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by Robert Baird

Lewton particularly enjoyed devising moments in his films which would cause audiences to gasp in terror. His name for these moments of sudden shock was “busses.” The term derives from the Central Park sequence of Cat People.

--JOEL E. SIEGEL, Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror (1973)

My wife is often startled when the phone rings. The phone doesn’t bother me or the kids, but all of us have, at one time or another, found ourselves alone in a room only to turn and be startled by someone hovering behind us. More typically, I recently saw a horror film with a friend. He was startled so frequently and forcefully that I worried he would pull a muscle. Millions have been startled while watching threatening film scenes. We can pinpoint the frames in Cat People where one of film’s first startles—a public bus of all things—bursts into frame; we can study the exact moment in Jaws when Hooper, while scuba diving, is startled by a corpse popping through a shattered boat hull; we can inspect the infamous startle in Wait Until Dark when Alan Arkin’s psychotic killer (supposedly incapacitated) leaps, Olympian-like, after Audrey Hepburn’s blind housewife. Since the early 40s, films have refined and increasingly used the startle effect. For instance, 1941’s Cat People deploys two startle effects, while Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake offers 8, a typical example of the hypersensationalization of the post-Psycho horror and thriller film.

The origin of the startle effect is recognized as 1941, in the famous bus scene from Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s B-movie surprise success, Cat People, where Alice (Jane Randolph), being followed by something from screen left, is surprised by a bus barreling in from screen right. Dennis Fischer offers a typical analysis of Cat People’s startle effect: "This type of scene with a slow buildup and sudden release became known as a ‘bus,’ and was a component in many horror films thereafter. The idea was to get the audience to expect something and then catch them totally off guard from another direction."1 According to Edmund G. Bansak, Lewton apparently got feedback from his first bus effect in Cat People: "When Lewton attended a sneak preview audience for the film, he sat in the back and witnessed an entire audience jumping in unison at the appropriate time."2 After that sensational success, Lewton included and modified startle effects in all nine of his horror films, regardless of who was in the director’s chair: Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, Robert Wise.

View an animated GIF of the bus scene in Cat People. (35 frames, 289KB)

Maligned as mindless and a hallmark of B-movies and exploitation fare, the film-based startle effect can be found in all manner of horror and thriller films: from blockbusters like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), Jurassic Park (1994), and Independence Day (1996), to contemporary thrillers like Jennifer 8 (1992), The Client (1994) and Blink (1994). The effect can also work on the television screen, in made-for-television films such as Salem’s Lot (1979), and in series such as The Night Stalker (ABC 1974-75), Tales From the Crypt (HBO 1980-), and The X-Files (Fox 1993-). The critical contempt and scholarly neglect of startle has hidden something potentially profound. A bus arrives in Cat People and viewers are startled; a bus arrives in The Graduate and viewers smile.

Strangely, while viewers can experience surprise while watching everything from melodramas to documentaries, startle occurs much more frequently, if not solely, in horror and thriller films--specifically, startle occurs while viewers are following what I call threat scenes. These are scenes where viewers follow a character under threat by an offscreen menace. Any number of Hollywood genres present sudden sound modulations and rapid visual movements as dramatic and sensational as the horror/thriller threat scene: exploding F-16s, Uzi shoot-outs, backdraft explosions, and choreographed ballets of bullets and bombings. But startles in these contexts are far less common.

We are left to conclude that it is the threat scene and its ability to establish a dreadful space, a fearful anticipation of the unknown, which somehow primes the startle mechanism. It has long been known that there are two ways to trigger a startle response: "one, through surprise, or a sudden, unexpected stimulus; the other, by mere intensity or amount of stimulus." Yet, film-based startles are not solely dependent on sudden shifts in light or sound, or else music videos would trigger dozens. Unlike the knee-jerk, the sneeze, or the flinch, startle reflexes are modified by emotional and cognitive states.

Recent Experimental Findings in Startle

The last ten years has seen a resurgence of experimental work with the human startle response. Many studies now support the finding that "the vigor of the startle reflex varies systematically with an organism’s emotional state . . . [specifically] . . . the startle response (an aversive reflex) is enhanced during a fear state and is diminished in a pleasant emotional context."3 Researchers have come to this conclusion after showing subjects slides previously classified as pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant,

pictures of violent death, snakes, bloody wounds or burns, disasters, aimed guns, medical injection, and angry, destitute, or starving people; neutral slides were generally common household objects, such as a hairdryer, a book, and shoes; positively valent pictures included opposite-sex nudes, romantic couples, babies, cuddly animals, sports scenes, and appetizing food. ("EASR," p. 382)4

Subjects are startled with sound and light bursts while viewing images from each of the three categories. Amazingly, the startle is not only strongest to negative images, but also weakest to positive images, with neutral images falling between negative and positive, a correlation that is "independent of measures of orienting, arousal, and interest in the materials."5

Two researchers in Amsterdam have reproduced these findings with one-minute video clips of fearful, sexual, and neutral imagery:

The fearful fragments were climaxes from horror movies, showing fright and flight behavior, bloody bodily mutilations, sharp weapons, or frightening facial expressions. Sexual scenes were derived from pornographic films specifically designed to appeal to women (Candida Royalle, Femme Productions, New York) and showed explicit sexual acts, including sexual intercourse. Neutral scenes were selections from travelogues and documentaries and depicted objects and outdoor scenes with little activity.6

For both men and women, "magnitude of startle responses was significantly larger during fearful film fragments than during either sexual or neutral fragments" ("MASR," p. 567).

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