How The Definitive Movie Scare Got Grossed Up Into A Tiresome Cliche

There’s a fantastic moment in Jacques Tourneur‘s horror classic Cat People that gave us a definition for Boo! scares. Here’s the whole scene that leads up to the specific moment, if you’ve never seen it.

And in case you still didn’t watch it, the basics: in this sequence, a character is walking alone through the quiet night, frightened that she’s being followed by someone – or something – unseen. The pace picks up as she becomes increasingly nervous…

…and then the tension is cut by the sudden appearance of a bus, driving in from the side of the screen, the high pitched sound of its hydraulics practically stabbing us.

This kind of sudden, sharp shock, normally accompanied by a loud noise on the soundtrack became known as “bussing” the audience, or the technique known as “the Lewton bus,” named for Val Lewton, the idolised horror maestro who produced Cat People.

More recently, there’s been a gorier variant on this same basic idea. It’s something so rooted in what Tourneur and Lewton did in Cat People I’m sure that it was created in reference to it.

If you don’t know what particular cliche I’m referring to, here’s a video of some examples. Over twelve minutes worth of examples, most of them incredibly similar in execution and purpose.

Effective and even funny the first time I saw it, this has now become almost groan inducing. The copyists have spoiled it for everyone. Even the original will feel as dried up as the derivatives now.

And do note how the technique often requires the bus to essentially not exist until it enters the frame – there’s often no noise of it approaching at all and, most often, nobody sees the vehicle coming. It reminds me of John Carpenter’s Halloween where, in many scenes, Michael Myers might as well not exist after he passes the edge of the frame.

Time for the next phase in the evolution of bussing, I think… If only I had some idea of how to push this on to the next step myself.

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