Horror vacui means fear of empty spaces or fear of the empty.

The term is usually used in art, for example Victorian or Arab Islamic art.  It is ornate and opulent but abundantly busy and cluttered!


The opposite of Horror vacui is minimalism, negative space, silence, emptiness and a vacuum.

The term has a strong psychological connotation for me.  Its origin is “fear.” Fear is usually considered a “negative” emotion, a phobia, a condition that needs remedy.

Is Horror vacui truly a phobia, in need of a remedy?  Let’s analyze and try to reach a deduction.

I interpret the term beyond the parameters of art.  It can be applied to fashion, architecture, interior designs and most interestingly to human behavior.  In fact, it is most intriguing when applied to humans as our emotions are a bundle of complexity worthy of a million interpretations.

We all have met people who speak incessantly. A ceaseless chatter, flitting from one mundane subject to another with nothing concrete to say.  They talk as if their life depended on it.  One has to be on a high-level of vigilance to grab an inhalation break in order to escape.  It is an example of Horror vacui in speech-fear of silence.

Or people who have a compulsive need to be surrounded by other people all the time.  Constant socializing, parties, get-togethers, vacations with friends, dinner with friends, coffee with friends, lunch with friends and the list goes on.  They may describe themselves as being extremely sociable, but doesn’t it reek of Horror vacui-fear of being alone?

An addiction in any form-alcohol, drugs, food, sex is Horror vacui.  An attempt to avoid facing the internal vacuum.

Fashion is a form of art and the principle of Horror vacui is relevantly applicable.  I was recently at a Roberto Cavalli store.  As I entered, I gasped and my jaw dropped.  I felt my visual perception being assaulted by prints, patterns, colors, lines, shades in every shape and form.  The minimalist in me felt suffocated and wanted to escape.  The only visual escape was the white ceiling, except it too was covered with ornate patterns.  An illustration of horror vacui in fashion.

What about women who imbibe the fashion mantra of more is more.  True, we all have our own fashion sensibilities and fashion is a form of expression.  So, who am I to sit in judgment.  But really do we need all that adornment?  Is it truly self-expression or is it confusion that is making a feeble attempt at expression?  The bracelets, the rings, the necklaces, the danglers, the French nails.  Help, I am horrified!  It is Horror vacui, fear of toned down or minimal fashion.

Interior design is a form of art as well.  I was recently told by an acquaintance that she wanted to buy a statue as there was only one corner in her house that was empty and needed to be filled.  We engulf our homes with objects d’art, furniture, tapestries, carpets, rugs, pillows, candles.  After sometime the aesthetic beauty becomes so diluted that it looks more like clutter.  It is Horror vacui, fear of empty spaces.

For centuries, artists have been painting and drawing detailed, ornate and intricate work.  The talent is evident, but an inordinate effort is made to cover every miniscule part of the canvas or the art medium.  Wouldn’t it create a better contrast if the medium had a vacuum or blank space?  Horror vacui again-fear of negative space.

So, to answer the question whether Horror vacui is a phobia in need of a remedy?  My answer is that in most instances yes.  It requires confidence to forego the fear of empty spaces whether related to emotions, fashion or art.  Emptiness is beautiful, courageous and non-conforming!

  • Absolutely brilliant post Ambu. While Horror Vacui is a new term for me, I have encountered that phobia in several variations many times over the course of my life and worse, its visceral effects on my well-being. Could it be the manifestation of a severe form of hyper-vigilance?

  • Albert:

    Once again, you open my mind. I totally agree that ‘horror vacui’ applies not just to art, and fashion, but also human behavior, conversation, socializing. Even the Cavalli ceiling was covered? My goodness. And the picture of the home interior is hilarious! But so accurate and prevalent. Such decoration is crude. It may cost a lot, but it’s still crude. Outstanding post, Ambu.

  • Strongly agree, sitting in the empty space or facing a fear is the most courageous thing one can do. To be ok with silence, lack of movement and overall stillness is indeed a practice. I simply adore your posts, I always learn something and makes me feel not only knowledgeable in something new but also enriched. And that my friend is true LUXURY. I heart you.

  • Horror vacui, you really do write the most thoughtful posts. I mostly agree with the fear of being alone or in silence. I actually LOVE traveling by myself and really love sitting in my empty apartment. I remember a time where I didn’t feel so keen on spending time alone and that mostly came from an empty feeling I had to deal with myself. Now I RELISH time alone.

    But in regards to aesthetics I take a little liberty only because I feel like everyone has their own taste. Some people really like a bare room and some people love lots of colors and pictures; this thought also goes to fashion. While it’s not particularly me some people gravitate to lots and lots of loud things and piles of things and I’d like to think those things appeal to their own eye on beauty.

  • Ambu, I just finished reading all the post I missed during my blogging hiatus.I’m very happy that you are back blogging and as always with a thought provoking post.

    At times, I’m very guilty of sensory overloading myself and those around me. I do act in a manner of over the top exuberant (well not always but mostly) in the way I dress, decorate, laugh, speak and party!
    For these reasons I’m quite attractive to people that are calmer and that bring some horror vacui into my life.
    Con Carinos,

  • You always have the most interesting intellectual things to say. I learn so much from you. I understand the way you felt in the Roberto Cavalli store. I would find all of that completely overwhelming. I would have to run out the door! I like quiet and calm and love spending time alone.
    I prefer clean lines in the home.

  • How interesting for me to read this Ambu. I was wanting to change my design and my friend told me, “you’re swaying away from more creative themes, why?” All the suggestions that were before me were too artistically contrived and not me at all, my first thought was that I just want the text name, not the frills…period. I say this because how true this is we see and experience or even know people who want more and more. Is being too minimal or not wanting to be donned in overly flashy items not cool per se?

    I love your interpretations and examples given.

    I’ll admit I used to be one guilty of (horror vacui) the need of having people around, etc. yet through recent years, I’ve found myself entirely okay with travelling alone, venturing out of my comfort zone, thus me taking a job where I’m constantly independent. I tend to like minimalism in my creative space and home, and sometimes, in my style mixing it up by those “so Cavalli” moments, (well, in my version.) I guess I’m just an eclectic lady, I blame the ambidextrous syndrome, haha!

  • Bere:

    Salman Rushdie, who is one of my absolute idols (maybe you noticed on Twitter? hehe…) said once that we all ‘have a God-shaped hole’ inside us, and that those people who don’t have religion, or spirituality, as a part of their lives, are always looking for something which can fill that hole. I have to say, I quite agree with him. Sometimes we sense an emptiness, a vacuum in our lives, which can take any shape – let’s say a half-full closet (or, maybe, one that only looks that way to us), a hungry stomach (which, in all likelihood, is not really hungry, but a symptom of our anxiety and depression), a hunger for success or, more to the point, power and/or money, because we don’t have another way to value our own self. Hunger for beauty and physical perfection, because we don’t want to see what’s missing INSIDE ourselves. What you describe so elloquently in this post, this horror vacui, is the symptom of today’s society, which has gotten so lost in the ornaments and the visuals. It’s only now that we, as a collective, are becoming aware of all that’s missing and it scares us, so we look to fill the void with stuff.
    THANKS FOR THIS POST, a brilliant read!!!! xx

  • Dear Ambu, Came back for a third read (^_^). Now I am thinking of two people I have known in my life that cannot be silent for a heartbeat of time. After a while I realized there was no need for me to actually speak, just to gesture with my eyes was enough to play my part.
    The absolute terror of silence – when even the quiet must be filed with verbal brick-a-brack.
    i have to say that I love silence and feel drained and stupified around these people. Long silent retreats are my R&R. How nice would it be to have one day dedicated to global silence.

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