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Beyond the Aesthetics: An Introduction to Dark Academia - Lib AAC
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Beyond the Aesthetics: An Introduction to Dark Academia

A stack of dark academia-themed books, being the 6 titles introduced and linked in the text, lie on a wooden desk in the Historical Building of Göttingen State and University Library. The mood is dark and gloomy. The background shows a window framed by two statues, chairs and rows of old books on wooden shelves

Dark Academia Aesthetic in the Historical Building of Göttingen State and University Library. Photo: Leonore Sell, CC BY 4.0

The night is dark and cloudy, and you are in the library, working late to finish a paper. The deadline is only a few days away. The tables around you are empty. One last time for tonight, you head to the bookshelf to get another book – but what is that? Didn’t you see a shadow retreating behind the shelf?! You look behind it – but nobody is there …

Intrigued? If this mood with its Gothic sense of danger and its alluring romance of knowledge and history is appealing to you, then read on to learn more about dark academia - a trending sub-genre in anglophone literature and films - from The Secret History (1992), If We Were Villains (2017) to the fan-favourite thriller film Saltburn (2023), and the social media subculture it inspired!

Dark Academia as a Genre of Contemporary Fiction

Originating in works such as Peter Weir’s 1989 film Dead Poets Society and Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History, the genre still lacks a hard and fast definition. However, it can be classified as a more melancholic offshoot of the campus novel, with elements of mystery and thriller narratives and even the Gothic. Films and TV series may also count as among dark academia narratives, if they contain certain elements of plot, setting and mood. Typically, an academic institution, e.g. a prestigious university, serves as the setting for one or several crimes or tragedies, the perpetrators, motives and consequences of which are usually revealed as the plot unfolds. These events will often be a result of the characters’ studies, academic research or university rituals. Many dark academia novels thus imply a connection between crime and an individual’s misled academic ambition - or, as Maryann Nguyen puts it, the protagonists are “students who are obsessed with each other and detrimentally absorbed in their intellectual pursuits” (Nguyen 56). Sometimes, these students are members in secret societies. Some of the novels blame elitist structures at educational institutions for the ensuing destruction, or even a dysfunctional academic landscape as a whole, although this connection is not always the object of overt criticism or satire. As Maryann Nguyen argues, the violence in dark academia can spring from the characters’ transgenerational nostalgia for an illusionary safe haven of academia, “built on an illusion of elite wealth and status and thus, almost always whiteness, even if it is not overtly voiced” (Nguyen 63; 59-61).

A highly intertextual genre, dark academia often incorporates references to real and fictitious works of literature and theory, sometimes even incorporating footnotes. Some dark academia texts might also include elements of fantasy or science fiction for an additional layer of meaning, such as R. F. Kuang’s Babel (2022), while older works, like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890/91) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), are often cited as forerunners.

Social Media's Dark Academia Aesthetic: Moody Dandies in Vintage Blazers

Dark academia is not only a literary subgenre. In recent years, starting at around 2014-2015, (cf. Adriaansen; cf. Nguyen 64) it has hatched into a whole aesthetic on social media platforms Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, of which reading lists are only a small part. An “aesthetic” on these platforms can be understood primarily in terms of the style of visual content, such as photographs and short video clips giving inspiration for dress and decoration choices. The fashion style of dark academia depicts young people in clothes inspired by vaguely 20th-century British or New England college wear (a bit 40s, a bit 80s or early 90s), such as tweeds, heavy knits, blazers and trenchcoats, usually in dark earthy tones. A dim colour palette is essential, mirroring the “dark” in dark academia. Interestingly, the unisex clothing choices may reflect the queerness of many characters in popular dark academia works, as well as the subgenre’s (mostly young, millennial or Gen Z) readership’s interest in non-binary gender expression. Further hallmarks of the visual language of dark academia on social media (e.g. on Pinterest moodboards) are misty landscape shots of centuries-old university buildings or the interior of libraries filled with ancient tomes, sometimes supplemented by Gothic influences such as pictures of graveyards, or references to classical Greek and Roman antiquity in the shape of marble busts, embodying the Eurocentric educational values present in many of these narratives. Fittingly, Simone Murray summarises the dark academia aesthetic as “bookish; university-based; Eurocentric; and dandyish” (Murray 349). These influences can also be seen in displays of home décor: still lifes of (pseudo-) vintage objects such as candles, old picture frames and, of course, books. Sometimes these visuals are accompanied by classical instrumental music with a melancholy atmosphere, making dark academia music playlists a popular background study music on Youtube and Spotify. The common denominator of all these stylistic elements is a vague nostalgia for a non-defined, but definitely pre-internet era sometime in the late 19th or 20th century and a celebration of an (often elitist) academic setting, albeit with an ominous, sinister or moody element to it.

Sending Selfies from My Typewriter: The Paradox of "Digital Denialism"

The rise of dark academia can be an expression of the longing of younger generations for a lifestyle temporarily or permanently inaccessible to them. Because of race and class inequality, many readers (especially in the US) are unable to realise their dreams of studying at a university. Simone Murray has therefore described the immersion in dark academia as a form of “fatalistic cosplay”, playing at being a student or scholar: “In sum, DA [=dark academia] reduces a narrow selection of European cultural history and literature to so many props in an alluring game of online identity-projection” (Murray 352; 353).

In her very nuanced article, Murray highlights a paradox at the core of dark academia: on one hand, “[o]bjects associated with analogue-era intellectualism are especially prized leitmotifs” on its moodboards, with elements of the aesthetic’s “digital denialism” going back to the ur-text The Secret History, including the deliberate idealization of old-fashioned lifestyle choices such as writing on typewriters (Murray 350; 359). On the other hand, this disdain for contemporary technology is contrasted by the dark academia community’s dominant playground, online social media, and their pronounced skill in using these online platforms (Murray 350; 358-60). It is ironic that the idealization of a non-digital lifestyle, the “slavish veneration of a pre-digital world” (Murray 353), is transported predominantly via digital ways.

Lockdown & Loss: What Attracts Young People to Dark Academia's Bookish Universe

But these very same digital tools can be employed in very positive, empowering ways. Nguyen stresses in her article that the social media fandom has reached a second peak during the Covid19-pandemic, when lockdown and the loss of physical embodiments of university life culminated in “Tiktokers – particularly college students – […] using dark academia to build community around an academic nostalgia and fantasy taken from them” (Nguyen 65). Similarly, Robbert-Jan Adriaansen writes how “[i]n lockdown, dark academia functioned as a digital and idealized replacement of academia, and physical travel restrictions were supplanted with new intellectual and historical worlds to explore: classical and Romantic authors, music, and vintage clothing.” In this context, the logical consequence of an enforced digital oversaturation is a yearning for analogue elements. For dark academia fans, using online media and venerating physical books are not necessarily in competition to each other – quite the opposite. Quoting gen Z TikToker @henry_grey_earls, whose clips have millions of views, Alaina Demopoulos attested this year for the Guardian: “‘I think people my age are craving something more authentic, and looking for something that’s real […] What’s more real than books and physical material?‘” According to research quoted in Demopoulos’s article, even non-readers are flocking to libraries to use them as free, third spaces for socializing and learning. As Demopoulos writes, dark academia, “the internet subculture obsessed with higher education and literature” and the dissemination of the aesthetic’s vibes and values play a crucial part in kindling gen Z’s love for libraries, not only for easy access to hyped titles on BookTok, but also related to fostering motivation for using them as study spaces.

Some Suggested Dark Academia Books for Students & Scholars of the Genre

Ready to explore our library as the perfect spot to get lost in a dark academia read? No involvement in murder or secret societies necessary! Or would you prefer to order your helping of campus-based thrill via interlibrary loan? Whichever way you choose, here are some suggestions to get you started – a small selection of genre classics and new additions to our collection at Göttingen State and University Library:

  • Donna Tartt’s innovative debut novel The Secret History, as mentioned above, was instrumental in shaping dark academia as a literary genre. The novel starts with a reference to two murders, one concerning one of six Classics students at a prestigious New England campus, narrated in hindsight by another student of the group who is a bit of an outsider, especially class-wise. The reader soon learns what led to the deaths and what consequences follow for the remaining five. The many references to key texts of the Greek Classics underline the appeal of this novel. Tracy Hargreaves’ Reader’s Guide to The Secret Historydelivers a compact first introduction to the novel, its author, influences and reception.
  • Marisha Pessl’s 2006 novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics already reveals its obsession with literature by its chapter names, which are titles of well-known classics. The text of this campus thriller is likewise riddled with allusions to film and fiction, reflecting narrator Blue’s education as the daughter of a smug American university lecturer. After a recent move Blue starts as a student at a private college in North Carolina, where she becomes enmeshed in a popular group of students and starts investing the death of her glamorous Film Studies teacher.
  • Susanna Clarke is no novice to dark academia – her 2004 alternative history novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, set in a Regency England yearning for the return of English magic and rich with references to academic study and the (mis-)application of learning, was already part of the genre. Her most recent work, the highly-praised 2020 novel Piranesi, is a very different contribution. Set in the ominous, darkly fantastic House populated with (lifeless?) statues and filled with treacherous tides, and narrated by a wholly unreliable narrator, the novel’s ties to academia will be revealed only as the reader dares to step deeper into the text’s nightmarish maze.
  • R.F. Kuang’s Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution (2022) sets out to diversify the predominantly white cast of the dark academia genre. Set in an alternative Oxford in 1836, Kuang’s protagonist is a half-Chinese, half-English student of Translation – a skill that in Babel’s world constitutes the basis of a unique linguistic magic system powering the Industrial Revolution. The many references to theories of linguistics make the book a feast for students of languages, while the racially and culturally diverse main characters add another layer formerly absent from most dark academia novels.
  • Academia and Higher Learning in Popular Culture: Studies on dark academia are still hard to find – this 2023 essay collection, edited by Marcus K. Harmes and Richard Scully, promises insights into the portrayal of academia in a variety of popular texts, such as classic dystopian novels, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld’s Unseen University, Sherlock Holmes’ academic training, as well as films such as Mona Lisa Smile and TV series such as Doctor Who, The Chair and 3rd Rock From the Sun, and many others. Aspects of monstrosity, darkness and dystopia in the essays underline possible connections to the dark academia genre and reveal tendencies in pop culture’s representation of higher education.

Are you missing any dark academia texts or studies on the topic that we can add to our collection for your and other scholars’ benefit? Then please send us a request! 


Works Cited



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