Opposite Ends of the Spectrum: Quiet vs. Visceral Horror


L. Marie Wood

Fiction immerses readers in a fantasyland where they can be a spectator to the story unfolding before them. The ultimate in escapism, fiction provides a reader with material that will engross their minds in a way that removes them from the present without rendering them unable to function… at least not for long. Adventuresome thrill seekers, with a penchant for the extraordinary, at least within the confines of their imagination, often choose horror as their genre of choice.

Horror can be defined as painful and intense fear. There are at least 15 sub genres that make up the larger genre distinction, whether blatantly horrifying and graphic, or subtly imparting fear that creeps in and settles without one’s knowledge. Quiet horror and visceral horror provide the markers for those sub genres, representing opposite ends of the spectrum.

Quiet horror provides a subtle description of horror and fear. It often uses innuendo and speculation, which allows the reader to form opinions of the current state the character is in and generate some of the fear using their own imagination. The antithesis of extreme or visceral horror, quiet horror is subtle. Atmosphere is used to create the mood and pace, as opposed to graphic displays. Supernatural content, imaged reality, creeping psychosis, and manifestations that are a result of the characters’ fears are tools that are often used in this subgenre. This genre lends itself to the moniker, “soft” horror, because of the delicate touch used by authors who write in this subgenre.

Visceral horror, which can also be identified as extreme horror and is comprehensive of emerging sub-sub-genres such as splat, splatter, splatterpunk, gore, gross, and grindhouse, has one sole purpose: to repulse. Authors in this subgenre use blood and guts liberally to illustrate acts of violence and terror. This subgenre can depict very violent and very raw imagery throughout the story and at a heightened pace, creating a frenzied effect.

Origins for both quiet and visceral horror find their base in the gothic subgenre. The term, gothic, has been used as a synonym for horror in the past, but it actually references a certain tone and setting. Being trapped by someone or something (a person, a curse, family ties, etc.) is a common theme in this subgenre. To put a finer point on the category, there are three types of Gothic subgenres:

  1. English Gothic

Castles, crypts, mansions, and dark, enclosed places punctuate these categories of the subgenre. English Gothic uses these locales as settings most often. The recurring theme in this is the past and its influence on the present.

  1. American Gothic

Gloomy atmosphere plays a smaller role in American Gothic, as does the focus on the past’s stronghold. Psychic breakdown is the focus in this category of the subgenre. In fact, the characters in traditional American Gothic stories prefer irrational mindsets and behaviors to the rational counterpart. Lack of humanity and rural locales are popular in this sub-genre.

  1. Southern Gothic

This category places American Gothic in a southern setting. This subgenre uses derelict settings, poverty, racism, unsettling characters, and violence in a magical realism context. It is where the unbelievable is accepted as part of life and where crumbling high society is frequently depicted.

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, subtle fear of the unknown, a movement at the corner of one’s eye, and the loneliness that isolation brings were the driving forces to building the atmosphere. This quiet horror short story represents the tenets of the subgenre, outlining the format and execution properly. Gilman chose her words carefully, deciding to use a personal journal of the protagonist to relay the happenings in the story and render it entirely in first person. The mastery with which she built the terror envelopes the reader and makes them feel the emotion as the character does.

Conversely, in Clive Barker’s Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament, descriptions of the actions are as important to the nature of the story as the actions themselves. Barker’s vivid account of the pulling apart of human flesh to create another being solely by the protagonist’s thoughts alone is soul stirring and jarring. This visceral horror tale is the epitome of the subgenre, with blood and gore being the pinnacle of descriptive language.

Quiet horror is often described as lyrical and expressive, whereas visceral horror is described as direct and blatant. Both styles utilize the art of descriptive language—indeed, they must, by mandate of their focus. While some of the other subgenres in the field allow for less description, and less atmospheric presence and tonality, both quiet and visceral horror demand detailed attention from the authors to remain authentic.

Which subgenre do you like more?