jaws

There are many scares in Steven Spielberg’s classic horror-thriller shark movie Jaws. However, none may be as memorable as Ben Gardner’s bloated corpse popping out from the hole in his semi-sunken boat. The scene is set as Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) drunkenly take Hooper’s boat out in search of the massive Great White Shark.

Hooper nervously gets into the water to find a shark’s tooth he needs for proof. Gardner’s corpse, along with John Williams’ supreme score, startled both the audience and Hooper as it appeared, causing him to drop the tooth into the depths below in one of cinema’s best classic jump scares.

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6 Se7en (1995)

Se7en

Se7en

Release Date
September 22, 1995

Rating
R

Se7en tells the story of two detectives in an undisclosed city who try to resolve a recent series of crimes in which the serial killer identifies the deaths with the capital sins. The gruesome aspect of each crime scene reveals they’re dealing with a sick individual that will follow through every ideal, and they find out the hard way in one of the best third acts in modern cinema.

The Jump Scare in Se7en

While more realistic and dramatic in its subject, Se7en is widely regarded as a horror film for its visceral and disturbing depiction of crime and serial killing. As law enforcement stumbled upon the decaying dead body of another victim, fans were left to assume that they’d seen all there was to see at the moment.

However, the dead body wasn’t completely dead, and a single, startling cough was enough to shock viewers and everyone in the room into a frightened jump. What’s more terrifying than that moment of shock is the thought of how this person had survived in such a state of decay. The jump scare is the catalyst to a train of thought and considerations that leaves viewers disturbed every time.

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Related: The Best Jump Scares of the 2010s

5 The Ring (2002)

The Ring

The Ring

Release Date
October 18, 2002

Rating
PG-13

There’s a tradition of cursed objects in the horror genre that never gets old. If it isn’t the cursed phone call (One Missed Call, 2008), then it’s the cursed videotape (The Ring) and it gets the audience every time. The Ring is a psychological horror movie directed by Gore Verbinski, a name most fit for the genre. The story follows a young journalist named Rachel Keller and her quest to unravel the mystery of a videotape that seems to cause the deaths of those who watch it.

The Jump Scare in The Ring

Even though the movie felt more mysterious than scary, it does have a terrifying scene that would leave fans absolutely horror-stricken. Rachel’s niece Katie died trying to figure out the tape. At her funeral, Katie’s mother cried about seeing her daughter’s face after she watched the tape. In flashback, viewers see her mother find Katie and discover her horrified frozen visage. The surprise effect of the flashback transported the viewer back to the disruptive reality of the curse, which is the kind of jump-scare moment some fans never totally recover from.

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4 Candyman (2021)

Candyman 2020

Candyman

Release Date
August 27, 2021

Rating
R

Don’t be fooled by the title, Candyman is not a tale for children. Directed by Nia DaCosta, this horror movie is also a sequel to the 1992 film of the same name. it focuses on an artist called Anthony who takes inspiration from the legendary story of the hook-handed Candyman, which is a multigenerational symbol of injustice and violence. The legend tells of the story of a slave man falling in love with a white woman, which leads to his unjust and premature death. He is transformed into a monster who lives on innocent blood and thrives on being summoned and remembered.

The Jump Scare in Candyman

Anthony’s fascination with the story brings him face to face with the Candyman who appears to him in his own reflection. This terrifying encounter takes place in an elevator made of mirrors. Alone in the elevator, the tormented artist noticed a candy on the ground and picked it up. It stings him like a bee and bloodies his finger while also distracting the audience. Anthony then looked up to find his bloody and monstrous reflection staring back at him. Although extremely gothic and gory, this scene remains central in linking the main character to the frightening legend.

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3 It (2017)

it

It

Release Date
September 6, 2017

Director
Andres Muschietti

Rating
R

Viewers who are not easily freaked out by clowns and want to keep it that way should probably stay away from this movie. It is a horror film based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, and it tells of an ancient legend that describes the emergence of a shape-shifting evil every three decades with the intent of preying on little children. Seven outcast children fall victim to the evil clown’s untamed violence and discover that they have to own up to their own fears before they can escape his clutches.

The Jump Scare in It

While the whole movie is definitely high on the scary spectrum, there is one particular moment that would, without a doubt, send a shiver down your spine. While the characters gather to make a little presentation using a projector about the evil legend and its relation to the sewers, the screen changes into the picture of a scary-looking clown who then steps out of the screen and into a dark room full of horrified little boys. Whatever the viewer’s idea of what is scary and what’s not, this scene is definitely enough to turn off the movie before it gives them Coulrophobia.

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2 Smile (2022)

Smile

Smile

Release Date
September 30, 2022

Director
Parker Finn

Rating
R

2022’s Smile might just have the most jump-scare scenes in horror films that year, though that means there were quite a few impressive ones. The story followed Dr. Rose Cotter, a psychiatrist who traumatically watched one of her patients die in front of her. The supernatural aspect of the patient’s death caused Dr. Rose to investigate it further and dive into the truth behind the suicide. It’s not new that most horrifying tales start with a curious person who should have kept their nose out of macabre occurrences.

The Jump Scare in Smile

The audio recording scene could be the scariest of the film because of how it sent Rose flying from her chair, which might even happen to viewers too if they don’t hold tight during the film. Rose is sitting down in the living room playing and replaying the recording of her deceased client telling her about the smiling shadow that only she can see, when a dark shadow suddenly emerges next to her, aggressively saying her name. The sheer fright coming from the patient’s voice and the shadow’s sudden violent apparition is enough to send anyone into shock.

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1 Insidious (2010)

Insidious

Insidious

Release Date
September 13, 2010

Rating
PG-13

James Wan’s Insidious tells the story of the Lambert family, as they move into a new home, and one of their sons experiences… something. Dalton enters a comatose state in which he comes in contact with entities from another plane, and he brings them to his home when he wakes up. While the franchise is full of scary moments, this one is famous because of science.

The Jump Scare in Insidious

The Science of Scare Project from Broadband Choices has attempted to rank the biggest jump scares by heart rate. Host‘s and A Quiet Place Part II’s jump scares resulted in high BPM measurements from viewers. The Conjuring and Sinister forced viewers to go even higher. But none could initially compare to James Wan’s Insidious (though later updates resulted in slightly different rankings).

The biggest increase during Insidious’ scariest moment – the red-faced demon’s emergence – was 133 BPM. When Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) sees the red-faced demon appear behind the absolutely terrified Josh (Patrick Wilson) is something out of nightmares that instantly imprinted on fans.

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To stay in the spirit of the snowy season, here’s a video on the best winter horror films of all time:



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