You See a Sight That Almost Stops Your Heart*

Horror filmmakers often use a ‘jump scare’ strategy to ratchet up the tension in the film. ‘Jump scares’ can take any one of a number of forms: banging doors; figures popping out from behind trees; and faces suddenly appearing in mirrors are just a few examples.

It’s harder to create that effect in a crime novel, since there’s no visual imagery. And if it’s not done well, a scare like that can be melodramatic and can take away from the story. But when it’s done well, a sudden scare can add suspense and atmosphere to a story.

For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, who’ve retired from domestic service. Money’s tight, and they find that they have to open their home to lodgers. The problem is that Ellen in particular is very fussy about who should live in their home. So their room goes unlet for some time. Then one day, a man calling himself Mr. Sleuth arrives and asks about a room. He talks and acts ‘like a gentleman,’ and it’s clear he can afford to pay. So the Buntings agree to let him rent their room. At first, he’s quiet and polite, if quite eccentric. But slowly, Ellen begins to wonder whether he might be more than he seems. She suspects he may be a mysterious killer the police have dubbed the Avenger. Gradually, she becomes convinced, and her husband starts to share her concerns. One night, he’s walking home when all of a sudden, he sees Mr. Sleuth come up in the darkness. It’s a very effective ‘jump scare’ moment, and it adds to the tension.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner. She was the wife of noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, and had joined him and his dig team at an excavation a few hours from Baghdad. It’s very unlikely that she was killed by an outsider, since anyone coming into the house where the team stays would be noticed. So Poirot looks among the people living there to find the killer. One of those people is Nurse Amy Leatheran, who was hired to help Mrs. Leidner cope with nervous anxiety. Nurse Leatheran isn’t at all a fanciful person, but one day, she goes to Mrs. Leidner’s bedroom to try to imagine who might have killed her. She lies down on the bed and goes over the case step by step…and then the door creaks open. It frightens her badly, and it makes for a suspenseful scene.

In Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, a group of people gathers at a New England home called Cabrioun. It was the home of Grimaud Désanat, but now belongs to his widow, Irene. She is a medium, and has decided to use her powers to conduct a séance, during which she wants to contact her dead husband. That’s not as far-fetched as it seems, since more than one person at this séance believes in spiritualism. There are a few ‘jump scare’ moments during the séance, and everyone is on edge. Then, Irene is found dead. Now, the question becomes, who killed her and why? There are several possibilities, but the one thing everyone knows is this: someone staying in the house is responsible. That, too, adds to the tension.

As Mark Rogers’ Koreatown Blues begins, we meet Wes Norgaard, manager of a Los Angeles car wash company. One evening, he’s visiting one of his regular haunts, a Korean bar called Saja. Various patrons are taking turns at karaoke when a man named Dae-Hyun enters the bar. He’s barely inside when a shot is fired from outside, killing him instantly. Everyone’s shocked, including Norgaard. At first, he doesn’t think he’ll have to be much involved, except for answering a few police questions. But that’s not what happens. As it turns out, Dae-Hyun’s murder is related to a very old feud between two family groups, and whether he wants to or not, Norgaard ends up getting drawn into it. The scare at the beginning adds some real suspense to the novel. It also serves to ‘hook’ the reader.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse is the first of his Lewis trilogy. At the beginning of the novel, a teenage couple slip into an abandoned boathouse for some privacy. They both get a ‘jump scare’ when they find the body of Angel Macritchie, who’s lived all his life on the Isle of Lewis. Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is working a case that has a lot of similarities to Macritchie’s murder. So he is seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help in the investigation. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the island. But he had his reasons for leaving, and was in no hurry to go back. Now that he has returned, he’ll end up facing some of his own ghosts from the past as he works with the local police to find the killer.

There are, of course, a lot of other crime novels that feature ‘jump scare’ moments. When they’re done effectively, they build tension, they keep a story going, and they keep the reader engaged. What do you think? What’s your take on this strategy? If you’re a writer, do you use it?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.


10 thoughts on “You See a Sight That Almost Stops Your Heart*

  1. I agree that it is harder to create a scary, threatening event in a novel, but I don’t like that kind of tension in my reading anyway so it is more comfortable for me that way.

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    1. You’re not alone, Tracy. There are plenty of readers who don’t want those sudden scares in their stories (or films, for that matter). As you say, it is hard to build up that sort of tension, anyway, in a novel.

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  2. One of the scariest description for me was this from Death in Kashmir:

    “And the night was so quiet that Sarah could hear, like a whisper in an empty room, the far, faint mutter of thunder from behind the distant mountains of the Nanga Parbat range on the opposite side of the valley. But she had not taken more than two steps towards the hut when she heard another sound; one that was to remain with her and haunt her dreams for many a long night to come. The creak of a door hinge…

    Sarah checked, staring. Frozen into immobility by the sight of the door that she had so recently closed. Someone must have eased it open while she talked with Janet in the snow, and was now closing it again – slowly and with extreme care – and presently she heard the faint click as the latch slowly returned softly to its place. ”

    Very commonplace – a door closing softly -but the eeriness this passage conveys is absolutely spellbinding.

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    1. Oh, Neeru, that is scary! That description is so well done, and I can just imagine Sarah’s emotions. It’s just the sort of ‘jump scare’ moment I had in mind with this post, so thanks for sharing it. And I appreciate the reminder of Death in Kashmir, too. I ought to read that.

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  3. I hadn’t heard that term before, but I do love when a writer pulls it off – as you say, it’s not as easy with the written word as it is in films. Funnily enough, I was reading a book this week that has a great “jump scare” in it – I’ll reserve the title since otherwise it’d be a bit of a spoiler. At one point as the detectives and suspects are gathered together in the home of the deceased, who should suddenly walk in… but the deceased!! Haha, it worked brilliantly – I jumped as high as the characters and then laughed at myself, which was clearly what the author was aiming for. 😀

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    1. Ha! I’ve done that, too, FictionFan! When an author includes a really good ‘jump scare,’ it’s very hard to resist leaping up out of your seat. And I can well imagine that having a supposedly dead person walk into a room would be enough to everyone jumping up. It sounds like a great example of exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with this post. And I’ll bet the author would be no end pleased to know that you were that caught up in the story.

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  4. I like your examples. No books immediately come to mind but Sharon and I were sitting in a Kansas City movie theatre watching The Bourne Identity when Matt Damon came crashing through the window. I do not even remember jumping up but I was standing. Just watched a clip on YouTube and still flinched. It was an amazing “jump scare”. I did like the earlier Bourne movies. I was glad they were only loosely based on the books. I doubt Hollywood could have portrayed the subtleties of the books written by Ludlum.

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    1. There are just some scenes like that, Bill, that make people react, and I can imagine how Matt Damon crashing through a window would have that effect. You make a good point, too, about the similarities (or not) between the Bourne films and the books. Very rarely does Hollywood do an effective job of portraying those kinds of nuances and subtleties…

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  5. I agree with the differences between book and films. I’m an absolute coward when it comes to films with frights. I’m on edge before I settle into my seat. My family think it’s hilarious. Books are much less likely to induce that level of discomfort for me. And thanks for the reminder of Rogers’ Koreatown Blues. I’ve had it on the pile far too long!

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    1. Koreatown Blues is a good ‘un, I think, Col. When you get to it, I really hope you’ll like it. I’m with you, too, on ‘jump scares’ in film as opposed to books. I don’t like those visual frights, either, but somehow, I don’t mind them when I read about them. Not sure why, but there it is.

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