Dark Academia: A Deep Dive
A fun aesthetic or a glorification of classicism and obsession?
Written by Emma Smallwood
Let me set the scene: it’s 2016, I am fourteen years old, and I’m closing my computer screen after watching “Dead Poets Society” for the first time. It’s October, and there’s a slight chill in the air — it’s the kind of night where you can hear the wind rustling the leaves and can smell the fall air through the window. Little did I know watching that movie at such a formative age was about to set my life on a different course.
And it was all thanks to the “dark academia” aesthetic.
The phrase “dark academia” is one that we see thrown around often on social media websites, especially on platforms like Tumblr and Twitter. Bookishbrews.com defines dark academia as “both an aesthetic and subculture that is primarily focused on higher education, the arts, calligraphy, museums, writing/reading, and shadowy classic Greek and Gothic architecture. The subculture focuses primarily on studying classic literature, ancient art, and ‘high-brow’ liberal arts topics.” As we see in the name, the subculture of dark academia is focused on a nearly obsessive interest in academics, specifically the humanities. Ivy-covered walls, vintage books and leatherbound notebooks are common visual motifs that can be seen under dark academia tags online, and the fad is only growing.
According to The New York Times, the dark academia subculture grew in popularity in part due to COVID-19 restrictions — as schools were closing and driven students lost their ability to study in person, many turned to consuming media that centered on higher education and obsessive academics. This subculture created an outlet for students that found a solace in schools, libraries and old books. Many young people found themselves drawn to the characters that were obsessed with learning. The aesthetic of dark academia also enticed people: the tweed jackets, argyle sweaters and loafers that populated this subculture were moderately easy to find at thrift stores, and allowed people to gain the same wardrobe as some of their favorite characters.
Dark academia goes beyond an internet subculture — many students, like me, found themselves studying certain subjects at the collegiate level after being involved in the dark academia movement. Majors such as English, history and Classical studies are common for people interested in dark academia. This subculture doesn’t only live on the pages of books and screens, though — it bleeds into real life as we see students gravitating to these areas of study. The romanticized version of these subjects influence people's real life choices. Students that find themselves enticed by the aesthetics of dark academia — the vintage clothes, the obsession with academics and the Oxford-style architecture — may wish to replicate this in their real lives, though it never quite matches up to the source material.
The dark academia subculture can help students feel motivated in their studies, create an aesthetic they enjoy and meet other people that are passionate about certain subjects, but there’s a dark side to this subculture. Dark academia is notoriously whitewashed — trying to find pieces of media that both fall into the dark academia criteria and are diverse is nearly impossible. While the genre is slowly expanding, due largely to the efforts of creators that realized the lack of diversity within the subculture, there is still a lot of room to grow. The most popular and foundational works lack any real diversity — just take a look at “Dead Poets Society” and “Harry Potter.” Fantastic new authors, such as R. F. Kuang, Katie Zhao and Ryan Douglass, are expanding the genre of dark academia through examining the role of racism and classism within the tropes that are common in the subculture. Dark academia, at its basics, is centered on higher academia, which can definitely raise issues of the classism present within many pieces of media within the genre. It is essential to view these works through a critical lens — while it is an interesting aesthetic and subculture, there’s a dark side to it that has only begun to be explored.
"Dark academia is notoriously whitewashed — trying to find pieces of media that both fall into the dark academia criteria and are diverse is nearly impossible."
Take a look at some of the foundational works in the dark academia subculture:
“The Secret History” by Donna Tart
“The Secret History'' is arguably the most popular book within the dark academia subculture, and every autumn seems to generate a new love for the novel. “The Secret History” follows a group of intensely close classics students at a prestigious liberal arts college in Vermont. This novel is full of gloomy university settings and dramatic twists and turns, earning it a rightful place in the dark academia hall of fame.
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde
“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” written in 1891, is a hedonistic whirlwind of the life of the titular character, Dorian Gray. This work is classified as a Gothic novel, and lives up to its genre — Wilde’s intense atmospheric writing and imagery truly allows readers to enter this world of Dorian Gray, ruled by obsession, sensuality and aesthetic.
“Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte
Dark academia would be nowhere without Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel. “Wuthering Heights” was heavily influenced by gothic literature and romanticism, two literary movements that were prevalent in the late 1800s. Bronte’s setting— featuring the tumultuous, stormy moors of Northern England— lends to “Wuthering Heights” solidification as an archetypal novel for dark academia works.
“Dead Poets Society”
“Dead Poets Society” is a paradigm for dark academia — the setting is a prestigious boarding school, where the students meet a teacher that opens their eyes to the power of literature and poetry. This group of boys (the titular “Dead Poets Society") find themselves drawn into an obsessive world of literature, poetry and plays, and the bonds they forge as a part of this group have a monumental impact. While I am quite biased, this movie is truly an encapsulation of dark academia, from the themes of the story itself to the visual motifs.
Both the “Harry Potter” movie and book series are a gateway for many people to the dark academia lifestyle. With the Gothic undertones of Hogwarts, the obsessive studying of characters like Hermione and the themes of secret groups and mystery, “Harry Potter” plays into many of the typical devices of dark academia. Similarly to “The Secret History” and “Dead Poets Society,” we can see a common dark academia motif in this series — a group of incredibly close friends, bonded through both trauma and a boarding school setting. This motif plays out in the friendships of both the Golden Trio and the Marauders, a group that has gained an obsessive following online.
“Kill Your Darlings”
This semi-biographical film follows the college days of some of the earliest Beat Generation Poets. The movie centers on poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr and the intricacies of their life as they navigate Columbia University. As the poets begin a new literary movement, dark twists and turns plague their lives, leading to deadly results. This movie takes the obsessive nature of the dark academia subculture to a new level.