I’ll go to my grave defending good jump scares from all that oppose them. While I’m in my grave, I’ll leap out and scare anyone who comes to celebrate the death of anyone who would defend one of the most wrongfully reviled tropes in horror.
Notice that I said good jumpscares. While horror is filled with things suddenly going “boo” that only scare you because they trigger an almost unavoidable natural reaction, the best jump scares are so much more than that. They’re the payoff of the perfect set-up, the perfect atmosphere, and the perfect timing. While there will always be those who would rather look down on all jump scares rather than simply enjoy the fun of being “got” by them, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t jump scares that are a cut above the rest.
Indeed, some of the absolute best jump scares in all of horror can be found in video games. One good jump scare is all it takes for even the bravest souls to swear off horror games for the rest of their lives. Actually, I’m willing to be that one of these jump scares is the reason why some of you may not trust video games to this day.
15. BioShock – The Dentist
Early into your BioShock adventure, you find yourself in an old dentist’s office that is giving off some serious serial killer vibes. You find the item you’re looking for at a dead end, but as soon as you grab it, the room fills with smoke. You turn around only to find yourself face-to-face with a crazed dentist looking to kill you.
This is one of those great jump scares that plays with perspective and expectations. Despite the unsettling atmosphere of the room, the monotonous process of securing yet another item lulls you into a false sense of security. You feel foolish for not expecting something to happen in such a creepy place, but so many other creepy places came and went without such a moment. This is the kind of jump scare that changes the way you play the rest of the game.
14. Subnautica – Your First Reaper Leviathan Encounter
Subnautica is basically a horror game disguised as an underwater exploration title. While there’s a vague air of menace about the entire thing, nothing can really prepare you for the moment when you first meet the Reaper Leviathan: a giant eel that looks closer to an alien god than an underwater creature.
Your first encounter against the Reaper will almost certainly be unexpected. You’re minding your own business when a strange sound alerts you that something is nearby. Whatever you were expecting to see when you heard that noise, it certainly wasn’t this thing that looked like it crawled into your world from a Dead Space game. It’s almost impossible to overcome the panic that fills you when you see this thing coming toward you.
13. Dead Space – The Elevator
These days, most gamers know a little something about Dead Space and its legendary Necromorph enemies. Try to remember, though, that there was a time when you knew nothing about the Necromorphs. The first time you ever see one is when it bursts through the door of an elevator you suddenly find yourself stuck in. Just as you’re wondering what you’re going to do about this…thing, the elevator doors slam shut and leave a piece of the creature’s blade-like arm behind.
The violence of this moment is what makes it so stunning. The image of the creature itself, combined with the terrifying sound design of its reveal, will destroy whatever composure you may have had. Even better, this incredible scare actually subtly shows you how you’re supposed to deal with Necromorphs when you encounter them again. Good luck treating this scene as a “teaching moment,” though.
12. The Evil Within – The Autopsy
There comes a point in The Evil Within when you’re forced to cut a corpse open with a combat knife in order to retrieve an item lodged in its sternum. It’s a disgusting moment that you dread to participate in, but you do it anyway. You summon the courage to slice the corpse open, and you reach deep into the body. Just as you find the key hidden inside, the body comes to life and unleashes a blood-curdling scream right in your face.
The beauty of this moment comes from the way it forces you to believe that the worst thing about this scene is going to be having to cut that body open. You think it’s going to be a simple gross-out moment, but nothing prepares you for what this scene really is. That kind of misdirect shows you just how effective a jump scare can be.
11. Eternal Darkness – The Bathtub
Eternal Darkness is filled with incredible moments that force you to question your sanity. While many of those moments are tied to the game’s sanity mechanic, one of the game’s greatest jump scares manages to frighten you in a more organic way that really teaches you to never let your guard down.
The scare in question happens when you find an empty bathtub in a lonely room. As you get closer to the tub, the camera zooms in on it to reveal your character lying in a pool of blood. The moment is brief, and the camera cut is so jarring that you’re forced to question what just happened. The suddenness of the moment scares you, but it’s the idea that a jarring jump like that could happen again at any time that really leaves you shaking.
10. Silent Hill 3 – Borely Haunted Mansion
While many of the best scares in the Silent Hill franchise are more psychological than anything, only those who misremember those games say they didn’t occasionally rely on jump scares. In fact, the entire Borely Haunted Mansion sequence in Silent Hill 3 is basically one big jump scare. While that trip through an amusement park attraction is filled with great “gotcha” moments, the best scare of them all happens right at the end of the ride.
As you’re running through the seemingly safe hallway that will finally lead you out of the mansion, you suddenly find yourself being pursued by a mysterious red light that emits a horrifying sound. It will undoubtedly make you jump, but what makes this moment live in infamy beyond that “jump” moment is the way you’re forced to run away from the mysterious light against some camera angles that make you feel as if you’re trapped in a maze. Few jump-scares leave you feeling quite so helpless.
9. Outlast – The Hanging Man
Outlast is practically “Jump Scare: The Game,” but one of this truly terrifying title’s best scares happens right at the start. As you’re still learning the game’s ropes, you open a seemingly simple door only to be greeted by a mutilated body swinging from a rope. It’s entirely unexpected and immediately forces you to question what you just got yourself into. It’s certainly not the last time you’ll ask that question in this game.
There may be scarier moments in Outlast, but this is the moment that lets you know that you’re not prepared for just how scary Outlast really is. It’s a perfectly placed and perfectly paced scare that may even get you the second time around because it’s hidden and executed so beautifully.
8. Five Nights At Freddy’s – The First Night
Five Nights at Freddy’s throws you right into the role of a security guard at a pizza place filled with animatronics. While the game offers you some guidance regarding the specifics of your assignment, the whole thing really is a trial-and-error process. Unfortunately, the errors you will almost certainly make during your first night on the job result in you suddenly coming face to face with a suddenly alive animatronic.
This series catches a lot of flak for leading to the sudden influx of jump scare indie games, and I understand why. If you hate those kinds of games, you will hate this one as well. Yet, FNAF really deserves all the credit in the world for being a revolutionary masterclass in the art of the jump scare. Nearly every jumpscare in this game lands, but there’s nothing quite like that first big fright.
7. Fatal Frame – The Broken Neck Woman
The Fatal Frame series is one of those horror franchises that are almost too scary to enjoy. Fatal Frame games ask you to walk around especially haunted areas armed with nothing more than a camera. “Defeating” the various apparitions that appear requires you to stare them down through your lens and take photos of them. It’s not an ideal setup.
However, the one Fatal Frame moment that seems to freak more players out than any other is the first appearance of the “broken neck woman.” This terrifying ghost appears right in front of you during what initially seems to be one of the game’s relatively quiet moments. Her horrifying design (and what that design implies about the nature of her cruel death) turns this otherwise quick scare into an emotionally scarring moment.
6. Until Dawn – The “Ghost”
There are too many great jump scares in Until Dawn to count. That game just finds so many ways to convince you to let your guard down before it punishes you for ever daring to think there wasn’t something right behind every corner. While there are many Until Dawn jump scares that could have easily made this list, I’m willing to bet the encounter with “the ghost” scared more Until Dawn players than any other moment.
This jump scare occurs when you’re walking through a basement. You see a figure running in the distance, but you can’t quite make out what it is. You eventually open a nearby door in such a way that leads you to believe that the jump scare will happen at that moment. Instead, this ghost appears right in front of you just as you walk through the door. It turns out the “ghost” is part of a prank, but there’s nothing funny about how the sudden appearance of the figure will cause you to throw your controller across the room.
5. Resident Evil – The Dog and the Window
Fairly early into your Resident Evil adventure, you’ll find yourself walking down a simple hallway. About halfway down that hallway, the game’s fixed camera will shift to an angle slightly behind you. At that moment, a zombie dog leaps through a window in the foreground and quickly descends upon the player character (who likely has their back turned at that moment). You have time to scream or react, but not both.
I don’t believe this is the first jump scare in video game history, but I can tell you that it’s the first great one. This scare perfectly plays the often jarring camera perspectives featured in the original Resident Evil games, and it earns bonus points for leaving your character in a relatively helpless position as it’s playing out. Resident Evil showed a lot of people how scary games could be, and this moment is a big part of that legendary title’s legacy.
4. Arkham Knight – Man Bat’s Appearance
Sometimes, the scariest jump scares are found in non-horror games that give you little reason to put your guard up. Oftentimes, the scariest jump scares betray the sanctity of an action or mechanic that you’ve performed countless times before. Well, Arkham Knight’s incredible jump scare combines both of those attributes in one unforgettable moment.
Early into Arkham Knight, you’ll find yourself grappling toward a nearby building as you’ve done a hundred times before in the previous games. This time, though, a giant, grotesque beast known as Man-Bat jumps out at you from the ledge as soon as you reach it. Though this moment is actually triggered by a specific event in the story, first-time players have no way of knowing that anything like this is about to happen. There are actually a few good jump scars in the Arkham games, but this is the one that may very well leave you too scared to ever grapple toward another building again.
3. Prey – The Looking Glass Calibration Test
Prey is another one of those games that are practically built on and around jump scares. This immersive RPG’s main “gimmick” involves everyday objects transforming into monsters. You’re going to jump a lot in this game, and you’re going to learn to be suspicious of everything. That’s what makes the game’s most effective jump scare one of the best jump scares in gaming history.
That legendary scare occurs when you find a “looking glass” window and an audio log of two engineers discussing the calibration test the glass was designed for. Your curiosity gets the best of you, so you decide to participate in the test: a relatively simple series of movements and inputs that feel ripped from an FPS tutorial. However, interacting with one of those inputs causes an alien to appear right behind the glass. It turns out the alien isn’t even real (it seems someone was playing a trick on their fellow engineer), but that hardly matters. Besides, the noise causes an all-too-real monster to suddenly sneak up behind you.
2. F.E.A.R. – Alma and the Ladder
Despite the name, F.E.A.R. is actually about equal parts intense first-person shooter and horror game. If anything, it leans a little more toward the FPS side of the spectrum most of the time. Of course, that’s what makes the scares in this game as effective as they are. You’re never quite sure when you expect them. That’s especially true of the game’s most iconic scare: the ladder.
On the surface, there isn’t much to this scare. Just as you’re climbing down a ladder, Alma (a paranormal presence that takes the form of a little girl) pops right into frame in the space where you were standing just moments before. While this scare is still effective to this day, it’s difficult to describe how terrifying it was when F.E.A.R. was first released. While we now know how scary first-person horror games can be, this was really a lot of people’s first taste of how terrifying it can be to be limited to a player character’s perspective. It was a literally game-changing moment.
1. P.T. – Look Behind You
Like a few of the other games on this list, P.T. is filled with incredible jump-scare moments. Many of those moments involve the entity known as Lisa. While just about every Lisa appearance (and a few other moments) could have easily made this list, I think P.T.’s greatest jump scare is the one that makes you ask “Why did I just do that?”
Just as you’re trying to figure out what, exactly, P.T. is and how you escape its infinite hallway of nightmares, you run across a radio broadcasting a mysterious message. It’s clear that part of the message is meant to be some kind of helpful code, so when the message tells you to “Look Behind You,” you’ll probably think that’s the next step of the puzzle. Instead, turning around will put you face-to-face with a very unhappy Lisa.
It’s a scare you should see coming. However, the puzzle-box nature of P.T. means that the game encourages you (in its own way) to make the most out of the few clues available to you. The fact that the game would so cruelly betray your curiosity makes you realize how unforgiving this experience is going to be. Ultimately, though, it’s the incredible design of Lisa that makes this moment as effective as it is. It’s the kind of jump scare that makes you realize not all scares should be labeled as “cheap.” There’s nothing cheap about the art of this moment.