How to do a Jump Scare

Quick but true thing I’ve noticed in visual media: The best way to give audiences a jolt while making it feel totally earned is to build up to a moment so that it’s pretty clear something is coming, and then matter-of-factly introduce a thoroughly disturbing site. Everyone will think the grotesque imagery was the reason for the build-up; they’ll relax while simultaneously dealing with the onscreen horrors. That’s when you hit them with a horrific bit of kinetic fury that’s tied directly into whatever was just revealed. As an example, here’s a clip from David Fincher’s phenomenal Se7en:

That’s just a perfectly set-up scene that’s more or less guaranteed to startle the hell out of anyone watching, and best of all it manages to do so intelligently. Here’s one more brilliant use of the method from season 2 of Breaking Bad:

I sort of feel like I’ve stumbled onto this little exploit for how our brains react to things we’re shown. Fun stuff, yeah?

A Bit of the Old Ultraviolence

Like any self-respecting hotblooded American male, I have a certain affinity for make believe violence. It’s something I think about a lot actually, and it’s been very much on my mind this week after seeing Kill List (my review here), the first piece of media since the season finale of Breaking Bad that managed to make me go “oh fuck” when something bloody happened. Not to go into detail on either one here, but I think it’s worth noting that one was shocking for how over-the-top, creatively impossible it was while the other was terrifyingly mundane.

I genuinely loved both of these moments because they really got to me, and that no longer happens very often. I am, I’m forced to admit, thoroughly desensitized when it comes to depictions of violent acts. Not entirely sure how I feel about this, either. I’m glad I’m not one of those people (that sounds derogatory) who covers their eyes at the intense parts, but I can’t help get the sense that I shouldn’t be so deeply satisfied when a person in a story is hurt or killed in a particularly well done or inventive way.

I watched Sushi Girl a little while ago, for instance (weird little movie; more thoughts on it when it gets some kind of release), and a good percentage of the film is dedicated to torturing a particular character. Through a beating, a chopstick to the knee, and some tooth removal I didn’t so much as flinch. “Come on now,” I was thinking, “make me feel it.” It was only during a sequence involving a bottle and a sock that I nodded in approval at something that seemed sufficiently unique.

I hope I just want a little originality, a little artistry to my violence. Sure people are getting killed, but what is it actually saying? How is it being used to get to me? I’m aware it’s more than a little detached, but isn’t that the fault of the piece itself? If I actually care about the characters, then I probably wouldn’t be evaluating their pain for creativity points. That necessitates that I think of them as human, which isn’t easy to do.

I’m now reminded of A Song of Ice and Fire, and I’m feeling much better about myself when I recall my sincere disgust at some of the horrors inflicted upon the denizens of that shitty world, and that was only in print. The key is really damn good writing that creates a sense of the brutality at what’s going on. But seeing some of those same acts depicted in Game of Thrones and I can’t deny at least some instinctual thrill when bad things happen. It’s engrained in the culture, I suppose, and my grandmother of all people is more accepting of the thrill of onscreen viscera than I am (she thought Inglourious Basterds was far too tame). Maybe I’m just too self-aware for my own good, and I should lie back and enjoy the show. But it’s a good safeguard, at least, to watch out that my media doesn’t contain violence for absolutely no other purpose than violence itself. Torture porn, specifically, doesn’t seem to serve a purpose beyond illustrating sadism and leaving it at that. There’s an extreme we can try to avoid.

But yes, I enjoy violence in my media. I’m pretty sure that wanting it done well doesn’t make me a bad person, and I think any concern on my part that it might bodes very well. And I’m not seeking a change either. Just a better understanding of why Kick-Ass, District 9, God of War, and the like would be so much less satisfying if they weren’t so very bloody. Let’s hope the answer doesn’t doom our species.