The Jump-Scare Microcosm

Often, I get the urge to go back and edit my old posts. Usually, there’s a typo that’s bothering me, but sometimes it’s just the post itself that needs to be changed. You grow a lot over the course of a couple years, but you always start somewhere. Thankfully, I’m not regurgitating all of Yahtzee’s analogies anymore, but that doesn’t diminish the urge to go back and change the posts where I did.

But, that’s where I was at the time I wrote the post. This is a blog, so its integrity relies on its temporality, which is a ridiculous way of saying that I’d feel weird about editing old posts. So, I’ve just got to do better next time. I wrote a pretty glowing review of Titanfall, but I haven’t really played it since. And I hated Dark Souls, but I’ve got a Letsplay of it now, and I love it.

I’m going to learn from those experiences and do a Letsplay series on Clockwork Empires as it develops. For the people listening to my opinion, I feel compelled to back up my words. Also, it’s fun.

But we’re not here to talk about FUN, are we? We’re here to talk about FEAR. Well, horror, actually, of which fear is a principle component. It doesn’t matter what medium you’re working in, the important experience is the end-user experience. And when you’re talking horror, that means that you have to take things like lighting, stress-levels, pop-culture and interface into account.

But, that also means that you’re working with a complicated apparatus. Inducing the experience of fear is like playing a complicated emotional symphony. You know how those laughs that follow tense moments are always extra poignant? Part of the reason for that is that laughter is an emotional stress valve. The process of building emotional tension is also the process of building physical tension (stress). Striking at a point in the arc creates a related reaction.

This is one of the mechanisms that makes the jump-scare work. Whether it pays off for a viewer usually depends on their individual reaction; whether it will work on anyone usually depends on the designer.

But tension is not enough, even something as brief as a jump-scare requires a lot of thought to put together and relies on a lot of things going right. Even if it all goes off properly, it’s still being fed through self-aware systems of such sublime complexity and variation that no two will remember it in exactly the same way. That being said, they’re also creatures of such immense sophistication that they could still describe it in exactly the same way if they were asked to. That’s us.

I’m talking about the jump-scare because it’s like a horror-movie microcosm. It relies on most of the same elements: physiological reactions, context and timing. So, if we break down its elements, we can see part of the system we’re working with. Because, despite the fact that each person is different, the reactions they have are in relation to their steady-state, so you can still scare most people a little bit.

For instance, sounds can build physical stress. Let’s paint a standard late-night scene in a deserted park. Our character is walking beside a row of hedges as the wind whips up a little, shaking the leaves. Now, if we were watching a movie, you could start building a deep, subtle sound in the background that would arouse the attention of your audience and begin building some physiological stress.

You can start using restrictive camera angles to let your audience’s visual system know that it’s not getting enough data by using the auditory one, because there are sounds in the background that they’re hearing: strange, out-of-sight sounds. Cut the angle out to a wide-angle of our character walking beside the hedge, edging slightly away from it but clearly feeling foolish about it.

At this point, your audience knows from the music that something’s wrong. This is where people begin yelling at the character to get away from the hedge! It’s dangerous! I think that’s a stress-release valve that opens because the danger is apparent but unknown. This is where you need to be subtle, because your audience wants to get stressed out. However, if the character’s acting foolishly, then they might opt out of buying-in entirely.

We’ve all watched scenes that we thought might have been frightening but were completely ruined because the character didn’t act in a logical manner, right? We are, after all, relying on our audience to project into the mind of our character. If our character acts in a manner that they don’t understand, then our audience can’t really connect with them in any meaningful way. At that point, our character is no longer embodying our audience, so neither will they.

So, back to the scene… Our audience knows that there’s something up, because the music has aroused their attention. They’ve understood that the character feels creeped out by walking alone, at night, beside a hedge, but that the character feels silly about it. The background noises have combined with the camera angles to give the audience the impression that they’re missing some information. But, the wide-angle has communicated that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong. Everything is benign, but it feels dangerous.

Now, what of context? We just painted a random park somewhere. Are we watching a slasher-flick? If so, then we know what’s probably waiting in the hedge. Or, at least, the worst thing that could be waiting in the hedge as far we know. That’s kinda meh, honestly. What if an unknown creature escaped from the Lab somewhere and our character doesn’t know about it?

Well, now we have another element of mystery. Not only do we not know if something’s wrong here, but we don’t even know what it could be. That’s not AS helpful as it could be, but it does do some work for us. What if we knew it smashed a cage? Then, it’s strong. How about if it melted its way through a wall? That’s pretty visceral. What could it do to our character?

Still, that might be a little too descriptive. What if we just know that it escaped, but it shredded the corpses of the guards on the way out? The more details we restrict, the more each detail increases in importance in the mind of the audience. However, we still need to give their imaginations enough to work with.

Let’s go back to slashers for a second. If he’s skinned two people so far, then we can imagine that he’ll probably skin his next victim. That’s a gruesome thought, but it only engages the imagination so far. If, on the other hand, he has only removed certain body-parts from each victim at random, then our audience might imagine what would be next.

However, we can encourage them to imagine that by introducing a pattern into the dismemberment. Buffalo Bill, for instance, was building a body-suit. If the reader was given enough details to be encouraged to imagine which ones he’d be after next, then we have further engaged their imagination, and, thus, deepened their immersion. Human curiosity and imagination are essential tools for creating horror.

So, that’s context. For variety’s sake, let’s just say that a creature escaped from a lab. It burned its way out of its cell, then it shredded the skin from each guard, absorbing their blood through the tears in their flesh. (If we want to get really specific later, then we’ll say that a guard who died from severe acid burns wasn’t drained, suggesting that their heart-beat aids the process) That’s pretty graphic.

Now, we have a colorful potential fate for our character. We’ve told the audience that something’s up, but we didn’t overdo it. Then, let’s say their cell-phone rings. If we did it suddenly, then it might act as a mini-jump-scare, relieving some physiological tension. That can be good if we plan to build it up again or catch our audience off-guard. However, if we wanted to build towards a single big scare, then it would build slowly.

Does it build up alongside a rustling in the bushes? Does our character notice something shuffling in the leaves, ignoring their phone to pay attention to the new thing in the shadows? Does our character answer the phone and end up getting stalked by a camera? Does our character not believe their friend? The next few seconds are crucial, and they’ll define the entire tone of the jump-scare.

For our single instance, let’s say that our character pulls their phone out of their pocket, the volume increasing slightly to show why it was initially muffled. Then, they look at the call-return, still walking as they go, putting the phone up to their ear, the camera cuts to a typical walking-talking-head angle, at which point something pounces from off-camera. Our sound-cue here is essential. The scene cuts to the other end of the phone, where we receive more of the plot and a small bit of information about what’s happening to the character we just left.

We want to catch the audience off-guard, but we don’t want to contrive camera-angles or plot-devices that will let them know when we’re planning on catching them off-guard. That defeats the purpose of contriving them, unless they’re a meta-contrivance, and that’s a whole other ball of wax: horror movies for people who love horror movies. (<3)

At the same time, we want to ensure that the angles and mechanics that create the jump-scare are still present. We still want to restrict their vision and menace them with sounds, but we don’t want them to feel like those things exist solely to accomplish the task of creating a jump-scare. That line of thinking runs through everything I understand about creating horror.

You want to create horrifying situations, but you don’t want your audience to have to think about the fact that you’re doing it. You’re not just creating a situation that’s horrifying for the character: you’re using your character’s situation to horrify your audience. It’s their physiology that you need to worry about. It’s their tension that is ultimately played-upon. It’s thrilling to experience when it all works out, because it was created to be experienced.

Games have a huge leg-up when creating horror because they engage the audience directly. However, the job becomes that much more complicated as you add elements, like volition. Creating truly great horror in a game universe means understanding and manipulating someone’s decisions in the same way that jump-scares use physiological tension: they must contribute to the horror in their own way.

Each decision should be part of a string of events that bring you to a horrifying moment. It doesn’t matter if the decision is to walk forward or to choose between two doors or to apply the lotion from one vaguely-labelled bottle instead of the other. The decisions should be themed around creating the experience of horror. They should engage the imagination.

You should have to think about what moving forward might bring. You should be worried about what’s behind each door. The consequences of the choosing a lotion should be frightening. Of course, you’re not always going to be able to do that with every game, so it’s just something to think about while you tackle the realities of putting together any piece of media.

Horror is a difficult thing to produce, and its personal effects are so variable that it’s difficult or impossible to create any piece of media that will engage everyone in the same way. But, that’s the beauty of horror. Strike out into the dark and try something new. Good luck navigating the shadow; I’ll see you on the other side.

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