Essays

Why Dark Academia is Perennially Popular

Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Flatiron Books publisher of Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

Wealth. Power. Murder. Magic. Alex Stern is back and the Ivy League is going straight to hell in this sequel to Ninth House, the smash bestseller by Leigh Bardugo. Thick with history and packed with Bardugo’s signature twists, Hell Bent brings to life an intricate world full of magic, violence, and all too real monsters.

Dark academia has recently spiked in popularity, both as an aesthetic and a literary sub-genre. Surely part of that has to do with the pandemic’s disruption of the traditional modes of campus education. Plenty of literary elements come and go in waves — vampire stories, for example. Others seem like remnants of the past, like the biblical and religious stories I described in categorizing forgotbuster books. Dark academia will inevitably experience a dip in popularity, but I think it will remain a perennial favorite among readers and writers.

If we assume that Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History is the text upon which the sub-genre and aesthetic are based, the category is in its infancy compared to the broader genres it’s related to, like horror and Gothic literature. So why do I think dark academia has staying power?

The Nostalgia for the First Day of School

Even once we finish our formal education, many of us still think about the cycle of the school year. We long to buy fresh notebooks as summer wanes. We might continue to call weeknights “school nights” when there is no school to attend in the morning. The lure of a new school year is part of the appeal of dark academia. The possibility of new teachers, new friends, and new knowledge is compelling.

One of the reasons I like to read is to simulate the kinds of feelings I’m unlikely to have again in real life. I’ll never feel the intensity of first love again, so sometimes a really emotional YA novel is what I need. I’m in a long-term relationship, so reading romance can bring me back to those flutters of the early days of getting to know someone. And it’s unlikely I’ll go back to school, but dark academia feeds those cravings for the smell of freshly-sharpened pencils.

Dark Academia and Escapism

Many of us voracious readers would read all day if it were an option. Likewise, if I didn’t have bills to pay, I would happily be a student for the rest of my life. I love the idea of devoting myself to studying my interests. In The Secret History, the cadre of students are dedicated to the study of Classics. I too was incredibly drawn in by my first Classics class in college, called “The Ancient Epic and Beyond.” It introduced me to some of my all-time favorite books, like The Iliad, The Aeneid, and Moby-Dick. There’s a touch of irony in the fact that the professor who taught this class and brought these supposedly stodgy books to life was the one who recommended we read The Secret History when the semester was over.

For those of us who simply love to learn, the idea of an enclave where you are among your fellow people is alluring. Forget frat parties and menial work-study jobs (I put the stickers on the spines of library books), it’s all intellectual all the time. This is a fantasy, full stop. But literature can indulge our fantasies.

Exploring Death

There is darkness in dark academia, of course. It’s in the name. The Secret History puts that death in the first sentence, making you instantly wonder how things got away from the protagonists. But there’s a fascinating interplay of death and knowledge that dark academia explores.

The natural limit of our knowledge comes at our death. The way to outsmart death is to create new knowledge that outlives our bodies. Sometimes that knowledge is so powerful that it must be hidden. Or sometimes that knowledge drives people to their death, a truly ironic outcome. All of this is rich fodder for storytelling, and authors can imagine realms of knowledge and the stakes for achieving it that exceed anything reality has cooked up yet.

The Power Struggle

Struggles for power will inevitably drive literature forever. What’s fun about dark academia is that it upends what many people assume is the root of power. It’s not money, fame, or political maneuvering; it’s knowledge. These are the stories that appeal to those of us who don’t lust for these more typical sources of power. There’s still a gatekeeping aspect, but on the surface knowledge as power seems more democratizing. If I just study hard enough, I could get into that school and work with that scholar who knows the real deal.

Again comes the darkness. The twisted things people will do to safeguard their power is such a common thread in fiction and nonfiction alike. Those tapping into dark academia modes in their storytelling are not going to lack for inspiration.

Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

I absolutely love lush, descriptive prose. The purpler, the better. I desperately want to read about woolen scarves buffeted by a crisp wind as autumn leaves skitter under freshly polished wingtips. Imagining ivy-covered libraries housing ornate spiral staircases and velvet chairs is delightful. And I love imposing campuses with gothic spires looming over me at every turn.

And I know how bad all of that stuff is. You can’t have these things without colonialism, white supremacy, classism, ableism, and countless more social ills. So dark academia provides the opportunity to pull readers into these idyllic environments and then pull the rug out from under them. They’re rotten at the core, and it’s even more sinister than you thought.

There can even be a sour grapes element to the pleasure. Maybe you got rejected by Oxbridge and all the Ivys. And now you can see that you’re better off. These institutions can only indoctrinate you into their evil or kill you, and it’s not clear which is worse.

A Timeless Aesthetic

Time really is a flat circle nowadays. When popularity isn’t driven by newness but by ineffable bursts of virality, you can sort of choose to opt out of trends. Maybe you’ll become one; it’s puzzlingly out of your control. When it comes to aesthetics, I see this play out on TikTok. While perhaps not as popular as trends like cottagecore and dark academia, I see people dedicated to specific aesthetics, like Victorian lampshades or mid-century Pyrex. They don’t seem worried about these aesthetics cycling out of favor; they’re going all in to be an expert in their era. So for those who like tortoise shell spectacles and elbow patches, you too can ignore the trend and go all in.

When it comes to emulating the dark academia aesthetic, there’s a little something essentially squicky to it (see my above paragraph about the problems of elite education). Still, it’s quite accessible. The clothes are the kind that straight-sized people can often thrift. If you want to sit in a coffee shop annotating a copy of Pharsalia, you can find old copies for cheap. Is it weird to cosplay as a student? Maybe, but if that’s how you want to express yourself, go nuts.

University as Haunted House

Haunted house stories aren’t going anywhere, because we continue to live in domiciles of some sort. Different entities haunt us now than in past stories, and that’s how the genre evolves. Likewise, education isn’t going anywhere. So as long as people are going to places to learn, those places can be haunted and people can write stories about it.

Even if your instinct is to recoil at the current trendiness of dark academia, know that it will likely outlive you.