A woman walks down a street at night. The scene is silent but for her footsteps. Suddenly there’s a hiss and scream like a wild cat… but it’s only a bus. This is Cat People, the first sound film to use a jump scare.
If you’ve watched a horror movie in the last forty years you’re probably very familiar with jump scares: silence and tension followed by a loud noise and usually a surprising sight.
We’re hard-wired to respond to such tricks. The startle response triggers when we’re surprised by a sudden threat, and our brainstems kick in to protect us. We hunch (to hide our necks), we blink (to hide our eyes), and we get an urge to run (to save our hides!). This is present in humans and many animals too. If you’ve ever seen a video of a cat spotting a surprise cucumber you know what I’m talking about here.
The first significant use of a jump scare in a sound film goes back all the way to 1942, to the horror Cat People. It’s about a woman, Irena, who may or may not be able to transform into a panther when she feels angry or aroused, and her new husband, who can make her feel both.
The husband, of course, gets emotionally involved with another non-cursed woman, and Irena finds out about it. In a pivotal scene, the other woman is walking home at night on a dark deserted street. Irena follows. The only sounds are their footsteps… then Irena’s footsteps are gone and it’s only the other woman. The silence and tension build and build, and then we hear a sudden screech like a panther attacking. Everyone watching jumps!
But it turns out that the sound was just the brakes of a bus. The woman is safe, gets on the bus, and the scene ends. You can watch the whole thing below. Cat People is an iconic horror for many reasons (the noir cinematography is gorgeous to look at, for one thing), but that technique is a standout for me. Not only is it a jump scare, but it’s also a fake-out: there’s no danger, it’s just a bus. In fact, the fake-out jump scare is sometimes known as a Lewton Bus – named after this very scene.
By the way, I also find it extremely funny that one of the first fake-out jump scares was in a movie named Cat People, and yet there are no cats involved. Because cats have been involved in so many jump scares since then.