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Horror Theory

Horror theory is a framework for a trauma-informed approach to design practice and pedagogy. It is rooted in validating the emotional complexity of contemporary social and ecological grief that comes from experiencing reoccurring loss. The theory aims to provide mechanisms through design to force confrontations with difficult realities. These confrontations assist with processing uncomfortable truths and coping with the feelings of "transcendental shock" and "cognitive estrangement" that accompany the feelings of facing uncertain futures (Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 2016).


Horror theory is devoted to those who find themselves walking between two (irreconcilable) worlds: one of hope and another where options for meaningful repair slip away. In acknowledgment of the warnings offered in Gothic literature and the sci-fi genre, Horror theory seeks new paths for the affected collective (of griefbearers) to usher in new practices to decode our nervous systems as we understand the risk of not doing and having humanity repeat atrocities of social and environmental harm in future generations...

Presented at ACSA Inflexiones 28 June 2024


(forthcoming, July 2024) ACSA Inflexiones 2024 Conference Proceedings [1]

[1] Horror Theory: Landscapes and Loss



This paper introduces a new definition of horror for use in the design disciplines. Rather than deploy the tropes of horror to arouse a sense of thrill and theatrics, the new model adopts a framework of confrontation to address and validate the difficulty of realities concealed by convenient fictions. When used as a design strategy, confrontations with social and environmental horror can effectively reveal the harms masked by complicit ideologies. The techniques discussed in this paper use the storytelling devices of horror and its aesthetic repertoire to expose the layers of artifice that hide evidence of harm in our everyday lives.


Confronting Horror: A Manifesto 

Rather than continue “perpetuating the fiction that everything will be fine” as James Billingsley has argued, this manifesto aims to help people cope with the loss of the world as they have known it. The following theory and pedagogical model argues for the deployment of the fictional genre of horror as a methodology for “decoding our nervous systems” from harmful social and environmental practices through the creation of confrontational projects in architecture and landscape. This is accomplished by retooling methods of fiction for use in architectural design. By raising consciousness of worldly horrors, this framework for design aims to increase the field’s visibility as an instrument of cultural transformation, making it more useful to social and environmental justice movements. By interfacing with horror, architecture can inspire a new paradigm of participation with the world’s social and ecological systems. 


The following manifesto serves as an abbreviated guide for those navigating the experience of walking between two (irreconcilable) worlds: an experience many of us are facing in the midst of inhabiting current social and environmental traumas. This manifesto aims to provide stepping stones to help people cope with the loss of a familiar world, while stepping into the unknown. Horror Theory is based on four key propositions:


1. Fiction defines landscapes. Landscapes exist in cultural consciousness as idealized fictions, detached from the (very real) horrific qualities of their social, cultural, and material realities (including toxicity, violence, and harm).


2. Landscapes are “stuck in reverse.” Landscapes and the environment are not allowed to have futures that differ from the ideals of their fictionalized pasts. Environmental practices remain shielded from past traumas and continue to avoid confronting the horrifying dimensions of human and environmental experiences of the present. They practices also eschew the idea that horrors may ensue in the future. Instead opting for sunny images of an untroubled utopia.


3. Confronting horror raises the stakes. Architecture can use horror to unpack and reveal the atrocities of current social and environmental realities. Confronting real-life atrocities through architecture allows the field to become a useful tool for cultural critique. And when deployed in practice, confronting horror transforms architecture into a device skilled at revealing social and environmental truths, and a tool of further social-cultural production.

4. Horror is generative. Horror accompanies irreversible confrontations with terrifying, but often ignored, truths. Horror generates confrontations with distressing truths.

(the following is in review) 


[2] Title: Producing Horror: Reanimating Architecture's Cultural Capacity through Techniques of Horror



This paper proposes the creation of a new architectural paradigm derived from the horror genre. As the ineffable horrors of the world continue to magnify, there is no doubt that widespread repair is an absolute necessity. However, to undertake projects of repair, we must first understand what it is we are trying to mend. Techniques from horror may be leveraged for their ability to do precisely that: to reveal what needs mending by drawing attention to the layers of artifice and misinformation that work to conceal horrific evidence of harm from our everyday. 

Horror contains a distinct ability to confront false preconceptions and representations about the world, our relation to the environment, and one another. The raw honesty that unfeigned horror is able to draw out of situations, events, and histories allows for a nuanced view from which to confront deep-seated illusions and misleading ideologies, such as: how goods are produced, the ongoing destruction of the environment, and how lives are impacted by war. Horror's promise lies not only in its revelatory power but also in its ability to challenge the root causes of the harm and violence done to humans and countless other species in these social-cultural and environmental contexts.

Methods developed in this paper discuss how to: 1) unpack and reveal the ideals that uphold and conceal the horrors created by oppressive social and environmental realities, and 2) generate discipline-specific approaches for confronting these deep-seated delusions.

Case studies from a recent thesis cohort illustrate how methods from horror can be deployed in design. The results of these exercises force a confrontation with uncomfortable truths about the discipline, and state of the world, and aim to reorient architecture towards helping us develop a deeper understanding of current conditions so that we can reach new levels of empathy and understanding for a better future.

For instance, the projects address "violations of reality," those being: transgressions of human and environmental ethics that complicit, albeit status-quo, views—about how reality, social relations, politics, culture, or environments—operate from, and in doing so, effectively disguise harm. Examples of conventions that describe the “vectors of violation,” include: "infection" (coming from the outside-in; infections of nature) and "corruption" (coming from within; corruptions of culture, for instance). Finally, the methods presented in the paper address the new role/s and importance of aesthetics as it facilitates in the confrontation of artifice and the harms of erasure.

Themes of horror have proven successful in capturing wide audiences in film and literature. Building on this recognition, this paper explores how to further problematize fiction's role in architecture for asserting the field’s importance as a cultural medium; and argues that architecture operate in crucial new modes to support the social, cultural, and political shifts necessary for repair in our time. By interfacing with horror, architecture can generate original, discipline-specific approaches to confront the difficulties of our current reality, and inspire a new paradigm of participation with the world's social and ecological systems.




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Belanger, Pierre. Extraction Empire. MIT Press, 2018.

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—-   Beyond the World’s End. Duke University Press, 2020.


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Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. Repeater, 2016.

Fleming, Billy. "Politics." in The Landscape Project, 2022.


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Peele, Jordan, et al. Get Out. Universal Pictures, 2017. 


Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State. Yale University Press, 1999. 


Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2004. 


Žižek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. Verso, 2010.

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