A friend recently asked me how long I'd wait in a horror movie for it to get scary before I'd give up on it. I didn't have a set amount of time before I'd walk out, though I believe he said he'd walk after twenty minutes, maybe thirty, if it wasn't getting to the point.
So how long is too long? I've never paid too much attention to the exact number of minutes before I get tired of waiting for something scary to happen in a horror film. Or for there to at least be tension. But I do notice if it takes too long to build up, and I get restless. I'm not quick to shut off or walk out of a movie. Nor am I quick to give up on a novel. If there is anything engaging about the story, I'll stick with it for awhile more.
The thing is, each horror movie (or story, or book, or...) needs to establish the main character or characters so you can empathize with them. Horror is not horror without some manner of empathy. This is an element people unfamiliar with horror miss. Empathy is a huge factor in horror. Without empathy, there is no fear. If the audience doesn't care what happens to the protagonist, the tension is already missing. No one's pulse is pounding. Their mouths don't dry out. They don't grip their seatmates. In other words, the creators have failed.
One way to start things with a bang, in order to hopefully keep the audience/reader engaged until the action comes, is to have someone die at the hands of the creature/killer right away. Someone who isn't integral to the storyline. This establishes what is to come, without taking away from the establishing of character. Horror based television shows, such as Supernatural, do this each episode. The audience is shown an intense scene where someone who is not a series regular is killed or harmed by whatever that episode's boogie man is. Then we bop on over to the brothers, who exchange entertaining or telling dialogue, and work their way to the monster. The tension and action build to the inevitable conclusion.
Boy, that made it sound boring, but it's an effective way to do things. It keeps butts in the seats and eyeballs glued to the page, while allowing for character development, which will draw the audience/reader in further and make them care about the main protagonist. Thus feeling the fear and tension, and having a vested interest in the main character's survival. It makes them want to root for the main character. And it makes hearts pound. Plus, that little glimpse of the Big Bad, whether we actually see them or not, gives a sense of satisfaction to the viewer/reader that something good is coming, and that they will not be disappointed.
Another way is to engage the viewer/reader in a different way. Humor is a common means of getting people to like a character from the beginning. In Tremors, we see these two friends, Val and Earl, harassing each other in a humorous way. We come to like them early in the film, and then things go very badly for them. Now we're worried about them and, ultimately, the rest of the townspeople. If someone can make you laugh, it is easy to like them. And if you like them, you care about them. Now you have a little leeway in introducing the Big Bad, and you didn't have to start with a frightening action sequence.
The emotion used to engage the reader doesn't necessarily need to be humor, though. You can start with something that tugs on the heart strings, for instance. A marriage or proposal, a baby, bullying, loneliness, you name it. Whatever will make the audience identify with the person they need to care about.
Of course, you can combine these, and other means, as well. The possibilities are endless. There are really only two rules that matter:
1. Give the audience someone to care about.
2. Give the audience something to fear. (Put the character in danger.)
Everything else is secondary.
How long will you wait for a movie to get scary? What's your favorite beginning of a scary film, TV show, or book? What draws you in?
May you find your Muse.
Psycho Shower Scene, by OCAL, clker.com