Dark Academia

With the appropriate attire, anyone can achieve the dark academia look.  However, its lifestyle might not suit everyone.

Dark academia encompasses more than just reading books and adopting specific fashion choices.  It encompasses an entire lifestyle and worldview.

What Is It?

Dark academia is a subgenre that features academic settings with a darker undercurrent or theme in its story. Most often found in fiction, but can also appear across genres such as mystery, horror, historical fiction and fantasy. Dark academia also boasts its own distinct aesthetic that many fans have adopted such as tweed jackets, leather satchels and vintage decor.  This look has allowed this trend to become immensely popular on Tumblr and Instagram, as fans can share their love of this sub-genre with one another.

People who identify with this trend tend to enjoy literature and film that have intellectual or philosophical themes, such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Movies like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting may also serve as sources of inspiration. These forms of reading and viewing provide a sense of community for those feeling alienated from mainstream society as they enable individuals to connect through shared passions.

Academic settings and aesthetics in this subgenre have led to allegations of elitism and exclusivity, due to lack of diversity, focus on western European universities, romanticisation of academic life and nostalgia for an academic past that wasn’t always as idealized as depicted.

Additionally, there has been some criticism for romanticizing mental health problems like depression and anxiety, something that may cause individuals to avoid seeking professional help or ignore symptoms altogether.

Dark academia has also been criticised for its overbearing whiteness. Many institutions which form its base, like Harvard and Yale, were built upon slave labor.  Furthermore, most characters present within its narrative are white cisgender individuals.  Although historically accurate, some individuals may be uncomfortable with the lack of diversity.

Origins

Dark academia is an internet aesthetic and subculture that has taken off on social media platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, attracting readers with stories combining death and morbidity, with an emphasis on learning. Although its exact source remains unknown, this trend likely stems from a desire to escape modern society’s realities in favor of simpler times, when education was valued and innocence reigned supreme.

The main sources of inspiration for this literary trend come from European cultures such as Renaissance, Baroque and Romanticism. Additionally, decorative elements like stone sculptures, anatomical models and calligraphy fountain pens are frequently employed.   Academic subjects like classic studies, Christian mythology and vanitas (death) often serve as sources for this literary trend.

As another popular theme of these books is secret societies, while these may appear like an ideal way to resist authority figures and bypass rules, they usually uphold harmful systems of oppression that should not be glorified in literature. Therefore, it’s essential that readers carefully assess whether these books provide a realistic portrayal or just glorify such systems instead.

These books often take place on college campuses or prestigious universities, which reflects the fact that many readers who appreciate this genre attended university themselves, or had family members who did. 

Characters

Dark Academia books usually follow a protagonist on an expedition to uncover hidden knowledge. Drawing inspiration from Gothic architecture and atmospheric details, this genre of literature is known for creating an unsettling sense of mystery that keeps readers turning pages late into the night.  Expect dimly-lit libraries filled with ancient texts whispering secrets.  Late night discussions that drift close to dangerous territory; cryptic symbols hidden around corners.  You never know what might appear next!

Writing books that feature murder or intricate academic conspiracies will keep readers guessing until the very last page. A writer must master creating dialogue layered with intellectualism and mystery while keeping their story relatable for contemporary audiences.

Donna Tartt’s 1992 classic novel The Secret History is one of the most beloved works in this genre, featuring a group of misfits at an elite New England college who are seduced by an alluring Classics professor who introduces them to an alternate reality that far surpasses their mundane lives.

R.F. Kuang’s Babel, set in Oxford 1836 and depicting the relationship between a wealthy Chinese man and his adopted son, offers another fine example of dark academia literature. With an intricate plot and thoughtful characters, this novel stands as one of the premier dark academia works.

Themes

Dark academia is an inexact subgenre, difficult to define due to its wide scope. You can find examples in books, movies, TV shows and fashion styles, even social media posts! But more than simply being an interesting literary subgenre; dark academia seems to provide new adults an outlet to process their social precarity and emotional insecurity, through an aesthetic that celebrates academic interests.

While dark academic novels share many themes with one another, their essential element is an unnerving and foreboding atmosphere. This may come in the form of a grim setting, an oppressive filter, or just writing style which creates this tone.  More often than not, it can also be found within their story itself; murders, backstabbing and seedy campus environments are often staples within this genre of literature.

As well as grim and foreboding aspects, there is often an idealization of knowledge in this subgenre. This theme has its origins in Enlightenment-era society where individuals believed that knowledge could help them better comprehend their world and achieve spiritual enlightenment.  Similarly, it was popular during Renaissance and Baroque eras where audiences gravitated toward topics like anatomy, classical mythology and the fleeting nature of life through themes known as Vanitas motifs.

Dark academia places great emphasis on exclusivity and privilege. This can often be seen through depictions of old, prestigious universities like Oxford or Harvard.  Another depiction involves student cliques that represent exclusive student populations, such as white middle-class individuals from wealthy families enrolled at these elitist institutions.  These students thrive, because of the resources available in their social class.

Though dark academia typically features an exclusive university setting, some texts have ventured beyond this genre and into Gothic and Fantasy genres. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (2019) and The Atlas Six (2022) by Olivia Blake are two such texts, which showcase magic, secret societies, and supernatural abilities within a university environment.

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