“My favorite jump scares toy with your expectations.”
Cue the Psycho Strings
In horror movies, jump scares make teenagers lose their popcorn, while veteran viewers hold onto their Milk Duds. Veterans know the rhythms of the genre. They know what it means when the score fades beneath a howling wind. They watch the victim tiptoe through a long uninterrupted shot. They know when to expect a cat to jump out, and when to expect a killer. While teens wince at the simple sight of blood, vets yawn at all the spiritless slaughter. If they’ve seen one hook pop out of someone’s throat, they’ve seen them all.
They’ve been exposed to far too many cheap chills, generic gotchas, and bargain BOO’s. Without good storytelling, panic feels passé, alert seems antiquated, and carnage seems commonplace.
Veteran viewers have been inoculated against these dated daunts. They lean back in their seats, with comfortable dry pants, secure in their immunity. What if there was a new strain of jump scare, one that resembled those creep show clichés, but broke through their resistance?
A silhouette darted across Lance’s path. He clutched his chest to find his pacemaker primed to explode. Swinging his cane at the dark, his feet wobbled out from under him.
Gretchen clutched her husband’s shoulder. “It was a cat, Lance. Just a cat. A Russian Blue by the look of it.” She fished her cellphone from her pocket. “That doctor was supposed to prescribe something for your blood pressure.”
She tapped the touchscreen. The backlight flicked on. Holding it high, she lit up the boulevard. “See, it’s just a little-bitty kitty.”
The silhouette crawled forward with its hindquarters up, waving a tail made of bone. The links ran from the appendage all the way up its spine. Its shoulder blades cut through its pelt. Its mane was made of thick quills as long as daggers. Its fangs were tusks in proportion to its muzzle. Horns jut out from Its skull. Its head was shaped like a bat, while its face had the features of a man.
Lance backed into his wife, “Uh, Gretchen, I think you need to have your prescription checked.”
A terrible smile stretched across the creature’s face. Pawing at the sidewalk, drool poured down its chin.
The creature sprung up, dug its claws into Lance’s collar, and sunk its teeth into his neck. Falling to his knees, Lance shook until his heart gave out. Rivulets of blood ran down his shoulder, water colors staining his shirt red.
Gretchen shrieked for all the neighborhood to hear.
The creature spat a hunk of flesh at her foot. Gretchen kicked, but the skin had bonded to her shoe. She fell into a driveway. The creature giggled with the voice of a child who’d found some helium.
Lance’s body fell into the street light. Standing up, Gretchen found the creature lapping at the pool that had spilled from her late husband’s neck, a kitten at a dish.
Licking its lips, the creature grinned. It said, “Meow.”
Then it leapt for Gretchen’s throat.
Why I like Double Jump Scares
My favorite jump scares toy with your expectations. They set up a cliché only to deliver an unexpected jolt. They’re a slight-of-hand trick, directing your eyes toward the sleeve, when the card is wrapped behind the magician’s knuckles. They’re a clumsy shell game that’s part of a deeper grift. The klutz pickpocket that’s part of a longer con. The stagecoach pitchman that serves to make the faith healer seem more authentic.
There’s something sophisticated about a scene that dresses itself in the guise of something old, only to deliver something new. It gambles on the audience’s exposure to the trope. It presumes that we know enough about the language of storytelling that we can recognize its short comings from a distance.
The sequence patronizes the viewer, offering a setup they already know the punchline for. The story sets out to loose the audience in the short term, to give them a deeper payoff in the long term.
Imagine you’re writing a scene for a horror movie. You’re looking for a fresh way to introduce the ghost to the hero, let’s call her Ilene. Aspiring to set the tone early, you decide to play with a trope. There’s a bump in the night. Ilene wakes up to search for its source. She wanders into the bathroom. There are plenty of tropes to play with in here.
From the score and the mood lighting, the audience knows that something is going to happen. Experience tells them that it’s one of six things:
1. There’s someone behind the shower curtain.
2. The shower curtain is draped over someone who vanishes the moment it’s removed.
3. Something rushes across the hall, just over Ilene’s shoulder.
4. Ilene opens the medicine cabinet, takes a few pills, closes it to find the ghost waiting behind her.
5. Ilene closes the medicine cabinet to find the ghost standing in for her own reflection.
6. Ilene wakes up. It was all a dream.
If those are the outcomes your audience expects, what can you do to defy their expectations? You don’t want to resort to parody; Ilene spots a silhouette beneath the shower curtain. Tearing the curtain away, she realizes it’s just a cat.
You don’t want to make the threat come from outside of the setup; Ilene opens the medicine cabinet and the ghost bursts through the bathroom tiles. The problem with sidestepping your audience’s expectations is that you run the risk of betraying them.
Let’s say we have to use the medicine cabinet. Ours is a supernatural threat. The ghost is not going to be waiting beside the towel rack with a knife. It’s going to be in the mirror. The moment Ilene opens the cabinet, that gun is cocked, we’re just waiting for it to go off. Rolling our eyes, until the ghost says, “Boo.”
If you’re locked into this setup, what’s the one variable you can change to surprise us? The ghost’s hand is already forced, we know what their play is, but what about the hero’s?
Choke and Mirrors
Ilene opened the medicine cabinet. Her hand hovered over the bottles in a game of duck-duck-goose. She tapped the Ibuprofen, the Aspirin, ran her finger around the rim of the bottle of Ambien, before settling on the Xanax. The childproof lid was stuck. Ilene slammed it on the sink. Gritting her teeth, she twisted with all her might. The bottle exploded. Pills shot out everywhere, everywhere but the sink.
Ilene dug her nails into the porcelain. “That’s good. At least the roaches will be happy.”
There was a faint rattle, as if the washing machine had gotten stuck in the rinse cycle. It reminded Ilene of muffled laughter, of the drunken cackles of sorority sisters.
Pressing her ear to the bottles, it occurred to Ilene that the sound was louder on her other side, on the back of the mirror. When she pressed her ear to it, the laughter grew. There was no mistaking the sound for an appliance, this was a hysterical laugh, full of madness.
Leaning toward the mirror, Ilene’s breath quickened. Dare she sneak a peak? Could she without facing her reflection head on? The laughter ceased. Ilene straightened, ran the tap, and flicked water in her eyes.
The cabinet hung open. Ilene froze. There was movement reflected in the tiles that faced the mirror.
Clutching the glass, Ilene slammed the cabinet shut. She threw a punch at her own reflection. Her fist went through the mirror as if it had been a window. The reflection opened its mouth wide enough to catch Ilnene’s hand. Its jaws clamped down on her wrist. It felt like a bracelet made of teeth. Tugging with all her might, Ilene watched her reflection swallow her fist. Another gulp and she’d be in past her elbow.
Ilene saw the outline of her knuckles in her reflection’s neck. “Choke on it, you bitch!”
Ilene’s feet slid across the bathroom mat. Her reflection pulled her right through the looking glass.
Why I like Sucker Punch Setups
In this example, the idea that something is lurking in the mirror is hammered home. It’s forecast from so far away, that we’re led to believe nothing in the scene can take us by surprise. Then Ilene, the variable we weren’t focusing on, does something crazy. She meets the Boo-moment head on, only to discover the monster in the mirror had a move she had not anticipated.
This is the double bluff multi-psych. The compound deception. The knotted twist. This is the awakening the viewer assumes is false, only to realize that it’s a dream outside of the dream.
It’s the kind of moment that winds it’s fist up and kicks you in the crotch.
You watch the drawstring swing from the attic door, while the carpet rises before you. You expect a jolt when you shut the refrigerator, but the threat lurks behind the coleslaw. That thump you hear on the floor above? Let’s just say you’re a bad judge of acoustical resonance. Those footfalls are coming from right behind you.
You’re searching for the face in the dark, oblivious to the one hiding behind the light. You’re looking for movement beneath the covers, but those aren’t pillows you’re resting on. You’re waiting for the front door to burst open, so you can run up the stairs into the killer’s embrace.
You assume the vision will flee the moment you flick the light on.
A shadow sat outside Murphy’s office window, crouched on the sill, blotting out the streetlights. Lying on the couch, Murphy watched its arm cock back. The figure shattered the glass, scuffled through the blinds, and rolled onto the dresser. It swatted the law degrees to the floor.
Creeping along the furniture, it knocked each volume of Murphy’s legal encyclopedia off the shelf. It settled on the desk, a gargoyle perched on a ledge. Reaching for the desk lamp, Murphy expected to see nothing, to find each forged certificate back in their frames, and each expired volume back on their shelf. He would take a long swig off his flask, and drive himself home.
Murphy flicked the switch. The figure loomed over him, a naked heap of skin, a parade balloon deflated on an unlucky spectator. The figure’s flesh was a twisted lump of putty dripping down its skeleton. Each flap was a web of veins, creases, and stretch marks. Its hands were loose fitting gloves sagging off its bones. Its face was wrapped around its skull. Its eyes were a pair of diagonal slits. Its mouth had settled where its ear should be, stuck in an unending yawn.
Careful not to make any sudden movements, Murphy set his feet on the carpet. The figure did not react. It made no movements whatsoever. It didn’t even breathe. Was this some kind of troll? Had the desk lamp turned it to stone?
Inching around the desk, Murphy couldn’t help but stare at the wet piece of skull where the creature’s teeth should be.
Kneeling, Murphy struggled with the bottom drawer. He reached for his gun. Despite its light weight, the Ruger shook in his hand. Standing, Murphy found the abomination right where he’d left it. He set it in his sights.
The creature’s head rattled, a maraca full of hardened brain-matter. Its shoulders moved through its skin, a child attempting to find its sleeves. Murphy squeezed the trigger. There was a blur of movement. Feeling the gun against his chin, Murphy eased his finger off the trigger. The creature gripped his wrist through its forearm, while its true fingers dangled in the breeze.
Frozen, Murphy watched the creature’s skin twist around its skull, until its nose settled onto its nasal cavity. Despite the exposed muscle where its eyes should be, its expression was clear. It was enraged.
Murphy shifted his gaze between the creature and the window, “I take it they’re with you?”
The creature’s head spun around several times. It stopped on the window, like a wheel with something caught in its spoke. Murphy swat the gun out from under his chin. He punched the creature’s elbow until it bent the other way. Tugging his hand free, Murphy leapt back.
The creature’s head spun back to find Murphy standing just outside its grasp.
Murphy raised the gun. “Made you look.”
Why I Twist the Knife
Traditionally, that sequence would’ve ended the moment Murphy reached for the desk lamp. Now you see the creature, now you don’t. When you think about it, what reason would a monster have to appear in the dark, only to run and hide the moment Murphy could get a good look at it? That’s a great motivation if it knew it was in a movie, but if its goal was to terrorize a lawyer, it might as well follow through.
Slasher horror comes at you fast. It slides its blade into your kidney before you realize that you’re bleeding. The monster leaps out, the cymbal crashes, and the scene is done. I like to linger, to show you more than you thought you’d see, to add to the mystery by answering questions, to hide a scene’s complexity beneath a simple surface.
Your audience expects your jump scares to stab them through their comfort bubble. This is where you have the edge, because they don’t expect you to keep twisting the knife.