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The Rise of the Dark Academia Genre

Classical literature, brilliant minds, knowledge, learning, academic devotion, mystery, and a Romantic atmosphere permeate the still-rising genre of Dark Academia. Since the release of The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt, many young adult readers have been captured by the enigmatic essence of such a genre. As a descendant of the campus novel, Dark Academia evolves from a group of students who search for knowledge to “look[ing] at the dysfunctional side of academia: overwork, toxic relationships, [and] morally dubious professors” (Amoako, 2022). Usually, the plot follows an outcast group of students from an elite Ivy League University obsessed with some type of knowledge and who sometimes get themselves involved in a mystery that is solved by their brilliance. This subgenre has engaged with other genres such as Fantasy. Furthermore, it is deeply intertwined with a Bildungsroman plot, which has also morphed throughout the years.

Dark Academia has been difficult to define, to the extent that its aesthetics vary or remain quite vague and vast. The setting, the themes, the clothing, and character behavior play a crucial role in categorizing a novel as Dark Academia. Therefore, this article attempts to shine a light on the origins of the genre, its main texts, and the theories that influence this subgenre. Moreover, it will strive to describe the effect of this phenomenon on social media where countless people pour their passion for Dark Academia as a lifestyle and daily aesthetic.

Figure 1. The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt.

As evoked earlier, this genre derives from the campus novel, which is “centered on the academic’s struggle for survival in an often surreal scholarly world, and strong questioning of whether such survival is worth the cost” (Dalton-Brown, 2008, pp. 592). Such is the case in The Secret History (1992), in which the main character questions his capacities as a student of Classical Literature and his relationships with the rest of his classmates. As presented, campus novels create their own cosmos, a world totally remote from those who remain outside of the academic sphere. The academic world is ruled by a social morality disrupted by devious and unethical behavior in the name of knowledge. Correspondingly, this type of novel is intertwined with the Bildungsroman genre, specifically the American Bildungsroman. Considering that most of Dark Academia novels are set on American soil, a coming-of-age story is shaped according to American values. As Sarah Graham argues:

American novelists have used the Bildungsroman more than any other genre to expose the nation’s short-comings.[…] A turbulent history of civil and international wars, slavery, migration, economic decline, and inequalities of class, race and gender contest the dependability of its ideologies. The young heroes and heroines of American Bilgunsromane repeatedly find that the past, whether individual, familial or national, weighs heavily upon them, and they see little in the adult world to encourage them in optimism about the future. (Graham, 2019, pp. 117-118).

Such is the case with Dark Academia novels, the characters of which are most of the time antagonized by their surroundings and prefer to “focus on the pursuit of knowledge, and an exploration of death and morbidity” (Jaigirdar, 2021). The meaning of life and beauty become an enigma that causes anxiety for its solving. If the world around them is constantly being demolished, they are in need to find their life’s purpose. For this reason, they resort to brighter and more prosperous eras of their history, such as the Renaissance, the Baroque or the Romantic period, whose authors suffered through the same emotional stages Dark Academia presents. For example, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) clearly influence novels such as The Secret History (1992) or If We Were Villains (2017).

Furthermore, the American cinematographic industry has produced works that also reflect such issues, some of those being Dead Poets Society (1989), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), and Good Will Hunting (1997). These on-screen portrayals reflect the Dark Academia genre through its college and autumnal setting where “protagonists of all classes implicitly or explicitly censure American society, querying the validity of the pledges it makes to its citizens” (Graham, 2019, pp. 123). More or less, that is the purpose of Dark Academia, to point out how society and history have failed younger and upcoming generations. Yet, Dark Academia takes on more fictional and macabre plots where the American Bildungsroman is intensified by mystery devices and murder conspiracies.

Figure 2. Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir (1989) [Still]

Additionally, since the mid-2010s, Dark Academia has taken a turn for the Gothic and Fantastic. Texts such as Ninth House (2019) by Leigh Bardugo, The Atlas Six (2020) by Olivia Blake, or Babel: An Arcane History (2022) by R.F. Kuang, and to even some extent the J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga (1997-2007), influence this genre with fantastical elements such as ghosts, magic wands, or supernatural abilities. By choosing these literary tools, the Bildungsroman plot appears not to be as burdensome as it may have happened with other novels. In some measure, the anxiety and worry created by the academic pressure are projected and antagonised in unnatural beings who are beyond redemption, and therefore, their defeat is justifiable.

Nonetheless, these novels did not appear from thin air but from the tremendous launch the genre had in social media, most particularly from Instagram and TikTok. In fact, Dark Academia left the page and became an aesthetic, a way of life and dressing. As Zirngast (2021) maintains, “the passion for knowledge and learning is also reflected in the wardrobes of the dark academics. A dark colour palette of black, dark brown, forest green and burgundy is contrasted with cream, gold and orange. In general, the style can be described as preppy” (Zirngast, 2021). Therefore, it seems that this genre goes beyond entertainment, and it has become a means of expression for those who feel frustrated by their social surrounding and future prospects.

Figure 3. An example of Dark Academia aesthetics.

Consequently, this trend brings its own drawbacks. As argued in The Perils of ‘Dark Academia’, “being a woman is always a performance, and Dark Academia is no exception. It has a look, yet another beauty standard to fulfill” (Zarevich, 2021). As with any aesthetic trend, some rules have been omnisciently established, thus, who is correctly performing Dark Academia and who is not becomes a debate online. At some point, this might take a sexist turn and women might become victims of the male gaze. As Zarevich continues, “[by] wearing some combination of these clothes, women must appear sexy as they walk to class or a meeting with books pressed to their chests and hips swaying slightly” (Zarevich, 2021). Furthermore, this genre promotes a toxic academic lifestyle since “it encourages the mindset that pulling all-nighters and subsisting on coffee and crusts of bread […] is the ideal lifestyle for anyone who is truly devoted to their studies” (Zarevich, 2021). As a result, committing one’s academic life to strenuous conditions because of its appealing photogenic aestheticism might not only prejudice academic performance but also emotional and physical health.

Overall, the rise of Dark Academia is due to more than just appealing posts on Instagram and literary quotes. In fact, it represents a current mindset from younger generations who are just embarking on their life journey. Therefore, it is a literary genre and device used by new adults to digest their social precarious reality and emotional instability. However, the excessive application of this aesthetic to their outward appearance and to their academic life has proven to be damaging to their mental health. Furthermore, it bears a risk of drifting towards promoting a sexist view of female protagonists. Lastly, Dark Academia is still developing in order to include the diversity of communities emerging in the 21st century and detaching itself from a “lack of diversity, [which] focus[es] on western Euro-centric academia, and its penchant for romanticizing academics” (Jaigirdar, 2021). To conclude, this genre enlightens how previous historical events inflect a social response on future generations whose only break from reality is by projecting it in literature, fashion, and entertainment.


Amoako, A. (2022, September 8). Dark academia’s roots lie in the campus novel - jstor daily. Daily JSTOR. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from Dalton-Brown, S. (2008). "Is There Life Outside of (the Genre of) the Campus Novel? The Academic Struggles to Find a Place in Today’s World" Journal of Popular Culture, 41(4), 591-600. Graham, S. (2019). The American Bildungsroman. In S. Graham (Ed.). A History of the Bildungsroman. (pp. 117-142) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316479926.006 Jaigirdar, A. (2021, September 9). What is Dark Academia and why is it so popular. BOOK RIOT. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from Zarevich, E.R. “The Perils of ‘Dark Academia.” Women in higher education 30.5 (2021): 1-2. Web. Zirngast, L. (2022, March 1). Everything to know about the "Dark Academia Aesthetic" trend. Everything to know about the "Dark Academia Aesthetic" Trend. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from

Visual references

Figure 1. Donna Tartt.The Secret History (1992). Cover image retrieved from: Figure 2. Peter Weir. Dead Poets Society (1989). Image retrieved from: Figure 3. An example of Dark Academia aesthetics. Image retrieved from:

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Natàlia Vila

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