The fun & freaky science behind jump scares in games (plus our 9 favorite scares!)

The 9 best video game jump scares - young woman with long curly hair playing a video game while ghosts look on

Note: The content found on this website is intended for entertainment purposes and may have themes of a disturbing nature. Proceed at your own risk. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Spoiler Alert!

Be warned, there are significant spoilers ahead for several popular titles. If you’d rather experience these jump scares in games firsthand (recommended!), you should play them before reading any further. Venture ahead at your own discretion. Happy haunting!

Why jump scares in games are impossible to resist

Ever wonder why jump scares in games make your heart race? This article spills the secrets on what makes these spine-chilling moments so irresistible. Buckle up and discover the science behind the screams!

What is a jump scare in a video game? A quick explainer

Jump scares are a widely recognized technique employed in the horror genre to, well, terrify us. This technique mostly involves surprising us with an abrupt change in image or event — often along with a loud, startling sound to enhance the dramatic effect.

The aim is to catch us off-guard, delivering a quick, intense scare. Game designers strategically place jump scares to elicit a certain reaction from us.

This tactic has been a part of horror games since the early days of the genre, with classics like the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises leveraging shocking moments to keep players on edge.

A typical scenario might involve an enemy suddenly leaping out at the player from an unseen area — especially after a moment of quiet — exploiting the contrast between calm and terror to get some sudden scares out of an unsuspecting player.

The implementation of jump scares goes beyond merely startling us; it contributes to the game’s overall moody atmosphere, keeping us tense and apprehensive as we navigate through the game’s narrative. Over the years, the use of jump scares has seen a growing popularity among game developers and players alike. And why not? It’s an effective method to keep us on edge!

The uncertainty and anticipation of a possible jump scare at any turn can significantly heighten the game’s tension and our engagement. This burgeoning popularity showcases the technique’s ability to enhance the horror gaming experience, mastering the art of the unexpected to deliver a memorable and frightful gaming experience.

Jump scares in games

Player-dependent vs. player-independent jump scares in games

Video games often employ two types of jump scares: player-dependent and player-independent. Player-dependent scares occur based on the actions of the player, while player-independent scares happen irrespective of player input.

Attribute Player-Dependent Jump Scares Player-Independent Jump Scares
Trigger Mechanism Triggered by the actions of the player within the game. Occur irrespective of player input or actions.
Psychological Basis Based on operant conditioning where the player learns from the consequences of their actions. Rooted in classical conditioning, associating certain stimuli with others to evoke a reaction.
Gameplay Interaction Often tied to specific actions or decisions made by the player. Typically pre-programmed to occur at specific points in the game regardless of player behavior.
Predictability Can become predictable if the player identifies the actions that trigger the scares. Generally more unpredictable as they are not tied to player actions.
Control Over Occurrence Players may have some control over the occurrence of the scare by avoiding the triggering action. Players have no control over the occurrence as these scares are scripted to happen regardless.
Effect on Player Behavior May encourage cautious gameplay as players learn the actions that trigger scares. May keep players on edge due to the unpredictability of when the scare will occur.
Game Design Complexity Requires a more complex design to effectively tie the scare to player actions. Easier to design as they are pre-scripted, but requires careful timing to ensure effectiveness.
Effectiveness Effectiveness can wane if the triggering action becomes too predictable. Effectiveness is often maintained due to the lack of predictability and control over occurrence.

Creating an effective player-dependent jump scare in games, for instance, may involve luring players into a false sense of security through predictable game mechanics, only to shatter that security with a sudden, unexpected scare. This disrupts the operant conditioning process where players have learned to expect certain outcomes based on their actions. On the other hand, player-independent scares, rooted in classical conditioning, associate certain stimuli with others to evoke fear — and their effectiveness is heightened by their unpredictability​.

History of jump scares in games

The history of jump scares in video games is a thrilling ride that mirrors the broader evolution of the horror genre in this medium. The journey of jump scares can be traced back to the early days of horror gaming, where the fundamental objective was to evoke a quick scare from the player. Series like Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill are examples from this era, utilizing startling moments to keep players on edge, employing tactics such as an enemy suddenly appearing from an unseen area after a quiet moment to scare the player.

As time progressed, the early 2010s witnessed a resurgence in horror gaming with games like Five Nights at Freddy’s redefining the genre for the digital age. This era saw many games focusing heavily on jump scares, to an extent where the trope became overly used, leading to discussions about its place in horror games.

Over time, the intricacies of creating effective jump scares evolved, transitioning from merely startling players to crafting an atmosphere of dread and anticipation that climaxes in a jump scare. You see this shift in games like Five Nights at Freddy’s, which built up anticipation through a dark and foreboding atmosphere that culminated in animatronic jump scares. Other popular titles like Slender: The Eight Pages also understood the essence of a good jump scare, telegraphing it through a slow build of noise and static, thus not catching us entirely off guard​.

The genre has long since struck a balance between jump scares and psychological horror, as seen in games such as the Amnesia series, which explored psychological horror while still utilizing jump scares to enhance our fear.

The evolution of jump scares has also been impacted by technological advancements, which have allowed for more calculated and intricately woven jump scares in games that sync impeccably with gameplay mechanics and narratives, adding a new layer of terror to the gaming experience.

Our 9 favorite jump scares (once again: spoilers ahead!)

Bioshock Houdini Splicer scare:

In BioShock, the Houdini Splicers teleport, causing sudden appearances that startle players. The scare is emphasized during the first encounter, making it a memorable and frightening part of the game​.

Eternal Darkness bathtub:

In Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, the bathtub scene is a notable jump scare that catches players off guard. Players go to a bathtub and examine it, only for a terrifying scene to unfold where the character sees her dead body in a bath of blood. This scene, although brief, has become one of the most famous moments from the game, often remembered by players for its shocking and unexpected nature.

Outlast 2 school:

The school scenes in Outlast 2 are cited by some as the best parts of the game, especially due to the sinister atmosphere and the narrative surrounding a character named Jessica​​. ​​The atmosphere of the game is enhanced by the inability to fight back against threats, which forces players to run and hide, adding to the feeling of vulnerability and fear​.

Resident Evil zombie dog:

In the original Resident Evil game, a scene featuring zombie dogs jumping through windows stands as a classic jump scare. Players, unaware of what to expect, are caught off guard when a zombie dog bursts through the window, providing a sudden and terrifying moment. This jump scare occurs early in the game, before players even enter the mansion, during a sequence played out in a cutscene.

Until Dawn binoculars:

In Until Dawn, one of the jump scares involves a wendigo appearing while Michael is using a pair of bionoculars. This scene is among the various jump scares within the game that contribute to its horror atmosphere, catching players off guard and providing a startling experience.

Dead Space workbench:

Dead Space is known for its terrifying jump scares and body horror, which are particularly effective during a player’s first playthrough​.  The scare tactics are well-designed to catch players off guard, often when they least expect it, like when they are saving the game or upgrading their equipment at workbenches, contributing to the game’s tense atmosphere​.

Silent Hill 3 Borley Haunted Mansion body scene:

In Silent Hill 3, within the Borley Haunted Mansion segment, there is a part where players encounter a person in a rocking chair. As they approach a door near the character, a body suddenly falls, obstructing the path, forcing players to find an alternative route. This scare is set up to catch players off guard as they navigate through the haunted mansion setting.

Outlast Wheelchair Scene:

In Outlast, players come across numerous jump scares, and the game’s atmosphere is meticulously crafted to enhance the impact of these scares. Although this scene is somewhat predictable, it is executed in a way that evokes genuine fear from players, catching them off guard and generating a substantial reaction. The jump scares in Outlast, according to one of the game’s developers, Philippe Morin, are an essential ingredient in the horror recipe of the game, enhancing the overall terrifying experience.

At Dead of Night caught by Jimmy:

In At Dead of Night, players find themselves in a harrowing game of cat and mouse with the menacing hotel owner, Jimmy. The terror escalates when players are caught, an experience that’s enhanced by the game’s point-and-click horror mechanics. Various online compilations show players’ reactions, illustrating the potent mix of fear and excitement this game elicits​.

Jump scare game: Community reactions and creations

The gaming community has a lively and engaged reaction towards jump scares in video games, which often results in an abundance of shared experiences across various platforms, especially YouTube and social media. On platforms like YouTube, gamers and content creators often share their reactions to jump scares in horror games, creating compilations of the scariest or funniest moments. These compilations showcase a wide range of reactions, from shock and fear to laughter, capturing the communal experience of horror gaming​.

As jump scares in games have become more prevalent over the years, the community’s interaction with them has also evolved. Social media trends often emerge around popular horror games, where players share their reactions, discuss the most terrifying jump scares, and even rank them.

Additionally, our enthusiasm for jump scare games doesn’t stop at merely reacting to them. Some fans channel their appreciation for these adrenaline-pumping moments into developing fan-made horror games inspired by iconic jump scare moments from popular titles.

A notable example of a fan-made horror game inspired by iconic jump scare moments from popular titles is A Bite at Freddy’s, which can be found on These fan-made titles draw inspiration from popular horror games and aim to startle and unnerve players with their own unique twists on jump scare mechanics​.

This engagement underscores the significant role jump scares play in the gaming culture, fostering a shared experience of fear and excitement among players and fans alike.

The future of jump scares in gaming

Notable upcoming games such as the Silent Hill 2 remake are highly anticipated by the community, with expectations of innovative horror elements that might include evolved jump scare techniques.

Interestingly, some recent games like Growing My Grandpa! have explored horror sans jump scares, instead employing narrative and atmospheric tension to unsettle us. This demonstrates a potential trend where games might lean towards psychological horror while balancing it with well-crafted jump scares for a more enriched horror experience​.

As the genre continues to expand, it’s likely that the application and design of jump scares will adapt to suit varying horror narratives, whether leaning into psychological and survival horror, as well as maintaining that sudden adrenaline rush gamers have come to expect. The blend of psychological horror with jump scares, seen in popular series like Amnesia and Silent Hill, exemplifies an ongoing exploration of horror mechanics that could shape the future of jump scares in gaming.

The balance between jump scares in games and other horror elements

The essence of a well-rounded frightful experience in horror video games often lies in the careful balance between jump scares and other horror elements.

Jump scares serve as sudden jolts that break the chilling silence or monotonous tension, delivering a quick adrenaline rush. They’re excellent at eliciting instant reactions, but as mentioned earlier, too many jump scares can eventually desensitize us, thus diminishing the overall horror experience​.

Other horror elements — a chilling atmosphere, for example, or a slowly building tension — create a lingering dread. This slow burn horror, which you see in games like Alien: Isolation, and Outlast, relies on oppressive atmospheres and our vulnerabilities, creating a pretty harrowing experience that sticks with us long after we’ve turned off the game​. The tension builds as we navigate through dark, frightening environments, always on edge, anticipating the unknown horrors lurking around every corner​.

Creating a balance between these two horror elements can lead to a more enriched and memorable horror experience. The occasional jump scare can punctuate long stretches of tension, providing relief and a sense of accomplishment, while also keeping us on our toes.

Meanwhile, a compelling narrative, eerie sound design and an oppressive atmosphere ensure the lingering sense of uneasiness that keeps players immersed in the game. This balance can challenge our survival skills, engage us in terrifying scenarios and create a well-rounded, frightful experience that resonates with us on a deeper level​.

jump scares in games

Jump scares in video games are designed to keep you on the edge of your seat

Jump scare games masterfully blend fear and excitement, creating a cocktail of emotions that keeps us on the edge of their seats. The adrenaline rush from a well-executed jump scare can be thrilling — even addictive — as it taps into our primal instincts of fear and survival. These games challenge our comfort zones, transporting us into terrifying, unpredictable worlds where our senses are heightened, and every corner turned could unfold a heart-pounding scare.

The suspense of anticipating a jump scare, the atmosphere, the sudden burst of fright followed by a sigh of relief or a shaky laugh — it all contributes to a unique gaming experience that leaves a lasting imprint. Whether it’s the anguished sob of runners in The Last of Us or the animatronic horror that awaits in Five Nights at Freddy’s, each game offers a unique flavor of fear and excitement, awaiting your exploration.

Sadistically, we invite you to take the leap into the dark corners of these jump scare games, relive your favorite jump scare moments — and then tell us about your experiences in the comments below. 👻

DON’T MISS! Why “The Fall of the House of Usher” still haunts us nearly 200 years after it was first published

Share the scare!

If you’d like to share this post on Pinterest, please feel free to click save on the image below. And thank you for your support!

jump scare games fi (Pinterest Pin)

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

read at your own risk