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.