Ok, everyone, listen up. It’s time to start thinking critically about what your horror films are doing for you. Halloween is over and done with, so the rampant consumption of sub-par horror is no longer acceptable. We, as a culture, are settling for the most mundane and unimaginative scare tactics that directors and screenwriters can brew up, namely what I will refer to as “the non-diegetic jump scare.”
Let’s fill you in on a little terminology before we delve into our discussion of the increasing laziness in the horror movie world. When we refer to something as “non-diegetic,” it means that something exists outside of the universe of the film plot and is made evident only to the audience. In other words, the characters of the movie neither see nor hear the non-diegetic element. An example of a non-diegetic film element is the soundtrack, usually perceived only by the audience.
All that’s meant by the phrase “jump scare” is the plot device in movies within horror, thriller and suspense genres that literally causes audience members to jump or startle due to some unexpected action onscreen.
So now we can talk knowledgeably about the greatest scourge in today’s horror films, something that is magnificently unforgiveable, manipulative and largely pointless – the “non-diegetic jump scare.”
We’ve all seen it. A character is wandering around the screen, doing whatever they do, and suddenly the movie’s ghoul appears somewhere in the screen margins, unbeknownst to the onscreen character. This development startles the audience, but then serves no further purpose to the plot development.
Further, this plot device usually doesn’t even help to develop suspense, because by the time the filmmakers are resorting to this cheap tactic, the audience is very aware of the presence of the monster.
Therefore, the “non-diegetic jump scare” serves no purpose other than to acknowledge and titillate an uncritical and passive audience into believing that the suspense and plot is somehow furthered by the continued appearance of the monster exclusively to the viewer, but rarely to the horror and disgust of the diegetic characters.
As with everything, examples make the understanding of new ideas much easier to swallow. The most glaring example that comes to mind is Guillermo del Toro’s “Mama.” Watching this movie, the ghost-mama appears several times in dark closets, around corners, etc. only to the benefit of the audience’s superficial satisfaction with the horror movie that they (better) have paid to watch. As a ghoul that has the option of invisibility, del Toro’s ghost has no motive to reveal itself if it is not going to be seen by the characters. Therefore, the appearances of the monster in these circumstances only serve as a nod toward the audience instead of furthering the plot or engaging with the actual characters in the plot. It’s a cheap ploy that attempts to fool audience members into thinking there is some sort of real horror or danger happening, when really it only reveals the lazy and uncreative half-efforts of the filmmakers.
Are horror directors just trying to be artistic, breaking the fourth wall of the silver screen? All signs point to the contrary, as the purpose of most narrative films, especially horror, is the keep the audience engaged and enthralled with the plot, not shake them out of the illusion by acknowledging their presence.
These appearances do not reveal any danger to the characters in the film, nor do they move the plot along in any important way. They seem only to be an assumption of the viewer’s low attention-span, therefore constantly begging for the audience’s visceral reaction to danger that isn’t actually there.
To rephrase, “If a monster appears out of eyesight, does it MATTER?” No. It doesn’t.
This is not to say that all jump scares are bad. To show and ultimately break the tension of a scene in which diegetic characters are actively engaged in the screen action is artistic, skillful and frankly terrifying when executed correctly.
Just think of that horrifically tense scene in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” when the crew of the Nostromo are closing in on the location of the homicidal xenomorph, relying only the blinking sensor of their motion detector. As they close in on a closed locker door, the suspense builds to a terrifying jump scare as the locker door bursts open to reveal what’s inside.
Or, if you’re craving a more contemporary example, what about the jump scares in “It Follows?” Every single scare serves the plot, and although they do effectively terrify moviegoers, these jump scares never pander. The audience is scared when the characters are scared. The audience is tense when the characters are tense. For the audience to be tense when there is no cause for immediate tension within the plot is absurd.
Overall, the use of “non-diegetic jump scares” proliferates only because we, the audience, allow it to. Without our passive acceptance of this cheap and unimaginative tactic, the practice would fizzle out and be relegated to the purgatory of novice horror directors still wet behind the ears. Be critical and stop settling. We deserve to be horrified, not cheaply pacified.