Within horror fandom, there seem to be two schools of thought: show the monster or leave it up to imagination. The basic horror formula, three acts that expose the monster/evil near the end of the third act, was the standard for decades. And as long as there’s a payoff, it still works today. It doesn’t matter if it’s prose or film, some storytellers hold off fully showing the threat as long as possible, ratcheting up the tension to a satisfying, and hopefully, horrifying crescendo. This trope is called The Reveal and can easily be found in every genre. A huge part of horror is building suspense, so it makes sense that you would wait until the end to show the face of the monster (And yes, it’s always a face, isn’t it? We recognize each other by our faces, so we recognize the monstrous and evil by its face.). How this reveal is presented will make or break the story. Fail to deliver on expectations results in disaster just as much as revealing too much. Leaving too much to the imagination can have a polarizing effect leaving some unsatisfied. There’s a sweet spot most creators are aiming for, and if they’ve set their traps accordingly and created the right amount of suspense and pacing, The Reveal will slip into nightmare territory that lingers long after the last page is turned.
Some of the best horror properties expose their monsters in the first act. A classic example is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which we meet the Count early on from the perspective of Jonathan Harker. No reader can experience the novel for the first time and not come to any other conclusion than that there’s something not right with Dracula. The rest of the novel is multiple perspectives describing subsequent encounters with the vampire, each escalating the tension, because we’ve been exposed to the threat, and we know that each character that interacts with Dracula is a potential victim. The Reveal ultimately pays off as the characters band together to defeat the evil, which is the story Stoker wanted to tell. In film, The Howling uses its awesome transformation scene in the second act to reveal the threat of werewolves. Nothing new here, as we see Lawrence Talbot transform late in the second act of Universal’s The Wolfman, which proves that you don’t need to wait until the end for The Reveal.
Some creators write their stories in such a way that our imagination does all the work. There are readers that confuse this with ‘quiet horror’, a kind of horror that relies more on atmosphere and tone than tickling our gag reflexes. The thing about this brand of horror is that just because we don’t get to see the spray of blood jetting from the fresh cut stump of a decapitated head doesn’t mean the horrors inside won’t scare the crap out of you. It’s a different kind of fear, often coming from something we can all relate to, that makes it work. But letting imagination fill in the blanks is certainly not the same thing as ‘quiet horror’. Some of the best writers working in the extreme and splatterpunk genres are masters of using just the right words and phrases to get their point across without spilling gallons of blood on the page. They’re not afraid to show the monster, or catch a close up of the evil, but they know they don’t need pages and pages of description either. It’s all about the characters, and the best writers know the more you care about the characters, the more tension you will experience when they face the evil.
The most common complaint about The Reveal happens when some people are let down because they never saw the monster, as though the whole thing hinges on that on that one scene nestled at the end of Act III where the heroes pull down the tarp over the window, and the sunlight blasts into the room, and we finally see the monster crouching down in the corner, exposed in all its glory. If the rest of the story isn’t up to par, then there’s not a reveal in the world that’s going to impress anyone. The disappointment has already set in. The Netflix adaptation of Josh Malerman’s Bird Box is a perfect example of the dichotomy of to show or not to show. We never actually see the creatures in the film, though we do (minor spoiler alert) see a character’s horrifying drawings of them. Early on it is suggested that everyone’s experience seeing the monsters is different, and most can’t survive seeing them anyway. There’s so much not known here it makes sense to never show the monster. One reason is nothing will live up to the hype that’s been created, and two, you will never satisfy everyone with the design. Compared to Netflix’s adaptation of Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, in which the creature is fully shown in the last act, though the stories are drastically different, we can see both schools of thought executed on the screen. Fortunately, the creature design in The Ritual goes beyond our wildest expectations, so chalk one up for Team Show-the-Monster with that film.
There’s a third reason not to show the monster, or at least limit what is revealed, and it’s probably the strongest of all. Horror tends to work better when there’s something left to the mystery of the story. We love mysterious things and situations. They’re conceptual puzzles that we can’t help thinking about. If mystery is what makes it work, then why not limit what we see and show just enough to heighten the effect? We never really see the xenomorph in Alien until the very end of the film when Ripley forces it outside the airlock. The previous partial sightings of the alien are quick and brutal closeups, heavy on character reaction. When we finally see the alien at the end, losing its grip on the shuttle and spinning away into space, the scariest imagery has already been planted in our minds. Perhaps the perfect example of this is Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, where character reaction and dialogue are used to describe the child. “What have you done to its eyes?” We never see the baby, though Levin gives us just enough reaction from Rosemary and the coven to conjure imagery in our heads and fill in the blanks.
At this point, you have to ask yourself, Do I really need to see what the child looks like?
To show the monster or not to show? The answer is complicated. When either way works, the effect is breathtaking. As horror fans, we relish the chance to get a glimpse of a nightmarish monster, even if that monster is us, unmasked, without special effects and gruesome makeup. But we also love the mysterious, the unknown, which is the king of all fears. When The Reveal comes early, the unknown becomes a record of who will survive. Readers and audiences of today know the basic formula and can practically time the plot beats by their watches. Break the mold, break those expectations, and they demand you to deliver the scares. Nonetheless, writers and filmmakers will continue to twist and turn traditional storytelling on its head to scare you, regardless if you get to the see the monster or not.
Sometimes, it’s what we don’t see, that thing we can just make a glimpse of hiding in the shadows, that scares us the most.