Surprise is an emotion we experience when an event sidesteps our expectations. A recent study showed that surprise is one of the four core emotions that we experience along with happiness, sadness, and anger.
So it makes sense that so many films are written and structured to keep us on our toes. After all, films and TV shows are essentially designed to make us feel something.
Here are some films that have scenes that activate our startle reflex, a spine tingling experience that occurs when surprise–pleasant or unpleasant–occurs.
SPOILERS for those who haven’t seen these films.
No, I am your father!
In 1980, prior to the internet, there was no place for nerds to spoil and vent their surprise that the evil Darth Vader was actually Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) father. This scene, from the Empire Strikes Back, was so shocking that it is constantly (mis)quoted popular culture.
Why was it so shocking? Star Wars follows the typical hero’s journey archetype. This involves the hero overcoming adversity to ultimately slay the villain, his polar opposite. Until this point, we’d assumed Darth Vader was just a really evil guy. The reveal turned everything on its head.
Welcome to the real world
The Matrix is a modern update to the hero’s journey. Instead of a simple farm boy going on an adventure, it was the modern equivalent: a run of the mill office worker, who goes by the cyber name, Neo (Keanu Reeves).
The pivotal ‘startle moment’ comes when Neo discovers he doesn’t actually live in the real world. Instead, like all human beings, he’s been trapped in virtual reality whilst machines use him as a glorified battery.
This reveal startles us because it draws us into something more epic and immense, playing on unconscious fears about freewill and conforming to society.
Who is Keyser Soze?
It’s the twist that not only shocks but also makes the entire preceding film, The Usual Suspects, redundant. During a police interrogation, a unassuming, disabled criminal, Verbal (Kevin Spacey), walks a police detective through the various intricacies that led to a major heist.
Through the telling of the story, we learn the true mastermind is a character called Keyser Soze. When Verbal finishes telling his tale, he limps away but slowly begins to regain his mobility.
The audience and the detective start to piece together the real truth. Examining a notice board, the detective notices that Verbal has been using photos and other pieces of information as material to formulate his elaborate story.
Turns out Verbal is Keyer Soze and the whole story is one big lie. Cue goosebumps and confusion. End credits.
Don’t ever tell me what I can’t do!
There were enough mysteries in Lost for 10 TV shows. The best and most memorable occurred in the first season with fan favourite, John Locke (Terry O’Quinn).
Of all the survivors of a doomed flight, Locke was most prepared. He arrived with a set of hunting knives, caught wild boars, and generally showed up to save the day time and time again. He was made for survival.
In a flashback, we learn he wasn’t some adventurer or hero. He worked in a box factory, and spent his evenings talking to strange women on a phone chat line.
However, the biggest twist occurs at the end of the episode when it’s revealed he’s also paralyzed from the waist down crying out ‘don’t ever tell me what I can’t do’ when he’s rejected from participating in an Australian adventure called a ‘walkabout’.
Suddenly, our interest in the character becomes less about who he is but why he can suddenly walk when he arrives on the island. It’s make the title of the episode ‘Walkabout’ especially clever and knowing.
A double, no triple agent?
Alias was a hit and miss series that never really tops the twist reveal in the first episode. Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is an undercover agent working for a secret black ops section of the CIA. Or so she thinks.
When her fiance learns about her double life, the the black ops section executes him as per their protocols. But the biggest surprise comes when Sydney discovers she isn’t working for the CIA at all but an evil organisation who are their enemy.
Turns out she’s been working for the bad guys the whole time…I hate it when that happens.
Bait and switch with a couple of hundred barrels of gasoline
In The Dark Knight, the Joker (Heath Ledger) regularly shows up to mix and blow things up. In the biggest twist in the film, he makes Batman choose between saving Gotham’s white knight, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and Batman’s love interest, Rachel Dawes.
Confronted with this decision, he doesn’t hesitate. Batman charges off to save the damsel in distress while the police try to get to Dent. Turns out the Joker intentionally gives Batman switched locations and Batman ends up finding Dent whilst Rachel blows to pieces.
How often does the love interest buy it in the second act?
What’s in the box?
Se7en is a bleak police procedural involving the hunt of a serial killer who is punishing his victims for their sins. The entire film has horrible endings for characters deemed sinful (e.g. a man eating himself to death) but it’s the shocking ending that is most memorable.
Having punished people for 5/7 sins, only two remain: envy and wrath. The killer (Kevin Spacey) tells one of the detectives, David Mills (Brad Pitt), that he cut off the head of Mill’s wife out of envy.
The head shows up in a delivery van and Mills is faced with a dilemma. If he kills Spacey’s character, the killer has won. Mills has become wrath. He deliberates in incredible grief and only turns the gun on the killer and shoots when he learns his wife was pregnant.
Meanwhile, audiences all over the world walked out in shock and horror, realising they too had been punished by this grim and unrelenting film.
Hannibal Lecter escapes
Hannibal Lecter is remembered for being a charming yet diabolically clever and evil villain. Trapped behind bullet proof glass and locked away in the basement of an insane asylum, there looks like no hope for his escape.
The Silence of the Lambs, based on the book of the same name, distracts us from the real story–Lecter’s escape–by showing Lecter working with FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to find another terrifying serial killer.
However, when Lecter is moved from his cell, as part of helping the FBI, he quickly disposes of the ignorant security guards, mauling the face of one of them with his small, white teeth.
A SWAT team assembles and tracks Lecter down. He appears to be hiding on the roof of an elevator. But it turns out he’s actually wearing the face of one of the security guards and has already been whisked away to safety.
When Lecter pulls back the dead man’s face, the entire audience recoils in terror!