Some of the scariest moments in cinema lack fake blood or monster makeup. In the hands of the right director, understated frights can be just as effective—like a flashlight beam scanning a dingy basement, a shadowy figure flitting across the frame, or a tortured scream originating off-camera. If your heart rate peaks in the moments before a horror movie’s main bad guy appears, you’ve experienced the monster delay trope.
Hiding the monster for most (or sometimes all) of a horror movie’s runtime is an old trick of the genre. By filming around the object of the protagonist’s terror, filmmakers force us to fill in the gaps—and what our imagination conjures up is often scarier than what we see on screen. Delaying the villain’s debut also builds suspense, which is why so many memorable jump scares come at least an hour into a movie.
To see which scary movies employ the trope best, check out the list below. It’s impossible to explore this subject without detailing a movie’s twists, jump scares, and endings, so spoilers abound. If you haven’t seen all the movies listed, read the article at your own risk (or at least peek at it through your fingers).
1. The Witch From The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Blair Witch Project proves that the scariest monsters live in our imaginations. Made with unknown actors on a shoestring budget, the indie movie doesn’t feature fancy camerawork or special effects. The horror instead comes from what isn’t shown. Who made those creepy stick figures? Who was laughing in the woods at night? And most importantly, who was shaking the tent? These questions aren’t answered directly, and the mystery keeps viewers on edge until the final shot. The mythology of the Blair Witch is discussed in the beginning of the film, but she never appears on screen, perhaps making her the most famous (and terrifying) movie monster we never see.
2. The Shark From Jaws (1975)
Steven Spielberg set a new standard for monster movies with the release of Jaws in 1975. His choice to keep the full shark off-screen for the first half of the movie—instead filming attack scenes from the fish’s perspective, or showing fins splashing through bloodied waters at a distance—were innovative for the time.
It’s hard to imagine the film made another way, but hiding the monster wasn’t the original intention. The mechanical sharks used on set were notoriously temperamental, pushing the movie over budget and over schedule. If the animatronics were malfunctioning on the day a shark scene was scheduled, Spielberg had to get creative.
Though it originated as a practical solution to technical issues, the director’s decision to delay the monster’s reveal became an iconic filmmaking technique that’s been copied countless times.
3. The Cave Crawlers From The Descent (2005)
Around the 56-minute mark, The Descent unleashes one of the most effective jump scares in horror movie history. It features subterranean creatures that had previously been shown in blurry snippets. Though the first hour of the movie is light on the monsters, it’s just as horrifying as the climax. Dedicating two-thirds of the runtime to the characters’ claustrophobic descent into—and unsuccessful escape from—a cave in the Appalachian Mountains ensures that tensions are high by the time the cave crawlers finally do appear.
4. The Creatures From Bird Box (2018)
Bird Box is set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by creatures that drive anyone who looks at them to take their own life. Beyond that, not much is revealed about the movie’s monsters—not even what they look like. Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and her children must wear blindfolds before venturing outside to survive, and by keeping the creatures out of sight, director Susanne Bier puts the viewers in the characters’ shoes. The only hint we get at their appearance comes when a character who’s capable of looking at them draws what he has seen. Keeping with the mysterious nature of the movie, every sketch is different.
5. The Aliens From Signs (2002)
M. Night Shyamalan rarely gives us a clear view of the aliens in Signs. He instead shows a flash of an unearthly limb disappearing into the cornstalks, or a shadowy figure on the roof. That’s part of what makes the creatures’ eventual reveal so shocking.
Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) is watching TV alone when the news plays footage shot at a children’s birthday party. After several seconds of kids shouting and pointing through a window, an alien strides fully into the frame. The delayed reveal combined with the surprise of seeing the creature for the first time in a news clip adds up to a scare that still gives people nightmares years later.
6. The Cat People From Cat People (1942)
Decades before Jaws hit theaters, Cat People (1942) frightened audiences with the “less is more” technique. Irena (Simone Simon) is a Serbian-born fashion illustrator descended from a line of devil-worshipping “cat people.“ She reveals that she has the power to transform into a panther early in the film, but viewers never see such a transformation take place. Instead, director Jacques Tourneur shows us chilling clues like mutilated livestock and paw prints turning into shoe prints. Even when a panther does appear on screen out of nowhere, it’s origins aren’t always clear—causing the characters and the audience to second-guess Irena’s claims.
7. The Demon From The Exorcist (1973)
Regan (Linda Blair) gets plenty of screen time in The Exorcist, but the true face of the entity possessing her is a rare sight. It’s implied that the force behind her transformation is Pazuzu, a demon king from Assyrian and Babylonian mythology.
Pazuzu’s appearances in the movie are so quick that most viewers miss them. A single frame of a ghastly white face flashes on screen twice: once during Regan’s exorcism at 43 minutes and 13 seconds and again during a dream sequence 45 minutes and one second into the film. Director William Friedkin intended for the image to be subliminal, meaning that viewers are unnerved by it—even if they aren’t conscious of what they saw.
8. The Xenomorph From Alien (1979)
There’s a good reason for the monster delay in Alien; The Xenomorph needs to go through its entire life cycle before it’s ready to wreak havoc. Even when you include the Facehugger’s dramatic entrance, the movie’s main alien has just four minutes of screen time. Director Ridley Scott believed that showing the creature sparingly would heighten the scenes when it does appear. The Xenomorph’s status as monster movie royalty today proves that he was right.
9. The Ghosts From The Fog (1980)
The threat in John Carpenter’s The Fog isn’t the actual fog—it’s the ghosts hiding in the mist that the residents of Antonio Bay, California, need to watch out for. The audience rarely gets a clear look at these ghoulish sailors. When they are shown, they appear as silhouettes with only their red eyes piercing through the gloom. More often we see flashes of their weapons or ghostly limbs. In the scene where several ghosts attack the church, every arm actually belongs to Tommy Lee Wallace—the movie’s editor and production designer and Carpenter’s childhood friend.
10. The “UFO” From Nope (2022)
The elusiveness of Jean Jacket in Nope plays a major roll in the plot. Emerald and OJ are determined to capture photographic evidence of the strange UFO that hangs around their ranch—usually in the form of an unmoving cloud. After teasing the audience with obscured views of the object for most of the movie's runtime, director Jordan Peele treats us to a visually stunning climax in which the flying saucer (or at least what we thought was was a saucer) is on full display.
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