The Lost Art of the Jump Scare

The Lost Art of the Jump Scare

When was the last time a game actually made you jolt in fear? Pete ponders this evolution of the horror genre.

It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was just dark, and I was a little drunk, as teenagers tend to be when enjoying a late-night video game session while their parents are out of the house for an extended period.

My friend Woody sat alongside me, staring with rapt attention at the TV screen. On the flickering CRT, Jill Valentine was cautiously walking down an innocuous-looking corridor, her footsteps echoing in the otherwise silent hallway. I noticed Woody almost imperceptibly tense up next to me as Jill passed by a window. I didn't have time to ask him what he was expecting to happen because--


In through the window burst a dog, and it was obviously out for blood. The game's chilling but sedate soundtrack had given way to chaotic string stabs, and I knew the only option was to run for my life. I steered Jill carefully around the corner of the corridor, heading for the way out, when--


More dogs. The controller slipped in my hands as the sweat made it hard to grip. I was genuinely panicking -- the sudden and unexpected appearance of these undead canine assailants had caused my heart to race, and the game's clunky controls really weren't helping me stay in command of the situation.

Eventually, I safely made it out through the door, hit the pause button, put the controller down and turned to Woody. His shoulders were shaking with stifled mirth, and as he felt my eyes on him, he erupted into full-on belly laughter.

"Got you," he said.

Resident Evil's "dog scene" is one of the most infamous "jump scares" in gaming history -- and it's one that its sequel in particular successfully recreated several times. Much of its power came from the fact that it was unexpected, but even if you knew it was coming, it was still all but impossible not to physically react to it, whether it was through flinching, vocalizing or some embarrassing combination of both. Resident Evil 2 subsequently took this creepy sense of foreboding anticipation and ran with it; whether or not you had encountered the dog scene of the original yourself, you quickly knew to expect the unexpected -- and loud -- as soon as you entered a corridor with conspicuous windows, or boarded up wall panels, or in which the music suddenly stopped. With every step you took, you wondered if this would be the one where something would burst through a wall and try its very best to kill you.

And then just to screw with you further, these games often toyed with your expectations, making a corridor look like it would probably play host to a jump scare, and then fail to deliver until much later when you had fallen into a false sense of security.

Jump scares are an effective -- if, arguably, cheap and clichéd -- means of evoking a reaction of genuine fear or anxiety from their unfortunate recipients. And I feel that the Resident Evil series' move away from that delicious sense of terror and panic has played a big role in why a series I once loved back in the PS1 era now holds little to no interest for me whatsoever. I didn't play Resident Evil to feel like an action movie badass. I played Resident Evil to feel like I was up against unknown horrors; to feel a sense of real fear; to jump out of my seat and make my friend laugh because he already knew what was coming.

Don't open the one on the end.

This isn't to say jump scares have gone away altogether, though they're not seen anywhere near so frequently in modern "horror" games -- particularly as franchises such as Dead Space have also gone the Resident Evil route. That is to say, heading in a more "actiony" direction as opposed to "crawling around in the dark hoping something unpleasant doesn't land on your head and/or rip your arm off."

One of my favorite examples in relatively recent memory comes from Team GrisGris' PSP visual novel/adventure Corpse Party. You wouldn't expect a top-down adventure with primitive SNES-era RPG-style visuals to have much in the way of scares, but Corpse Party manages to pull it off successfully on several occasions -- the most notable of which comes in a scene where you're in a ruined bathroom, searching through the stalls one by one, the last of which suddenly bombards you with a loud noise and a disembodied voice yelling "SHUT THE GODDAMNED DOOR!" in Japanese.

This particular instance of a jump scare in Corpse Party works so well because it's unexpected in several ways -- firstly, if you've never played it before, you might not know it's the sort of game that also has jump scares besides its wonderfully macabre atmosphere of lurking horror. Secondly, according to the way most people "explore" in games of this type, before you get to the stall that houses the scare, you will more than likely open four other doors without incident, lulling you into a false sense of calm. (Interestingly, a later secret chapter in the game actually allows you to discover the source of the disembodied voice -- he's not actually a malevolent force at all, which puts an interesting twist on the whole experience.)

Silent Hill 2 is scary, but it doesn't use jump scares to provide its thrills.

It's a fine line devs have to straddle with scary games. Since jump scares are something of a cliché today, if a new game is going to include them, devs need to make sure they're reallyunexpected, otherwise they're just laughable. They also suffer somewhat from the assumption that they're a cheap and dumb means of making people "feel" something from a game, when more psychological, intelligent horror titles such as Silent Hill and The Walking Dead focus instead on the "skin crawling" side of horror: the gradual realization that something that you can't quite put your finger on is very, very wrong. At the other end of the spectrum, titles like Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising focus on the "surviving against overwhelming odds" side of things -- this can induce panic and anxiety in its own way, but not in the same way as the simple art of a sudden loud noise closely followed by something unpleasant with too many teeth jumping at you.

It's been quite some time since I've been genuinely freaked out in this way by a video game -- particularly one I can play on my TV, since Corpse Party is a portable game -- and this is somewhat surprising considering the improvements in technology we've had since the PS1 era; games should be really good at scaring the crap out of people by now. There's a primal thrill from a simple loud noise or unexpected event triggering our innate "fight or flight" reflex, and I'd love to see some -- though not all -- horror games make a return to tapping into those instinctive emotional responses.

I've said my piece, so let's open it up to the floor, now. What have been your favorite "scary games" over the years? And are you more of a fan of jump scares, psychological horror or a combination of the two?

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