Heart-stopping Halloween terror: 13 of cinema’s greatest jump scares

Halloween horrors including The Conjuring, The Descent, Scream and The Exorcist III

The scare: First contact

The Descent (2005)

If you were lucky enough to see The Descent on the big screen, you’ll remember this as the moment everyone in the cinema lost their minds. First there’s the night vision, which is inherently scary. Then there’s the claustrophobia of exploring underground caves, which puts everyone on edge. And, finally, there’s the petrifying humanoid suddenly appearing behind one of the characters before all hell breaks loose. These types of films often struggle with the balance of how much to show or how little to show; this is a masterclass in how to reveal the monster.

The scare: Reaching the Attic

Rec (2007)

Rec, a Spanish found-footage zombie film, flew under the radar when it was released but has since found a well-deserved place among the best horror films of the 2000s. When a reporter and her cameraman follow emergency workers responding to a call in a Barcelona apartment block they quickly find themselves quarantined inside as a deadly virus spreads. The single-location setting works brilliantly, and when the s**t hits the fan there’s only one way to go: up. By the time they reach the attic, towards the end of the film, our nerves are already shredded, so as the camera slowly pans around the dark room for the inevitable jump scare, it’s almost unbearable.

The scare: Evil Bilbo

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001)

Honestly, who saw this coming? Leave it to Peter Jackson to sneak one of cinema’s most terrifying, pant-filling jump scares into the middle of a big family-friendly fantasy film. When Frodo and pals reach Rivendell they think their journey is over. It is a moment of warmly lit soft-focus respite. Everything about this stage of the film leads us to believe there is no danger. Our guard is down. So when Bilbo sees the ring around Frodo’s neck we are really not prepared for what happens next. The way he snatches for the ring, his face suddenly distorted into a demonic snarl, puts the fear of God into even the most seasoned horror fan.

The scare: Ben Gardner’s head

Jaws (1975)

You might have been expecting the “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene, but this is by far the film’s bigger jump scare. Searching for a missing fisherman in the waters around Amity Island, Brody and Hooper (Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss) find his abandoned, half-sunken boat. Hooper dons his scuba gear to continue the search underwater, and the tension builds along with John Williams’s incredible score. When Hooper finds a huge tooth in the hull we fully expect the shark to burst out – making the sudden appearance of the fisherman’s head all the more frightening.


The scare: Nurse station scene

The Exorcist III (1990)

Chances are you haven’t seen The Exorcist III, so you may be surprised to learn that it contains what is widely regarded as one of the best jump scares in cinema history. Watching now, it’s not hard to see why. The scene – all four minutes of it – is perfectly executed. We see a nurse going about her business on a hospital ward. The camera is static; there is no music. The mundane scene masterfully toys with audience expectations, right up to the shock ending, featuring a shears-wielding nun and a tasteful decapitation.

The scare: Hide and clap

The Conjuring (2013)

Through effective use of the humble jump scare, James Wan has created a billion-dollar franchise. By our count the Conjuring universe now clocks in at eight films, with a combined box-office total of $2.1 billion. As with most of these bloated franchises, the original is still the best. The biggest fright comes when a woman investigating creepy sounds in the house leads her to (of course) the basement. There’s no blood, no gore, just a pair of hands coming out of the dark, and it couldn’t be scarier.

The scare: Diner scene

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Nobody has represented the strangeness of dreams on screen as well as David Lynch. Things that shouldn’t make sense have an internal logic we recognise as wrong only after we wake up. What makes this jump scare so effective is the sense of dreamlike dread that precedes it. Two men, Dan and Herb, sit in a diner. Dan tells Herb about a recurring nightmare that takes place in this diner. He’s terrified, particularly of a man behind the diner, with a face he hopes never to see outside a dream. As the scene progresses it feels as if we’re being led towards a jump scare, but surely it’s not that kind of film. Is it?

The scare: Witch in the bed

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Essentially a film version of a haunted ghost train at a carnival, Sam Raimi’s tongue-in-cheek frightfest has whole lot of jump scares. The pick of the bunch is the scene where the main character, Christine (Alison Lohman), is in bed with her boyfriend. She hears a noise and sits up, the close-up camera following her. Then, starting to relax, she lies back down – and bam! Boyfriend’s been replaced by a gnarly old witch who proceeds to puke maggots all over Christine’s screaming face. Hilarious and horrifying.

The scare: Lawn Work

Sinister (2012)

Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a crime writer who finds a bunch of old Super 8 snuff films in his new house. One of the tapes is labelled “Lawn Work 86″. The shaky silent footage initially shows a family being filmed from outside their sittingroom window. The camera then cuts to a lawnmower being taken from a garage and pushed across a lawn. It is incredibly creepy. What we see next, though, is one of the most effective and brutal jump scares in modern horror. In fact, the whole film is an absolute nightmare (in a good way).

The scare: Someone in the house

Terrified (2017)

In this aptly named Argentinian horror, we follow investigators piecing together strange events in a Buenos Aires neighbourhood. It’s a bit rough around the edges but is filled with grade-A jump scares. One scene plays on the “there’s someone in the house with you” trope so well that it ends with the type of fright where you let out an involuntary yelp and cover your face with your hands. You know, the good stuff.

The scare: Bath time

What Lies Beneath (2000)

Despite opening to a lukewarm critical reception, Robert Zemeckis’s glossy Hollywood chiller has aged like fine wine. Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer are on top form as a married couple living an idyllic life in one of those beautiful lakeside Vermont homes that always pop up in these kinds of films. But, as the title suggests, all is not as it seems, and as Pfeiffer slowly uncovers a horrific mystery she discovers her husband is perhaps not who she thinks he is. As the biggest fright of the film is tied directly to the central mystery, we won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but if there’s a scene with Michelle Pfeiffer in a bath, that’s your cue to reach for the defibrillator.

The scare: Boy in the lake

Friday the 13th (1980)

Friday the 13th originally had a different ending. The now-familiar tale of camp counsellors being terrorised by a mask-wearing maniac was supposed to end with Alice, the sole survivor, looking out at the lake before the credits rolled. In other words, it had a happy ending. But one of the financial backers had recently seen Carrie and basically said, “Do something like that.” And thus the greatest jump scare in slasher history was created. Purists might argue that Carrie’s hand bursting out of the ground is the superior fright, but Jason’s disfigured body leaping out of the water gets us every time.

The scare: One last jump scare

Scream (1996)

Stripping away all the bells and whistles, there are essentially two types of jump scare: the slow, steady build-up of tension followed by the release of a scare; and the sudden jump that comes out of the blue. Throughout Scream, the horror maestro Wes Craven plays with these expectations like the old pro that he was. In the bloody aftermath of the final scene, looking at Billy’s corpse, Randy says, “This is the moment when the supposedly dead killer comes back to life for one last scare.” We know what’s coming, and that’s what makes it so much fun.