The Lewton Bus – Jump Scare Technique

It’s Just a Cat!

I think I’ve said before, that I’m partial to a jump scare. I know, I know they can be lazy … but when done properly I think they’re a fun and effective part of the joy of being a horror fan.

One of my favourite (historical???) jump scares is from Cat People (1942) credited as popularising or inventing a technique called The Lewton Bus, named after the film’s producer Val Lewton. You’ll know the effect when I explain it.

Cat People tells the story of a young woman called Irena, who believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into were-Panthers when sexually aroused or angry. Which sound a bit weird, but let’s go with it.

The “Lewton Bus” term comes from the technique of slowly building tension, then startling the audience with something that turns out to be harmless. In Cat People, this is brilliantly achieved during a scene when Irena (aka Sexually frustrated were-Panther!) is following another character called Alice. The soundtrack is silent except for the sound of Alice’s footsteps as she gets increasingly anxious, eventually breaking into a run.

The tension is gradually ratcheted up, until just as the audience expects Irena to attack, the silence is shattered by what sounds like a hissing cat, but is actually the sound of a bus breaking as it pulls up beside her.

Obviously, these days this technique has been a little overused to say the least – particularly the “Cat Scare” or the “Spring Loaded Cat” form of this, where the scare is actually a startled cat rather than the threat you were expecting.

Even so, I think the original “Lewton Bus” with its slow build up and use of sound and shadows still holds up well. Even when you know what’s coming.

What do you think? What is your favourite classic (Ye Olde) jump scare?

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