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An Alternate History of Horror XXI: Jump Scare

By Ryan Fleming.

Nosferatu, 1922. One of the earliest classics of the genre.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It seems appropriate for a series on the history of horror that there should be a horror introduction.


The bad news being that this is the final instalment of this series. The end. Finished. I’m not sure where I’ll get my horror fix in future, but that’s another matter. All I can say is enjoy this last article in the series.




The 2020s brought with them the centennial of horror films. It had been a century since the template for horror on film had been set by the Expressionist pictures from Germany like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). The horror film had seen a lot of change in the intervening hundred years, and its ninth decade was no different. The 2010s saw the evolution of horror continue, motivated both by successful films in the genre and broader trends in the entertainment industry.


There were a lot of intersecting trends overlapping in the 2010s. These included the last vestiges of the zombie and found footage crazes that began before the start of the decade. Major new or revived trends in the 2010s included an increased reliance on jump scares; an attempt to create cinematic universes (a trend in film beyond horror); and “elevated” horror, a term used by those who don’t like horror films to justify liking some specific examples of the genre.

Another classic: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Horror films were perhaps more reactive during the 2010s to broader trends in the film industry. On the other hand, much of what was being done had in fact been attempted before but just came into new focus during that decade. For instance, though jump scares became a major talking point during the 2010s, to the extent modern films were said to be over-reliant on them, they had actually been used in horror since the 1940s.


The first horror film to make use of a jump scare was Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), where editor Mark Robson used the screeching air brakes of a bus to punctuate a build of quiet tension. This sort, where the source of the scare is something non-threatening, also became known as a Lewton Bus, and though popular in the slasher films of the 1980s, were still a relatively rare occurrence. Both Carrie (1976) and Friday the 13th (1980) memorably ended on famous jump scares, more akin to our modern understanding.


Depending on which ending to Paranormal Activity (2007) audiences saw, it may have ended with a jump scare, already having several peppered throughout. The subjective perspective of the found footage technique allowed for jump scares that would startle audiences direct into the camera. Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (2009) made frequent use of jump scares without using the found footage method. Had Paranormal Activity not made it to wide distribution the way it did, or Raimi not made Drag Me To Hell, which only happened when it did after the script lay dormant for a decade, the jump scare might not have evolved the way it did, when it did. However, it may still have with Insidious (2010), written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan. The pair had previously made Saw (2004), which spawned its own franchise and the short “torture porn” boom in horror films during the mid-00s. Wan felt the violence and gore of Saw put companies off hiring him, so set out with Whannell to make another sort of horror film without that level of violence. It worked, and composer Joseph Bishara proved to be very successful at building tension through using the soundtrack in conjunction with what appears on screen. Insidious was successful enough to get four follow-up films by 2023 and opened the doors for Wan starting with his next film. Without Saw and the need for a reaction from Wan to prove he could do something different, again the jump scare would have a different evolution into the 2010s.

Leigh Whannell, writer of Insidious.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

Both Paranormal Activity and Insidious were produced by the team of Jason Blum, Oren Peli (who also directed Paranormal Activity), and Steven Schneider. The first of those lent his name to the production company Blumhouse Productions. The success of those films and their sequels turned Blumhouse into a name synonymous with horror films – arguably the company with the name most synonymous with horror films since Hammer Film Productions fizzled out in the 1970s. Their business model seemed especially conducive to horror: producing films on a relatively small budget, giving their directors creative freedom, but releasing films widely through the studio system.


Small budgets are something that horror films have always contended with. Many directors when starting out seem drawn towards horror, and at a time when film in general was hesitant to take many risks, the only films that were in high demand other than the seemingly safe tentpole popcorn flicks were low-budget horror and broad comedies. The emphasis on director control also resulted in higher concept horror films that might not have been made otherwise. Those include the likes of Happy Death Day (2017), which combined a slasher film with elements of Groundhog Day (1993), and Freaky (2020), which similarly mashed up a slasher with Freaky Friday (1972). That variety seemed to even draw established directors like M Night Shyamalan, who enjoyed a career resurgence following The Visit (2015) and Split (2016), both produced through Blumhouse. Filmmakers not known for horror made Blumhouse films, like Barry Levinson with The Bay (2012) and Jordan Peele with Get Out (2017). The studio also occasionally ventured away from horror with dramas like Whiplash (2014) from Damien Chazelle and BacKkKlansman (2018) from Spike Lee.


Despite the emphasis on variety and creative control, there can be said to be a Blumhouse style for many of their productions. It never reached the point of stagnation however, with the studio even managing to do improbable things like creating a prequel than its original in the shape of Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016). That might say more about the quality of Ouija (2014) than anything else, it should be said. Blumhouse also managed to avoid descending into self-parody despite apparently coming close to following in the footsteps of Universal, 20th Century Fox, and New Line Cinema in crossing over their horror properties.


Whether they saw the light or not, Insidious vs Sinister was never made. New horror directors to emerge during the 2010s, like Adam Robitel and Ti West, made films through Blumhouse, and might not have had that opportunity without the success of Paranormal Activity and Insidious. Or might have been unwilling to be associated with the name Blumhouse had their model been different.


In 2014, Blumhouse signed a first-look deal with Universal Studios to last for 10 years. That deal created more space for other companies with similar models. Companies like Ghost House Pictures (founded by Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert) and STX Entertainment (not specialising in horror but making them as part of a wider genre output). Some companies even began to have their subsidiaries use a similar model, such as Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose Screen Gems and Stage 6 Films labels acquired and produced low budget films. Many of these went straight to streaming or other home format, but plenty ended up released theatrically too.


Blumhouse’s success did not go unnoticed by either large or small film studios. Surprisingly, the larger ones did not try to either buy out or otherwise hinder their business. Perhaps with attentions focused wholly on replicating the Marvel Cinematic Universe format for their major pictures, there was thus less effort available in using predatory business tactics. The relationship was mutually beneficial. Perhaps the biggest competition to Blumhouse would ironically come from one of the filmmakers involved in making them a success and accomplishing at the same time what so many of the larger studios had failed to do.


The first film from James Wan following Insidious would be The Conjuring (2013), produced by New Line Cinema and distributed by Warner Bros. Similar in tone and direction to Insidious, albeit with a period setting, it reunited Wan with composer Joseph Bishara and actor Patrick Wilson, the latter of whom starred in both and would eventually direct his own Insidious sequel as Insidious: The Red Door (2023). With The Conjuring, Wan also managed to set up both a competitor to Blumhouse, and achieve the dream of every non-Disney major studio during the 2010s.

James Wan.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe began with Iron Man (2008) and the success of that film and its follow-ups in recreating the shared universe style of superhero comic books into film had every studio in Hollywood scrambling to create their own equivalent during the 2010s. Studios that already owned the rights to superhero comics, such as Warner Bros (DC Comics such as Batman and Superman), 20th Century Fox (Marvel’s X-Men), and Sony Pictures (Marvel’s Spider-Man) immediately looked to turn those properties into the image of their competitor. Some even looked at properties to develop beyond the comic book superhero source material.


One such was The Conjuring, which was made with the intent already of having a single spin-off. That spin-off was Annabelle (2014), which would also be the first film from Wan’s new production company: Atomic Monster. Unlike the Marvel model, which saved setting up the spin-off until the very end of a film or even after the end credits, instead the Annabelle doll was featured throughout The Conjuring. Though originally announced as straight-to-DVD, Annabelle found its way to theatrical release, much as each subsequent film in The Conjuring Universe would be.


Wan’s Atomic Robot produced all subsequent films, as well as unrelated pictures like Lights Out (2016), Mortal Kombat (2021), and Wan’s own Malignant (2021). The Conjuring Universe has become the highest grossing horror franchise to date, grossing more than $2 billion against a combined budget of little over $200 million. Along with Legendary’s MonsterVerse, it represents one of the few cinematic universes to be unequivocally and consistently successful outside of the MCU, without the need for frequent course corrections in response to poorly received titles.


Since the Universal Classic Monsters were first syndicated to US television in the 1950s, Universal Pictures had been making a lot of money through merchandising out the characters. They would even, on occasion, attempt to revive the long-dormant characters into film. There was Dracula (1979), which put a far more romantic spin on the Transylvanian vampire. There was an unsuccessful attempt to remake The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) in the 1980s with Nigel Kneale writing and John Landis directing. That same decade also saw Universal give the go-ahead to a remake of The Mummy (1932), in the hope of creating a low-budget horror franchise. George A Romero wrote a treatment and was attached to direct at one point. Both Clive Baker and Mick Garris turned in drafts during the 1990s, and both Joe Dante and Romero again were potential directors. Stephen Sommers would finally come up with the winning formula for The Mummy (1999), which leaned more into adventure than horror.


The Wolf Man (1941) was remade as The Wolfman (2010), purely as a star vehicle for Benicio Del Toro. Despite that coming after the release of Iron Man, it would not be until 2014 that rumours of Universal making a Cinematic Universe based around their Classic Monsters would surface. Tabloids reported that Dracula Untold (2014), an origin story for the character as portrayed in Bram Stoker’s book, was undergoing reshoots to tie it into a cinematic universe. These proved unfounded, though director Gary Shore did note that the film was an optional launching point for such an endeavour. Whether that was the original intent, or it was the tabloid speculation that launched the idea, Universal did try to start a cinematic universe with The Mummy (2017), another remake which retained the fantasy action-adventure tone of Sommers’ film but also featured Russell Crowe as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in a supporting role. The poor response to the film caused the planned second feature, a remake of Bride of Frankenstein (1935) starring Angelina Jolie, to be postponed indefinitely. Thankfully. Other planned casting were Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man and Javier Bardem as the Frankenstein monster. The cancellation instead allowed Universal to focus on standalone films like Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (2020) and Chris McKay’s Renfield (2023), but they would never have been made had anyone with a semblance of sense been involved in planning a cinematic universe for the Universal monsters during the 2010s.


The same year critics lambasted Universal’s latest version of The Mummy, and The Conjuring Universe released their latest prequel to their first prequel, which tied into another prequel and a potential spin-off, another film managed to become the highest grossing horror film of all time. That film was It (2017), the second adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name following the 1990 television miniseries.


Though it did not beget a cinematic universe of its own, it was made as a duology with It Chapter Two following in 2019. Instead, it led to a revival in interest in adapting the works of Stephen King. As with superhero comics, many major studios already held the rights to King’s works. Pet Sematary (2019), Doctor Sleep (2019), and Firestarter (2022) would follow with cinematic releases in the wake of It. Many more are in the works, with Gary Dauberman’s Salem’s Lot adaptation (from Atomic Monster) having been pushed back multiple times and switching back and forth between a theatrical release and straight-to-streaming.


It was not the only Stephen King adaptation to get a theatrical release in 2017. That same year saw Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower released to a negative reception and poor box office returns. Given that King’s source material consists of their own multiverse with crossover characters and shared settings, it is possible that had The Dark Tower, which ties together several of his works, had a successful adaptation, then a Stephen King Cinematic Universe might have been attempted. Instead, those attempts have been left to disparate television versions like Castle Rock on Hulu, which used the setting but could not use the characters or events of the works, whose rights are spread across Hollywood.


Hollywood A-picture horror films like The Conjuring and It were a relatively new phenomenon in the 2010s. Though horror films had enjoyed success and even large budgets before, it was always within the confines of their status as genre pictures, which usually translated as B-pictures. In the past, whenever a horror film became too much of an A-picture, it was far easier to class it as a thriller, such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991). There were always exceptions, like The Exorcist (1973), but the 2010s brought a new safety phrase for those who disliked horror but liked certain specific horror films.


The moniker is “elevated” horror. It is almost intentionally devoid of any real meaning. It is also elitist in the sense that it implies that other horror films are intrinsically inferior. The term entered into vogue in the mid 2010s following the release of films like The Babadook (2014) and The Witch (2015). These well-made films were of undeniable quality to critics and riddled with subtext, but they were still horror. Something had to be done, because horror films were to be dismissed, not praised.


Returning to the example of The Exorcist, it received 10 Academy Award nominations in 1974 following its release, but no-one questioned whether or not it was a horror film. That was self-evident, it could always be found under the horror genre, and it was praised without a need to dismiss the rest of the genre at the same time. There are many, many examples of “elevated” horror before the 2010s. There are even people that apply the label to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. How can a very strong contender to the title of first horror film be “elevated”? In comparison to what is it “elevated”?


Ever since the first “elevated” horrors in the 1920s, there have been examples that would fit that nebulous definition from directors that even the most pretentious of film fans love like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. There have also been horror films that run a deeper subtext and metaphors for social issues since at least the 1960s with the likes of The Night of the Living Dead (1968).

The Night of the Living Dead. The horror lies in the fashion sense.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Recency bias is another factor in why “elevated” horror has become an acceptable way to safely admit you like a horror film but maintain the impression of an objective critic. Horror is almost alone in this. Science fiction and fantasy have some semblance of respect; thrillers are broad enough to not need it. One supposes that “elevated” romantic comedy could have been a thing, but there are some routes even the most ambitiously pretentious of filmmakers will not go down.


One production company became as synonymous with “elevated” horror in the 2010s as Blumhouse became with horror in general. That company was A24, who originally did not specialise in any specific genre, but the successful Blumhouse model proved enticing. The aforementioned The Witch was the first of their new style of genre films. Horror could guarantee a return on investment in the mid-2010s in a way few other films could; “elevated” horror was a way to leech off this fact with some plausible deniability. It Comes at Night (2017) was an example from A24 that shows the disparity between how critics received “elevated” horror compared with audiences. The review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes shows that twice as many critics rated it “fresh” (good) as did general audiences, who rated it “rotten” (bad). A24 produced all the feature films thus far from director Ari Aster, whose trajectory has been increasingly moving away from horror whilst retaining plenty of aspects related to horror. These went from the outright supernatural horror Hereditary (2018) to the folk horror Midsommar (2019) to the tragicomic Beau Is Afraid (2023). On the other hand, some of the more recent efforts from A24 have been more mainstream horror, such as Ti West’s slasher films and Pearl (both 2022), and Halina Reijin’s comedy horror Bodies Bodies Bodies (also 2022).


A move toward a more mainstream product also netted A24 its biggest success with Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), which was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won seven. No-one has felt the need to call that film an “elevated” action comedy.


A24 might have become synonymous with “elevated” horror, but they are not alone. The independent film It Follows (2014) was another early example of the label being used. Jordan Peele’s films with Blumhouse such as Get Out and Us (2019) also earned the label. As did John Krasinki’s A Quiet Place (2018), produced through Platinum Dunes. If Michael Bay’s production company can churn out an “elevated” horror, then perhaps the term needs to be evaluated as to whether it has any merit. That all of the horror mentioned as being considered “elevated” span multiple subgenres, production companies with wildly different philosophies, independent and high-budget productions, and tones perhaps speaks to the term as having more resonance for critics than it does for the films themselves or for general audiences.


Could the term have existed before social media? When all one might need to engage in film criticism is an email address and either a blog or just an account on a website that hosts reviews or discussions? Would it have happened without the recent booms in “torture porn” and found footage horror films? On a similar note, will the concept survive in the long run? As the alleged distinctions between “elevated” horror and mainstream horror become more and more spurious, will there be any need for the term? Perhaps horror will always have its stigmatic connotations as a base genre of cheap scares. Perhaps in subsequent decades the notion of “elevated” horror will rightly attract derision as the elitist, pretentious comfort blanket that it is.


Not to say there have not been enjoyable films no doubt made with that term in mind, and the company most associated with them, A24, likely would not have gone down the route of making more mainstream horror films without having dipped its toe first into the arthouse style of them. The term remains one that means whatever the person using it wants it to mean, which is usually “a horror film I can’t dislike but I don’t like horror films because I have better taste; therefore, this must be better than other horror films.”


The history of horror in the 2010s can perhaps be said in broad strokes to be the history of three companies: Blumhouse, which specialised in horror; Atomic Monster and Warner Bros, who managed to crack the cinematic universe formula and generate the highest grossing horror film of all time, unadjusted for inflation; and A24, which succeeded in becoming a name synonymous with horror despite eschewing it. Horror’s status as its own genre, segregated largely from non-horror films, may have insulated it from the broader trends in Hollywood films during that decade.


As the last article in this series on horror history and the different directions it might have taken in an alternate history, this might be considered the end. It is not, because horror has continually evolved since the Shelleys and Lord Byron had their ghost story writing contest during the 1816 Year Without a Summer. So too have horror films in the century since the first horror films were released in Germany influenced by experiences in the First World War. History never ends; the future keeps creating more of it.


Of the three main companies mentioned, A24 seems to be branching out beyond their naturally-lit, muted palette indie pictures, but have not stopped making these either. Blumhouse and Atomic Monster, on the other hand, have been in discussions to merge since 2022. Might horror films in the 2020s become defined between the styles of A24 and the merged Blumhouse-Atomic Monster? Even if all companies were to declare bankruptcy tomorrow, the genre would continue. Like any good monster, horror fiction keeps coming back again and again.


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Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP.


There is also SLP’s own Horror anthology, Travellers in an Antique Land (edited Katherine Foy).

SFP has an anthology of ghost (and similar) stories, Ghost Written.




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