Atmosphere or the Jump Scare, Which Do You Pre-Fear?

First off, let me apologize for the whole prefer/fear thing. That was just abominable.1

I spent a portion of this past weekend visiting local haunted attractions. Let me pause here and define a couple of terms. “Local” in this case meant within an hour or so by freeway. “Haunted Attractions” are those businesses which crop up around Halloween whose main job is to frighten the attendees. I choose to use this term, or the colloquial “haunt” instead of “haunted house” so as to not confuse them with those real world sites which puport to be hotbeds of paranormal activity (ghosts, demonic possession, poltergeist activity, what have you).

In this case I am talking, as I so often do, about places where you pay money to enter a spooky place with creepy set decorations, frightening props, and actors whose job is to scare the bejeezus out of you.

I love these places. I’ve already gone to eleven so far this year and we are only a week and a half in to October.

I am not going to be reviewing the haunts here, but using them as examples of a distinction that I would like to discuss with regards to different types of scares. Obviously, I am interested in how fear works. I personally love being scared. I read, listen to, and watch a lot of horror fiction. I love Halloween. For crying out loud, I write horror fiction.

For the sake of this discussion I am going to put things into two broad and completely overlapping categories. Atmospheric fear, for the purpose of this post, will be kind of a general creep factor which one picks up from the environment. Think about the oft mentioned “dark and stormy night,” an isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere, a gothic castle, that creepy house where the sun never seems to shine, the edge of the forest.

While a lot of this relies on sight, all of the other senses come in to play as well. Film makers rely on audio clues like music to help establish a fear filled atmosphere. The classic example of this would be the famous music from
Jaws. It can be just as disturbing to endure a lack of expected sounds. Imagine walking though the forest and suddenly realizing that there is no background noise. The wind has stopped, there are no insects droning by, it’s quiet.

In real life, as portrayed in the movies, tactile experience can be good at ramping up the fear quotient. Rooms where the temperature is off (especially if it is suddenly too cold) generally mean something bad is happening. We seem predisposed to avoid things that are slimy or squishy, so much so that the sight of someone dealing with this type of tactile exposure on film can make us squirm in our seats.

Scent and taste, closely linked in our everyday experience, can also provide emotional clues. Usually these are associated with pleasant memories: freshly baked cookies, the cinnamon and apple scent of a homemade pie, freshly baked bread, pipe tobacco are all examples.
3 The opposite is also true. Scents like rotted meat, decay, and putrefaction induce physical reaction in most people4, so much so that there are companies which manufacture scents for haunted houses which mimic some of these scents to a greater or lesser degree.5

These are all elements which may be used by creative individuals, be they haunt owners, writers, or film makers
7 to induce a state of fear among the members of the audience. Usually this is done gradually. We are introduced to the spooky castle, we find out it is cold and full of hidden passageways, then the lights go out.8

Again, for the purposes of this argument, I would like to contrast this with the Jump Scare or what I always refer to as the Boo! This is when something unexpected and sudden happens. For example, a door slams, the lights go out, the killer jumps out of the closet and chases you with a chainsaw. We are all familiar with these from the movies, and their close cousins the tension release laugh. It works like this: one of the characters is stumbling around looking for something, the further the character goes, the creepier it gets, we know that something is going to happen soon and then


Either the big bad jumps out at them wielding a knife, chainsaw, trout, whatever or something innoculous happens like they run into one of their cohorts or a cat jumps out. This later is a common device which allows the film maker ramp up the tension and then release it only to begin ramping it up again to a higher level. The fake scare is like an emergency pressure valve. It lets off some of the built up pressure, but not enough for the levels to return to zero. The audience knows that there is still something out there so when the next scare happens, the tension has been pushed even higher.

This is a little more difficult to do as a writer, since the jump scare doesn’t translate as well on the page.

“Suddenly a cat jumped out!”

That doesn’t quite work, does it?

There are some people who prefer their scares to be only of the jump scare variety. I think that these are the people who like to face the fear but then leave it behind. While I appreciate a good jump scare, an experience which consists only of them isn’t as frightening to me. After a while, one becomes acclimated to the scares and they produce less of a response.

This is part of the problem that I have going through haunted attractions. I’ve done enough research into their creation that I know how a good one is set up. The perfect jump scare comes when you are not expecting it. The easy way to do this is to have something set up which draws the attention of the audience, a set piece or moving prop, so that they believe that this is the only scare. Then the actor or moving prop comes in from an unexpected angle (like from the side).

I am always impressed when someone gets me. This happened a number of times in the haunts I attended, which in my mind translates to “this shows how well they were designed.”

Just as I feel that nothing but jump scares wain after a bit, I am also not a fan of the strictly atmospheric piece. While one can be creeped out so long as one experiences it, once the audience is outside that area of influence, the creep factor diminishes to almost nothing. It is hard to take away a feeling of dread from a movie that only has a creepy castle and little else.10

Just like the forced dichotomies which we all read about in our psychology and social science classes, the real truth lies with the blending of the two. For me, a good frightening experience relies upon a downright creepy atmosphere combined with some good scares that make me feel personally threatened. Be it a novel, movie, or haunted attraction, it is the combination of these which make me feel all shivery long after the experience is over.

1 Down right scary too.

2 As mentioned before I attended these with other members of the
Motor City Haunt Club. My favorites so far have been The Boneyard, Erebus as always, and Realm of Darkness, especially the cool new 3D CarnEVIL portion. My favorite, however, was Exit 13 near Flint.

3 For a real example of this, visit the nearest Yankee Candle store. This company makes a living by selling people reassuring scents.

4 There are companies which manufacture the scent of a decaying corpse for use in training cadaver dogs. I would not want to be the Quality Assurance Inspector in a place like that.

5 For example,
10-31 Store carries a wide variety of scents in both spray format and as additives for fog machines. These range from the relatively pleasant like “Campfire” and “Buttered Popcorn” to the more menacing “Dirty Basement,” “Gun Powder,” “Dark Forest,” “Swamp,” and “Toasty Corpse.” I don’t even want to know what “Monkey Fart” smells like.6

6 I assume bananas.

7 Or, of course, reality.

8 A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to attend
Hauntcon, the convention for people who own haunted attractions. I listened to one person who owned a haunt in Texas who had created a variation on the traditional dark haunt or black-out haunt where the visitors go through a maze in complete darkness. They gave their visitors flashlights so the areas which were illuminated were limited to the length of the beam. Actors could stay just outside of the illuminated area until they were ready for the scare. The brilliant addition was that the flashlights were remote controlled! The people running the haunt could turn them off or dim the power at will. Naturally the group going through the haunt thought that the person holding the flashlight was screwing around, thus creating inter-group conflict as well. At the time they were looking at replacing the flashlights with lantern replicas to remove the directionality of the light as well.

9 If you like to be the one who gets scared in haunts, situate yourself in the middle of the group. Good actors know that the people who are really afraid don’t want to be first or last so they surround themselves with their friends. Many will allow the first few people in a group to go by and target the person in the middle.

10 I’ll probably take some shit for this one, but this is the way I feel about Shirley Jackson’s
The Haunting of Hill House. To me the book seems to be nothing but atmosphere; the characters are some place spooky but nothing really happens. For more on this, see last year’s double review A Tale Of Two Houses: Hell vs Hill.