Thrillers make you stronger (or so they say)


Thrillers make you stronger (or so they say)

PIETER VAN DER LUGT describes the origins of an old cinematic trick, the jump scare, and what you can watch now if you're in a fearless mood.


SOMEONE is following her, Alice thinks, and she starts walking faster. She is on her way home after a fling with a married man whose wife can presumably turn into a panther (a rare condition). It's late at night on a deserted street. Mist swirls and the only sound is the click of Alice's heels. She is relieved when she arrives at a bus stop. Then SUDDENLY there is a hiss and a bus bursts in front of the camera.

There you have it: Hollywood's first calculated jump scare, in the 1942 movie Cat People. It was nicknamed “the Lewton bus" in honour of the picture's producer, Val Lewton, whose idea it was. Later it was renamed the jump scare.

Connoisseurs reckon the real jump scare makes you jump with fright because it is not part of the story and comes out of the blue. A classic trick is an angry cat jumping out of a dark corner. Or the one with the mirror, where someone suddenly appears behind the character.

The jump scare didn't become a gimmick overnight after Cat People. It was rare until the heyday of horror films in the 1970s. Brian de Palma resurrected it in the closing scene of Carrie. The heroine puts flowers on her crazy mother's grave and SUDDENLY a hand grabs her wrist from beneath the ground.


Good one, but in the subsequent slasher genre (horror movies about knife maniacs) with long-living heroes such as Michael “Halloween" Myers, Jason “Friday the 13th" Voorhees and Freddy “Elm Street" Krueger, the jump scare became a cheap cliché.

In the 1960s, thrillers had an average of two or three jump scares. According to, the record is now 32 in the non-award-winning The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia.

TV series are also cashing in. Netflix's The Midnight Club recently became the new champion with 21 jump scares in episode one.

Why do we watch?

When Covid-19 was at its worst, millions turned to movies such as the pandemic thriller Contagion. Strange that you would want to watch a story about something that is happening right outside your door, but a Danish study of thriller gluttons during the pandemic showed that they are psychologically stronger than people who don't watch scary stories.

Basically, you learn how to handle extreme situations from the safety of your couch, says Marc Malmdorf Andersen, the professor who led the study. Or if you want to hear it in academic language: “[Our] results suggest that enjoyment is related to just-right arousal dynamics embedded within a larger context of physiological responses associated with fear." Not too much or too little, just the right amount.

However, in the last decade or so, the horrors have been as unsubtle as a symphony for chainsaws.

The good news is that John Krasinski is making jump scares stylish again with his movies A Quiet Place I and II, both on Netflix. The story is: Space monsters land on Earth and devour everything that moves. They are blind, but can hear a pin drop. That's why the family in the story has to be very quiet all the time. The oldest daughter is deaf, so they know sign language and that helps a lot. The mission is to reach other survivors.

Krasinski uses silence in a clever way. There is no ominous music or loud bangs. And when you see things from the deaf girl's perspective, there is no sound. Very symbolically (defencelessness of mankind and so on) everyone walks barefoot — one SQUEAK of a sneaker and you're Monster Munch.

Another clever technique is that Krasinski's jump scares originate from things people need to do, like looking for food in a store, changing a baby's nappy or closing a door. You expect it and the inevitability makes it even more intense.

There is more…

Chances are that Krasinski will leave you wanting more. Here are some options for people with different levels of courage.

For a lighter shot of adrenaline and everyone over 13, there is Come Play, in which a child's parents try to save him from a spirit that tries to enter the real world through his electronic devices. Just the thing if you want to teach kids a lesson about too much screen time (15 jump scares).

Showmax is offering a lot of blood and ghosts at the moment and the best of the lot is probably Smile. A psychologist with a murky past treats a patient who dies gruesomely before her eyes, then nerve-racking things start happening to her. An overfamiliar idea, but a clever variation (at least 10 jump scares).

If a jump laugh is more your thing, try M3GAN on Amazon Prime. A robot builder assembles a playmate for her new foster child. She is almost perfect, but becomes dangerously overprotective. The tin doll's dance when she turns to the dark side was a popular meme on TikTok and the movie is on its way to cult status (two jump scares).

♦ VWB ♦

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