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What Is Dark Academia And Why Is It So Popular

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Adiba Jaigirdar

Staff Writer

Adiba Jaigirdar is an Irish-Bangladeshi writer, poet, and teacher. She resides in Dublin, Ireland and has an MA in postcolonial studies. She is currently working on her own postcolonial novel and hopes that someday it will see the light of day outside of her computer screen. Twitter: @adiba_j

Dark Academia has recently been gaining a lot of attention, with many new popular and upcoming books described as “dark academia.” As I watched the rise in the sub-genre, I had to wonder…what exactly is it?

What Is Dark Academia?

The truth is, nobody seems to have an exact answer here. Some describe it as an academic aesthetic: like images of students wearing tweed blazers during fall. The academic aesthetics also include old institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. But…that seems pretty vague, and many books described as dark academia actually don’t totally fit into that aesthetic. Another description suggests that it’s a book which features an academic setting, like a college or boarding school, and usually features some kind of a dark twist. Hence dark academia. Another description focuses on its themes: a focus on the pursuit of knowledge, and an exploration of death and morbidity.

I think all of those descriptions are pretty well-fitted to what dark academia is. Because it is a little bit of a vague term to describe this particular sub-genre. The definition of it can be broad, but it requires some kind of an academic setting and a dark undertone or overtone to its story.

So, dark academia as a sub-genre is not necessarily limited to a specific genre. Recently, we have seen it in mystery, such as Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson; in horror, such as Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth; in historical fiction, such as A Great And Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray; and even fantasy, such as The Ravens by Kass Morgan and Danielle Page. This diversity in genres denotes that dark academia can be a sub-genre of many genres, and its primary attribute is its association with academic settings and aesthetics.

The Rise In Popularity

It seems that in recent years, dark academia is everywhere, when it’s not a sub-genre that had been particularly popular before. This might be because as a sub-genre it was established relatively recently.

Many people attribute its creation as a sub-genre to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which was published in 1992, and tells the story of a murder that takes place among a group of classics students. It has also become popularised as an internet subculture and aesthetic, which has helped in its rising popularity.

Dark academia has also been criticised for its lack of diversity, focus on western Euro-centric academia, and its penchant for romanticising academics.

cover image of Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

This could also account for the rise in the popularity of the sub-genre, because a lot of dark academia published in recent years is speaking back to the romanticisation of academia, and its Euro-centrism. We see this in books like Ace Of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, which is described as Get Out meets Gossip Girl, and follows the only two Black students in an elite school being targeted by Aces, an anonymous texter who seems to be driven by a racist system. We can also see this with Alexa Donne’s latest novel, The Ivies, which seemingly draws inspiration from the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal. Books like these are not using academics as a backdrop for the mystery or murder at the heart of the story, but as a way to explore the seedy underbelly of academia itself.

The Future of Dark Academia

As dark academia continues its popularity, one has to wonder how long exactly it’s going to remain popular. I think it has a long future ahead, because academics is something that is pivotal to everyone. The setting of a school, a tight-knit group of friends, and all that academic competition brings is familiar to almost everyone. And while the dark aspects of this sub-genre — the murder, the mysteries, and more — are probably something we could all do without in our real life, it adds the exact kind of excitement that makes the familiar school setting invigorating. So, I would not be surprised if this sub-genre has a long future ahead of it.

If you’re interested in learning more, read up on the scholarship of sexy privilege. Then make sure you check out some of the best dark academia books, including dark academia YA.