Anachronistic Techniques (Jumpscares) in Horror Period Pieces: Please Stop

Helen Mirren, my queen, playing Sarah Winchester, an intriguing and misunderstood woman.

Hi bats, ghouls, and nonbinary spirits! I hope you’re doing well. Okay, let’s talk about horror movies, particularly ones that take place earlier in the twentieth century or around the turn of the century. This bit of a rant was inspired when a fellow horror fan I know and respect says she doesn’t enjoy Gothic horror films. As someone whose favorite horror genre is Gothic, I was curious why, and she went on to say she didn’t like Woman in Black, but she liked Crimson Peak and The Others. Having seen all these films, I started to see the pattern, and it reminded me of what I disliked in Annabelle: Creation (which isn’t Gothic, but it has a similar issue I’ll address), and what seems to be an issue in Winchester, though, full disclosure, I am going by reviews, not my own viewing experience.

I am not strictly against jumpscares. It would be disingenuous to say that the period piece horror films I enjoy don’t have jumpscares, especially The Others. But the issue is the over-reliance of bad jumpscares in modern films, which to me act as a Pavlovian replacement for tension-building. It’s easy to make someone startle with a jumpcut and something flying at the screen, but then it’s gone. It doesn’t haunt you. What was haunting to me about The Others and Crimson Peak weren’t any especially “scary” ghost scenes, but the actions of the humans and how it creates the horror and tension.

There comes a point when the typical jumpscare buildup and execution in modern horror becomes not only predictable, but especially anachronistic in film like, say, The Woman in Black, where the more traditional horror aspects are effective, but the contemporary techniques drag the film down and remind me that, yes, this doesn’t actually take place during this time period. Sure, I know logically, but when I’m immersed in a film, I don’t want to be taken out of the experience.

Typical “scare” technique in current movies: Creepy music, probably violins, since violins are scary and violas are superior. It builds as the character gets close to the danger. Everything goes silent. Nothing happens. The protagonist looks relieved. Uh oh, creature jumps out, accompanied by a LOUD NOISE. (I am especially salty about the use of nondiegetic music to indicate what the audience should feel, when they should be scared. I would be far more forgiving of these scenes if these ridiculous, obnoxious sounds weren’t added in post.)

Consider The Conjuring. Admittedly, though I do like James Wan, I was skeptical watching the beginning because all of the Wan-inspired films seem to blend together in looks and scare techniques. What pleasantly surprised me about The Conjuring, and what made it distinct, was though it does have loud noises and jumpscares, it doesn’t rely on them, and the buildup is effective, as are the camera techniques. I was especially impressed with the scene with the two sisters in bed and the invisible demon behind the bedroom door. But before that instance, one of the sisters looks under her bed as the movie goes silent.

It would be too easy to place a loud noise and jumpscare here, a demon claw grabbing her as she straightens herself after seeing nothing under the bed, but it doesn’t happen. Wan’s films have a certain maturity in their execution that his successors lack. The Witch is another film where I felt ingrained in the time period (with the exception of the sexy, Hansel and Gretel-esque witch, though that is a brief scene). I cannot even recall if there was a jumpscare. It was mostly atmosphere and a mounting sense of dread and isolation.

Annabelle: Creation, taking place in the same universe as The Conjuring, is a movie with atmosphere and great blocking and cinematography. I especially appreciate the use of shadows and the main colors (like green) as a deceptively calming palette. I like how when we get a sense of the size of the main monster, it all happens with insinuation and shadows. I even cared about the characters’ relationships. There are even great, tense scenes that don’t rely on jumpscares (especially false ones without an actual threat!) and screeching violins. Overall, I liked the film as a whole, except when we get to the action-filled scenes.

My focal issue with the film is that once we get to the “scares,” we get the loud noises and things (or people) flying everywhere. Honestly, again, it would be more effective to me and less anachronistic if a) it wasn’t predictable and b) it didn’t have the loud noise to signify when the audience should jump. Because this is seen in many contemporary horror movies that take place in the current time period, it sucks me out of the established setting. I grow a little bored when we get to the scenes where I know what will happen because they adhere to a strict formula.

If you want to create a moody atmosphere, especially a Gothic one, consider what makes these stories have suspense and consider foregoing the obvious. Subvert expectations. Or at least, if you’re a filmmaker, please take out the “scary,” cacophonic sounds once the scare happens. That’s all I ask. And for God’s sake, maybe some of these scares should actually at least have the monster in them. At least in a film like The Others, which is one of my favorites, when it uses music and jumpscares, the scares are real, not fakeouts that leave me annoyed. Also, when you have a movie with the (wonderfully puntastic) tagline “Terror is building,” let the terror build. You can have fantastic set pieces and costumes, but if the horror relies on generic, cheap, predictable modern conventions, it can ruin the immersion.

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