The Problem with "Jump Porn"

Horror fans tend to be obsessive. Given the disturbing and frequently brutal nature of the horror genre, it makes sense that it doesn’t exactly call to moderate or casual audiences. If you like horror, you probably love it for its unpleasant atmospheres, for that feeling of tension you get in the theaters just before a jump scare and the bleak subject matter. If you don’t love it, chances are you avoid it like the plague. Fear, like alcohol, is an acquired taste, which can be repelling at first. Soon, however, the bite grows on you. You learn to like it to the point where you’re disappointed if it isn’t there.

If horror is a stiff drink, then I am an alcoholic. I consume it at every possible moment. I have ravenously devoured horror novels since I was too young to read them. At any given point, I have seen most, if not all, of the horror films available to me through my streaming services, and I make a pretty solid effort to hit the theaters when films are there. In my experience, American horror cinema has fallen into two basic categories, which I’ve come to call “thematic horror” and “jump porn.” Since my adolescence, I have noticed those categories become more extreme and distinctive. The problem, however, is that one style dominates the mainstream, while the other is left largely neglected by the masses.

Thematic Horror is intellectual. It is the horror that glimpses into the ugliness of the human condition in order to glean meaning. In some ways, thematic horror is ironic. Horror, by definition, is art that seeks to disturb its viewer. Thematic horror repels its viewers with an end to make them embrace an idea worth entertaining, essentially improving their character by way of self reflection. By looking at our ugliest selves, we face down a lot of what we refuse to acknowledge in any other way. In that sense, thematic horror is the most direct and honest art form out there. The Witch, for example, deconstructs the hubris of man in the face of nature. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist posits that evil and human nature, particularly as it applies to sexual relations, are one and the same. These films disturb their viewers with their subject matter, but ultimately leave their audiences in a place to learn from the experience.

Jump porn, on the other hand, is about the visceral, surface level reaction to scary situations. Each year, I teach a horror unit to my seventh graders. When asked to compile a list of words they associate with horror, they inevitably come out with the phrase “jump-scare.” My students, many of whom haven’t actually seen a horror film in their lives, know the term because our society is saturated with it. The jump scare is the central experience in jump porn, and for some it is the end-all-be-all of the genre. To find examples, look no further than the marquee. Most mainstream, lowest common denominator horror is jump porn. Put people in a spooky house with a ghost that pops out at them (and the audience). Give someone a camcorder and have them run around a zombie-infested apartment complex. The appeal is understandable enough. If the purpose of horror is to scare and disturb its audience, what is wrong with horror that fixates on generating a viscerally fearful response?

Before proceeding, let me say that I have definitely enjoyed my fair share of jump porn. They can be fun films to watch. The problem is that the style is unreflective. Like actual porn, story is sacrificed to put characters in situations geared toward the desired response, in this case, that adrenaline jolt. Often, there just isn’t that much of a story in the first place. Take The Woman in Black, for instance. The entire middle act of the film is just Harry Potter wandering around a house getting scared by things. Most of the found footage subgenre is virtually plotless from start to finish. The jump porn film’s narrative arc becomes stagnant and its message remains simplistic and trite if it exists at all.

Lack of narrative nuance aside, jump porn, if relied upon too heavily, can cave in on itself, ultimately creating unintentional comedy. Have you ever seen a movie that jumps you too many times? I have. First, you feel exhausted by the experience. Then, you become numb. The jump scares have less of an effect on you. Finally, it becomes laughable. The film turns into a game of peek-a-boo. Overall, I’m a fan of The Grudge and its Japanese predecessor Ju-On, but those films in particular are guilty of over-use of the jump scare, particularly in their final acts. Don’t even get me started on the sequels. The final scare in The Grudge 2 involves the ghost of Kayako Saeki emerging inside the protagonist’s jacket as she is wearing it. The moment isn’t scary. It feels bizarre, like the end of a very long and fruitless brainstorm on different ways to say “boo.”

Over-reliance on the jump scare ultimately cheapens what the story teller is trying to do with his or her film. It reduces the entire spectrum of feelings associated with the horror genre to one quick jolt of adrenaline. Horror films, in some cases, become multi-million dollar disposable experiences for fight-or-flight junkies, people who forget that there are more artful ways to induce dread in an audience. Take for example The Ring, or its Japanese counterpart Ringu. You can count the jumps in The Ring on one hand. The rest of the film uses atmosphere and suspense without a jumpy payoff to draw the viewer into its nightmare.

Of course, no film falls strictly into one category or another. Movies can be more or less jump porny or thematic in the way they induce terror. This is not to say, either, that the ideal horror film contains no jump scares whatsoever. Like all tools in a storyteller’s shed, there is a time and a place. But we as a viewership need to be critical of the films we shell out for. To allow the subtle filmmakers to fall into obscurity in favor of the stimulus-response high of jump porn would be to allow our beloved genre to be relegated to the vapid PG-13 no man’s land of films like 2005’s Boogeyman or the Paranormal Activity series. Horror is art, and art should be challenging. When we as viewers demand more than a fix from our horror (myself included), we elevate the art form, inspire conversation and allow horror to function the way it was meant to: as a mirror.

  • Jack

    I don’t really collect horror, but the horroressque I own includes: Zombieland, American Psycho, Se7en, Evil Dead 2, The Cell, Identity, and my favorite that I watch every Halloween, Sleepy Hollow … I guess I stead more toward thematic.