«Jump scare» is often used as shorthand for «cheap» or «undeserved.» That’s not real horror, you might hear someone say after they’ve just had the iron scared out of their blood, it’s just a jump scare.
Of course screeching surprises can be vulgar, but they can also be sublime. There’s joy to being truly and thoroughly got: drawn in, made to focus on something inconsequential so that you let your guard down, and then spooked like a cat meeting a cucumber. When a jump scare is good, you’re angry at it to the same degree you respect it (something you can hear in the tone of the cursing).
It’d take pages and pages to thoroughly document all the good scares PC gaming has ever given us, so here are just the ones that have gotten us the best over the years. Let us know the most spooked you’ve ever been in the comments. (And Happy Halloween!)
FEAR: The ladder
It doesn’t look like much anymore, does it? It’s better if you have sound on. It’s a lot better if it’s 2005 and you’re playing FEAR for the first time, because I remember Alma really making me jump here. It may be that expectations for what a game is capable of doing were different 15 years ago, and it just never occurred to me that it was possible for people (who looked roughly like people, as best as they could in 2005) to materialize while I was concentrating on the most challenging task in any videogame: using a ladder. —Tyler Wilde
I remember that one especially because it was part of the demo, which I might’ve got from PC Gamer, actually. Played it over and over, and the ladder always made me flinch. She got worse in the vent shortly after, though. She leaps out at you like an animal, does this awful crawl, then she’s suddenly gone. Ugh. —James Davenport
Resident Evil 7 (Demo): Mannequins
Creeping into one of the upstairs areas in the Resident Evil 7 demo sees you in a deadend room with a creepy desk, a broken power switch and a horde of female mannequins. Naturally you’re on edge—walking deeper and higher into a monster infested manor isn’t the most intuitive form of escape, but you’ll quickly need to head back down to fix the power switch anyway.
However, upon turning back towards the stairs, you’ll find the group of mannequins now standing in your way, having silently moved position. Did someone rearrange them behind your back, or do they wander about on their own? It’s a good jump scare that implies the presence of others in a simple and immediate way … though this sequence of events is not present in the full game of Resident Evil 7. —Graeme Meredith
Prey: Looking Glass calibration
Arkane’s Prey is a homage to Looking Glass Studios’ System Shock series, which is why it features a technology literally called Looking Glass. It’s also why it features System Shock staples like audio logs and, yep, jump scares.
The Looking Glass technology you’ll find on Talos Station is a kind of holographic screen that displays realistic-looking interactive recordings. At one point you find an audio log where two of the station’s staff argue about a Looking Glass because it needs to be calibrated by pressing a sequence of green circles. You find the Looking Glass they’re talking about and follow along, pressing the green circles as they appear while listening to the two squabbling voices. By this point in Prey you’ve seen a lot of toilet rolls transform into mimics, so you think you’re immune to the typhon aliens’ tricks. You are not, and when one of them suddenly appears in the glass while you’re merrily playing along with the dopey circle minigame you probably smashed it out of pure reflex.
Behind the glass there’s nothing. The typhon was part of the recording. They got you, and it wasn’t even real. And then, just when you’re laughing about how they tricked you, you hear the footsteps coming down the stairs as the typhon who heard you smash that glass approaches. —Jody Macgregor
Batman: Arkham City – The T-rex
From the point of view of random goons and poor old Commissioner Gordon, Batman is a walking jumpscare. He swoops down from a convenient gargoyle or emerges from the shadows whooshing his cape around, then either breaks someone’s jaw or explains a grisly murder as appropriate.
But the Arkham games love to startle Batman in turn. In Arkham Knight there’s the first appearance of Man-Bat, grappling you in midair, and in Arkham City there’s the bit where one of the Abromivici twins busts through a wall while you’re in the middle of spraying it with explosive gel. The one that made me actually yelp is the cheesiest—it’s the moment where you enter the museum and an animatronic tyrannosaurus rex looms and roars at you. It’s goofy as hell, and even though I’ve finished that game three times it always got me. —Jody Macgregor
Thief: Deadly Shadows – Puppets
I’m deep inside Shalebridge Cradle, the combination insane asylum-orphanage that serves as the home for Robbing the Cradle, a genuinely great level in the otherwise largely forgettable Thief: Deadly Shadows. It’s been an extremely stressful experience so far, thanks to outstanding lighting, incredibly creepy audio, and sparing use of absolutely horrific enemies. It’s straight up Amnesia shit, and it’s not supposed to be in a game like this, and I don’t like it.
But here I am: stealthy, cool, and intently focused on picking this lock. I’m leaning into the monitor, mouse in a crushing grip, barely even breathing—and finally, it pops open with a soft click. I grab what I came for, quickly turn to move away, and holy sweet Jesus one of the Puppets—»lobotomized, branded, heads and hands encased in protective wire cages, subjected to something called ‘the wet-wraps treatment'»—is right there, towering over me and bearing down like the fist of a jealous husband, twitching, hissing, screaming at me in blind, insane fury.
I screamed too, like a small child tossed out the back of a cargo plane. I jumped up, fell backwards out of my chair and onto the floor. My keyboard and mouse followed me down. I think I kicked a few times. My girlfriend rushed in to see what had happened. Then she laughed at me. I may have still been screaming.
It was purely an accident of timing—nine times out of ten, I pick that lock, grab my stuff, and I’m on my way without a hitch—but even so, the way that level wound me up, drew my attention down to a pinpoint focus, and then unleashed that fucking horror on me was masterful. Deadly Shadows may not have been much of a game, but it scarred me for life.
(The video above is not exactly what I experienced, but you get the gist.) —Andy Chalk
Bioshock: The dentist
Bioshock is full of creepy and unsettling moments and scenes. That first slicer cooing over a baby carriage that contains a gun, those other slicers who climb on the ceiling, and those living statue ballerina slicers that change position when you turn your back for a second. Rapture is a scary place.
But the biggest single jump scare in a game full of startling moments is probably the dentist. Early in the game we’ve already been trained to be looking over our shoulders for enemies, but in the medical pavilion, a desk in the corner of the room beckons with a recording to be played and a shiny jug of power-up juice. Grab the loot, play the tape, turn around to leave, and whammo, the dentist is right there, in your face, an inch away. Sure, it’s a cheat. The game spawns him in when your back is turned. But that’s okay, it’s scary as hell. Plus he’s not some boss, he’s just another slicer that can be killed with a single swing of the wrench. And that’s great too, because I guarantee every single player reflexively smashed that dentist into the next world while screaming their heads off. —Chris Livingston
Thief: Deadly Shadows – Robbing the Cradle, again
There’s a staircase in the infamous Robbing the Cradle level of Thief: Deadly Shadows, which, yep, I’m bringing up again. If you’ve played it, you know the one I mean. It’s twisting, and steep, and you need to be very, very quiet as you climb those stairs, because the Shalebridge Cradle—a combination orphanage/insane asylum, and what kind of sick mind put that one together?—is haunted as hell. So I moved slowly, silently, listening intently as I crept up, up, up. And just as I neared the top, and slowly reached out for the door… BAMBAMBAMBAMBAM, something on the other side pounded on it, and down down down I went as fast as I possibly could, I probably would’ve fallen and broken my neck if this was happening in real life, and into the nearest dark corner to hide and wait and maybe cry a little bit. And after a while, when my heart stopped racing and my breathing slowed and I worked up enough courage to look out to see what was chasing me, I realized there was nothing there. Nothing at all. It was great. —Andy Chalk
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