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Monster Delay

"They're taking a very restrained approach to this, so much like Jaws did — Steven Spielberg didn't always show the beast, [yet] the essence is present and it's there and it's moving and you know and it's creepy and it's — so the tension will mount for sure."

When the Big Bad is a monster — especially a large monster — it is imperative to avoid showing us the monster for as long as possible.

It is OK to show small portions of the monster (tails, claws, etc.) earlier; the filmmaker should be toward revealing such a monster as an exotic dancer is toward removing her clothing. But the full reveal of the monster should take a long time — at least several episodes on television; at least twenty or thirty minutes in film.

The larger and badder the monster, the longer it will take for them to become visible.

This law emerges from the cost of special effects and the desire to keep the audience in suspense until the "good stuff" appears. It has become a standard feature of monster movies.

Conforming to this law often involves extensive use of reaction shots, shadow shots, or shots of the monster that are obscured by smoke, waves, darkness, blood, etc.

Of course, actually showing the monster usually heralds the decline of its earlier invincibility.

Examples:

Comics
  • Galactus. In Fantastic Four #48, Galactus, who is probably the largest and most omnipotent bad guy in the Marvel pantheon (at that time), does not appear until the very last panel.
  • Pluto: The title character is only glimpsed at until his appearance 7/8ths of the way through.

Fanfiction
  • Daemon in the Fan fic Tamers Forever, lampshaded by the author.
    Episode five and Daemon hasn't arrived to Shinjuku… *sigh* Oh well, I just hope I actually get him in there before chapter eight, and I expect to finish this story in twenty chapters in the worst case scenario.

Film
  • Alien, with the added bonus of including only three jump scares in the entire film... and only one of them has anything to do with the eponymous xenomorph.
  • The 1998 American Godzilla may well provide the quintessential example. A monster the size of a skyscraper manages to travel halfway around the world while being stalked by the US military, attacks Manhattan, and yet still does not fully appear on screen for forty-five minutes.
  • Cloverfield. Very closely related to the Godzilla example, you don't get to see the entire thing until nearly half the movie has gone by. Not only is its appearance rather hard to explain without seeing the movie, it's quite ugly too. For both films, the entire strategy behind their marketing campaigns was to avoid showing the monsters so that audiences would go see the movies to find out what they looked like for themselves.
  • Jaws. Further justified in that Spielberg didn't like the model of the shark used in the film, so he ensured as little of it was shown on camera as possible. Besides, great whites are ambush predators that prepetually lurk below the ocean surface anyway, and thus have no reason to just go around revealing themselves.
  • King Kong. Justified in that the main characters have to travel for a long time in order to see the monster.
  • Predator: Only the view of the soldiers from the predator's eye-view, then a view of the cloaked predator, then close-ups of him patching up his wound, a full-body view, and finally the unmasking.
  • Averted by Rawhead Rex; it was Clive Barker's intent to make the monster as visible as possible early in the film.
  • In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the monster is visible (as Robert Patrick in police blues) from the beginning, but its superpowers (and stunning visual effects) are trickled in as per Monster Delay. The powers are hinted at with first encounter, their lethality is realized with the death of the foster parents, and they're fully exploited to the limits in the double-finale.
  • Independence Day: While the giant spacecraft are not exactly monsters, they're definitely treated in the same way. The ships are shrouded in mysterious stormy clouds until they actually reach the destinations cities and emerge in their full terrifying majesty.
  • The title character in 1957's Night of the Demon
  • It may be easy to forget with how ubiquitous they've become since the film's release, but living Velociraptors don't appear on screen until about halfway through Jurassic Park.
  • The new Godzilla movie used this with its monsters, especially the title character. Godzilla didn't fully appear until about halfway through the movie, and he didn't have more than a few seconds of screentime in one shot until the last third.

Literature
  • Exaggerated in Stephen King's It, which first introduces Pennywise the Monster Clown as It's avatar, then later reveals It's physical form to be more akin to a giant spider. That is only a partial manifestation of It's interdimensional form, which is even more terrifying to the characters. Just perceiving It risks making you lose your mind.

Live-Action TV
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Mayor's ascension takes an entire season arc.
  • Firefly. The reavers are constantly referred to, but hardly ever appear on screen. Until the movie, the only 'reaver' that appears is someone who was driven insane by them.
  • The smoke monster on LOST was not seen in full until the middle of season 2, and his nature wasn't fully understood until season 6.
  • Just about every Doctor Who story that has a monster, right up to the present day. Often, the actual reveal of the monster was rather a let-down.
  • In the episode "Folsom Prison Blues" (S02, Ep19) of Supernatural, you only see portions of the ghost, a gray blur, tangled hair, or a pair of eyes, until the ghost attacks Dean and its true form is revealed.

Video Games
  • Amnesia: The Dark Descent runs on this trope; the first glimpse of a monster is a silhouette hobbling through the fog. It doesn't reappear in that area, but the suspense alone stops you from finding out. Even if you try to get a decent look at the monster later on, the game forces you to stop to keep it as scary as possible. The mere grotesqueness of it causes you character to lose sanity just by looking at it, increasing the likelihood of being found and killed unless you look away.
  • In Final Fantasy X, you see bits and pieces of Sin, but not the entire thing until its third appearance. Interestingly, its earlier glimpses make it look much more like an Eldritch Abomination than its full body, which is something like a blind whale with extra designs on it.
  • Cold Fear milks this trope for all it's worth in the beginning. You know there's zombies; they're on the cover. The first Jump Scare? It's a wave. The second? The panicked crew of the whaler shooting at you because they think you're a zombie. The third one, the chain dragging toward you? Literally a chain dragging on the ground. It leads you on for so long with fake scares that the eventual real one actually scares you good.
  • Metroid: Fusion: That One Boss, Nightmare is first rendered as a shadow running rampant throughout one of the subsections. Mission Control tells Samus to ignore it and fix the crises in the other subsections. Finally it turns out Nightmare's rampage threatens the entire station, prompting Mission Control to give its creepy backstory and dispatch Samus to destroy it. Its lair seems to be in some kind of junkyard/robot graveyard.

Web Comics
  • The Order of the Stick has the literal, and so named, Monster in the Darkness. Even the monster himself does not know what he is.

Western Animation
  • Parodied in an episode of Doug. Doug watches a horror movie called The Abnormal, about an evil alien shape-shifter whose true form is always just off-screen. Doug can't bring himself to watch The Reveal near the end of the movie, and ends up having reoccurring nightmares about it. He finally works up the nerve to watch the film one last time... and discovers the monster is just a guy in a cheap suit with an obvious zipper on the back.
  • In the Ed, Edd n Eddy episode "The Day the Ed Stood Still", Ed's friends dress him up like a monster, and Ed proceeds to get a little too into character and go on a rampage. Ed's monster costume isn't seen in full until about two-thirds of the way into the cartoon.

Moff’s LawLaws and FormulasThe Morality/Mortality Equation
Amnesia: The Dark DescentImageSource/Video GamesAnarchy Reigns

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