Dark Academia is a popular (and the original) academic aesthetic that revolves around classic literature, the pursuit of self-discovery, and a general passion for knowledge and learning. Because this is an internet aesthetic, it largely entails sharing photographs, making outfits, and participating in certain hobbies through social media.
As the internet aesthetic grew in the late 2010s and early 2020s, many book publishers capitalized on this aesthetic and used this phrase to create and advertise YA books, making this also a new fictional microgenre in its early stages.
Dark Academia's visuals stem primarily from upper-class European cultures of the 19th century, Gothicism, and American Prep. The upper class of this time period emphasized a liberal education in which Latin, rhetoric, and classics were taught subjects. These are now seen as unusual and esoteric, creating an allure that presents schooling as not dreary or boring, but one that cultivates mystery, curiosity, and diligence that isn't commonly seen in contemporary schooling.
Because of this allure of intelligence and mystery, being pretentious is celebrated within the Dark Academia community. Romanticizing education and moments in life related to university experiences is the core appeal of the aesthetic, with grandiose statements and wishes for success being a common text post subject.
Other than the appreciation of learning, Dark Academia includes motifs of criminality and danger. Secret societies, cults and murder are common subjects within the aesthetic. Characters within the works of fiction associated with Dark Academia, specifically The Secret History and Kill Your Darlings, live decadent and self-destructive lifestyles involving drugs, moments of intense violence, and secrets.
People who use this aesthetic are sometimes referred to as Dark Academics. However, "academic" typically refers to researchers and professors, while Dark Academia fans do not usually have recognized credentials or an academic background. Dedicated fans of the aesthetic may craft a persona based on the characters and suggestions of the aesthetic, often pursuing an academic career that is motivated by the aesthetic, though of course they don't reflect the actual career and environment of academia.
It is important to note that in multiple ways, Dark Academia is not new. Rather, it is a continuation of different pre-existing aesthetics that had a basis in artistic periods, literature and mannerisms surrounding the upper class. The Dark Academia aesthetic referred to in this article is within the context of mid-late 2010s-early 2020s internet culture wherein users, largely teenagers, discuss the contents of the page online. This phenomenon is largely confined to social media such as tumblr, Instagram and Tiktok.
The largest and most notable influence on the aesthetic is the ideas and lifestyles of Romantic-era nobles and intellectuals such as Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Edmund Burke. The cohort was known for writing poetry and prose of great beauty while living languid and privileged lives. Their works emphasized emotion, imagination, and the historical. Much of their poetry, art, and prose is posted on social media sites.
The later Aesthetic and Decadent movement, headed by Oscar Wilde, lends the "dandy" aspects of the internet aesthetic.
The experimental/garage rock of the late 60s is another precursor to this aesthetic visually. In contrast to the Hippie movement’s vibrant colors and it’s beginning to lean to sunny subject matter and sounds, these musicians typically wore black and white, turtlenecks, and sunglasses and surrounded themselves with grey stoic urbanization. Specifically, The Smiths and Joy Division were of extreme importance (see photographer Kevin Cummin’s book Morrissey: Alone and Palely Loitering).
Lyrics began to take more musical importance as these artists would write about dark, often literary themes. There was no focus on wealth or the trappings therein here. Taking a page from the literary Beat Generation (stereotyped as Beatnik) movement that also came up in the late 60s, they placed a large emphasis on knowledge, art, and poetry. Actual historical monuments and imagery of poets (for example, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, and Edith Sitwell) and artists began to be used.
All of these historic periods were reflected in Donna Tartt's The Secret History. The sublime, picturesque and beautiful are concepts frequently repeated by the narrator, Richard Papen; the main characters vacation in a remote mansion and get drunk, discuss intellectually stimulating topics and lived decadently, like the Romantic poets did in their famed Geneva trip; and the ritual for Bacchanal is a representation of the same fascination with the irrational.
Appreciation for Donna Tartt herself comes from the Esquire article "The Secret Oral History of Bennington: The 1980s' Most Decadent College," which describes "the baroque wickedness, the malignant glamour, the corruption so profound as to be exactly what is meant by the word decadence." This cements the connection of Donna Tartt and her alma mater to the precedents. Additionally, her androgyny, close friendships and rock-and-roll lifestyle are admired by the Darkacademic audience. Its publication of 2019 also links this article to the rise in popularity c. 2020.
The tag "Dark Academia" originated sometime around 2015 on tumblr and had a relatively smaller reach and referred to the main work that started the aesthetic: The Secret History. The aesthetic resembled a book club more than a true aesthetic and users largely communicated through asks and reblogs to discuss the work itself, with less of an influence placed on fashion and lifestyle. Similar with other fandoms, the The Secret History fandom produced moodboards; however, they did not resemble the typical Dark Academia aesthetic, instead taking on a more minimalist look with photographic emphasis on symbols relating to characters, typography and fancasts.
Multiple other fandoms also contributed to the development. Many of the visuals came from the Harry Potter series, which was popular at the time; the films' set (largely from Oxford University), whimsy surrounding studying, leather-bound books and mystery are clear links to the Dark Academia aesthetic.
Many of these blogs reblogged content from art history-centered tumblrs, which posted photos of architecture and paintings in the movements described in the visuals section. As bloggers discussed the media that has come to be associated with Dark Academia and multiple people posted art history content, the community formed and the name was created.
The name was popularized through 2017-2018 through a number of different text posts on tumblr; user holocene-days listed the three canonical Dark Academia films and books, saying, "the holy trinity of Dark Academia that is kill your darlings, dead poets society, and the secret history."
The aesthetic evolved over time from an aesthetic that had a small community, was learned through osmosis and focused specifically on the media into what it was today. Dark Academia evolved in ways that the aesthetic was communicated; character collages became popular as people more in tune with online aesthetic culture, specifically Studyblr, and the aesthetic became codified through different social media. In spreading to different audiences, the aesthetic became something more aspirational and lifestyle-oriented, with guides and recommendations instead of purely visuals to look at.
On June 30th, 2020, The New York Times published an article entitled "Academia Lives — on TikTok," making Dark Academia, and the aesthetic community in general, known to an audience typically separate from online youth culture.
Romanticizing the university experience and appreciating the environments and activities associated with Dark Academia is the most common motif. Romanticizing is the act of creating an ideal image of something, with seeing the subject as romantic, beautiful, and significant, especially when the subject is mundane. In this aesthetic, appreciators look to studying and gaining knowledge as the thing to idealize. The learning is done for learning's sake, rather than using an education as a means of gaining employment, good grades (which is still strived for, but not the main goal), or doing it out of a sense of obligation. Studying is done for the enjoyment of it, both in connection to the subject itself, but also as a picturesque thing for a person to do. As discussed in the visuals section, note-taking and existing in spaces for studying looks pleasing to these people. In fact, many people join Dark Academia to motivate themselves in their schoolwork, as beauty is a good motivator to study.
Specifically, the community enjoys the emotional connection to their subject of study. This is almost always the humanities (literature, history, philosophy, etc.) and languages, as opposed to STEM or artistic creation, which are celebrated in Science Academia, Theatre Academia, Art Academia, etc., off-shoots created specifically for these different subjects. Specifically, the humanities are insights into the purpose and nature of human society. There is a strong emphasis on appreciation of poetry, prose, and art history in an intuitive fondness for its beauty.
Dark Academics also have an appreciation for the past, specifically eras such as the Classical, Romantic, Victorian, and Roaring 20s. Bloggers often write about wishing for the manners, education, and romanticism of these past eras to return. For example, a poster might lament about the death of love letters, architecture that is grandiose, and kissing hands as a greeting. Note that the intent is to return to the practices that are now considered outdated; people in the aesthetic are not concerned with being historically accurate in dress, slang, and politics.
This romanticization can often lead to obsession and the feeling of euphoria under academic overwork.
Building off of this, contrasting from the pure Apollonian intellect of academia is the desire for Dionysian ecstasy, irrationality, and lust. These motifs specifically originated from The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which is expanded in the history section. In the community, there is the desire to encounter altered states of consciousness, which reveal "purer" and more intense emotions and losses of control. The way this is shown is largely through reblogged quotes from literature and jokes about reaching this state of being.
Another one of the main appeals of Dark Academia is intrigue that comes with being in a cohort of intellectuals. In the works of fiction that are thought to be the Dark Academia "canon," (The Secret History, If We Were Villains, The Dead Poets Society) there is always a clique of students that share a common passion for their subject. The appreciators of Dark Academia enjoy the close bonds of a group of friends- but one that transcends the typical thought of casual, pleasure-based friends and into something more profound and intimate.
Queer love is often seen in this aesthetic community. Many users admire literary characters and intellectuals who were queer, such as Achilles and Patroclus, Sappho, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf. This builds off on the appreciation for the humanities as a way to create connections across time, but through a community that is often neglected in history. This aesthetic also provides an outlet for people who do not fit into the stereotypical queer culture of Camp, alternative fashion, and overt sexuality by expressing an aesthetic more associated with introversion while still being queer-coded to those who are online. And within Dark Academic books, many characters are either openly or hinted to be queer or develop homoerotic relationships. This is built into the "tenderness" and "yearning" culture on tumblr during 2019, which uplifts romantic love, both requited and unrequited, as well as old-fashioned symbols of courtship such as through letters and artistic inspiration.
However, negative emotions and drama within these platonic and romantic relationships are also important. The characters from the above works have their own judgments on the other members in their clique and their actions, often developing alliances, toxic romances and sexual relationships, a clear leader, and an ostracized member. In the works of fiction, the murder/other crime leads the friend group to develop tension where betrayal and loyalty becomes life-or-death (see the Media section for more details.) Of course, it is not exactly clear if people do pursue the negative aspects of cliques in real life, but multiple text posts celebrate the characters in the novels (see Criticism.)
Dark Academia as a whole utilizes the colors black, beige, dark brown, forest green, dark orange, cream, gold and burgundy. The photographs tend to be dimly lit, as to give the appearance of illumination through only candle light, a sun-less day, or light being unable to reach the interiors of a deep, alcove-filled room. As such, chiaroscuro and tenibrism, the contrast between light and dark, is a common motif within images and outfits. White statues in the dark, pale skin (see Eurocentrism) contrasting dark clothing, and the art movements described below are examples of this style. Often, photo editing is employed to increase the shadows of the image.
Gothic, Beaux-Arts and Neoclassical architecture are featured frequently in Dark Academic images, as most of the prestigious campuses, museums and libraries were built in this style. Other common buildings are Baroque palaces that evoke masked balls (overlapping with Dark Royalcore), English manor houses and Victorian streets. Red brick, rusticated stone, wrought iron fencing, Gothic arches, mahogany paneling, classical columns and generous ornamentation are common traits shared among these spaces. Some of the most common buildings reblogged are: the campuses of Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge; the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum; the Gloucester Cathedral; and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The artworks utilized in Dark Academia come from the periods typically associated with European civilization: Renaissance, Baroque, Dutch Golden Age, Neoclassical, Academic, Romantic, Aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelite periods are the paintings that are the most commonly reblogged, with subjects such as architecture, landscapes, anatomical studies, vanitas, Christian and Classical mythology, and portraiture of people wearing austere clothing. Etchings are incredibly common, as well as illustration and sketching. These have a benefit of having literary subjects, as these were often accompaniments to books.
Sculpture is always done in white marble and in the styles of Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical. Technique, such as in the illusion of flesh, psychological presence, diaphanous fabric, and drapery, is admired.
The romanticization of studying, journaling and letter-writing is demonstrated through appreciation for calligraphy and stationary. Fountain pens and typewriters are proudly displayed and users would often take images of the results of their notebook entries, not unlike Studyblr. However, their writing is cursive and decorations are sparse.
Images associated with literature are another common photo subject. Antique books, screenshots of e-books with highlighted lines, annotations, and typography are common. Latin, ancient Greek, English and French are popular in Dark Academia both as subjects of linguistic study and in aesthetic images of text. A recent (around spring 2021) tumblr trend is the use of "comparatives/parallels/web-weaving," which are short compilations of 5-10 quotes and/or images from poetry, literature, art, movies, etc. that center around one motif such as "the kitchen table" and "women and horror." Note that this type of post is not exclusive to Dark Academia, and is more aligned with fans of literature in general.
Nature may make an appearance in the aesthetic, mostly in the form of British moors, autumnal forests and occasional images of seaside cliffs. Dreary weather such as fog and rain enhances the gloomy nature of this aesthetic. This further adds to the romanticism of sneaking into the forest to do pagan rituals, as well as creating a connection to the poetry of the American Romantics. The influence of the Picturesque and the Sublime, as outlined in the work of Edmund Burke, is another aspect of this. This can overlap with an autumn Cottagecore blended aesthetic or Green Academia.
Boarding school imagery, such as school uniforms, living in a dormitory, and running away, is more common in a more youthful and playful interpretation of the aesthetic. Here, the sense of mystery, danger and kinship are enhanced and the professionalism and sophistication connotations are lessened.
Cafe society is also another influence on the aesthetic. Coffee shops are associated with both the flaneurs of 19th-century Paris and the contemporary stressed college students of today. As such, that space is romanticized and images of coffee, people-watching, and studying within the space is popular.
Violent imagery addresses the "dark" moniker. Like in the novels and films, murder and death are popular subjects. This is displayed through murder weapons that are also aesthetically pleasing, i.e. vials of poison, ornate daggers and even occasional images of guns. Blood, such as on clothing or on white statues (bashing someone's head) is another example. Graveyards are also another location that is commonly reblogged due to the connotations with Gothic literature and memento mori.
For the purposes of citation, as well as a way to view inspiration, here is a link to the Wayback Machine's snapshots of the Dark Academia tag on tumblr.
Dark Academia is an aesthetic that was created and maintained online, meaning that the community expresses and shares content over social media. The type of posts created and shared largely changes per platform, and the aesthetic evolves differently. Here are some common tumblr Dark Academia post formats, which change depending on platform.
- Moodboards made in a 2 x 2 or 3 x 3 grid, facilitated by tumblr instantly arranging it this way when uploading multiple photos
- Text posts where the OP makes a list themed after various created names. This involves having sentence fragments of visual motifs, sensations such as scent, activities, and such separated by periods. Occasionally, they are made to advertise playlists. This is how off-shoots such as Romantic Academia and Chaotic Academia were created.
- Suggestions, which is a list of ways to embody and live out the aesthetic. For example, a list of outfits written out in text, a list of activities to do when bored, etc.
- Descriptions of things or people that would be Dark Academia. The language for these have a diction and sentence structure that matches the romanticism, mania, sophistication, etc. of what the OP is trying to convey.
- Text that is about expressing a desire for something, typically in a pleading tone or beginning with an "I wish/want."
- Book and media recommendations
- Vocabulary lists including obscure words with beautiful meanings or words and phrases in Latin, Greek, French, etc.
- Quotes and poetry from any generally literary source that reasonates tends to be tagged as Dark Academia
- Comparatives, parallels, and web-weaving, as explained in the visuals section
- Mini blog posts, where the OP takes 2-4 photos in Dark Academia-adjacent spaces and a few sentences about what they did that day
- Video moodboards where Dark Academia visuals flash repeatedly to a clip of a song. Some common clips include the violin opening to "Achilles Come Down" by Gang of Youths, "Nocturne Op. 20 No. 1" by Chopin, "Claire de Lune" by Debussy, etc.
- Setting up a room and doing mundane tasks such as letter-writing, making tea, etc.
- Crafting and sewing videos for things that would fit the aesthetic
- Short videos of a day of the creator's life, which includes walking through an old European city and visiting Dark Academia locations
- "Put a finger down" where the OP lists Dark Academia habits, and a person is supposed to duet with them and count off how well they follow the stereotype
- Fashion-specific Tiktoks may include:
- Informational Tiktoks where a user lists different garments tha are common in the aesthetic
- Putting together flatlays, often tossing the items on a surface set to music, then showing a shot of the worn outfit
- "Trying on [blank] aesthetic" series, where a non-Dark Academic content creator tries on the clothes to showcase different aesthetics
- Lookbooks of around five different outfits, which can be flatlays or worn
- "Choose your fighter" types where a person makes outfits themed around different themed characters, such as "librarian" or "art thief"
- "Situations as a fictional character" where a person dresses up for different events such as pajama parties or masked balls
- Many Booktok creators/video makers cross over into Dark Academia and have the aesthetic while making Booktok content such as book recommendations, memes, etc.
- Themed playlists where the creator compiles various classical music pieces into one video with an appropriate image. Occasionally, some videos include rain and/or library ambiance. These are by far the most popular Dark Academia-oriented content on this platform, as many non-Dark Academia fans enjoy these videos.
- Edited videos where a person takes clips from movies and TV shows and sets it to cinematic music
- Craft and sewing videos
- Room makeovers and tours
- Dark Academia lookbooks, which is a video by a fashion YouTuber composing multiple outfits and explaining the components
- TikTok compilations
- Character moodboards, which are outfits accompanying small bullet-pointed lists about the habits, quirks, and personality types of imagined characters fitting the aesthetic
- Book recommendations, which take a theme and as you swipe through the photoset, you see the covers of the books and a few captions. The color palette and typography of these posts tend to be Dark Academic.
- Many Instagram profiles take screenshots of tumblr posts about Dark Academia and place them on a related background
Dark Academia fashion emphasizes a high-class and vintage form of dress which is an amalgamation of different historical periods. The main inspiration for Dark Academic fashion comes from American Prep, such as sweater vests or sweaters worn tied over the shoulders. This itself came from 1940s prep school uniforms, as seen in blazers, pleated skirts and regimental striped ties. Stereotypes surrounding humanities professors also influenced the fashion. Tweed blazers with elbow patches are one of the "essentials" of a DarkAcademic wardrobe, as explained here. Elements of the Victorian and Romantic fashion are also influences on the more fanciful interpretation of the style, and create a Gothic novel character or eccentric dandy look. Autumn is the most common and desired season, as Dark Academia outfits often layer pieces over each other.
One of the appeals of a Dark Academia wardrobe is the versatility of the pieces, as many of them could be mixed and matched. Like with school uniforms, this allows students/academics to not have to concern themselves too much with choosing their outfits in the day. Additionally, all of these clothes are commonly seen in a variety of stores, from thrift shops to in-person malls to designer brands. Searching for garments is thus easier, as it can fit multiple budgets and locales, as opposed to styles that have more specialized and alternative pieces that would be hard to find.
Usual fabric choices are more upscale, like cashmere, wool and tweed, but linen and cotton are also very common. Patterns are minimal, with plaids and argyle being the most common.
The shirts worn by DarkAcademics can be masculine, professional button-ups or more ornate blouses that include details such as lace, puffed sleeves, and some ruffles. Collars are incredibly important to the look, and they often are either layered under sweaters or used as a statement, such as in sailor-style shirts.
Sweaters are also important and contribute to the autumnal and bookish character of the wearer. Turtlenecks make the look more sexy and sophisticated, and sweaters provide an opportunity to add texture to an outfit in the form of cable-knit and embroidery.
Pants in the Dark Academia aesthetic are always formal dress pants. They typically are in a sturdier material, such as tweed, and would sometimes feature patterns such as check and herringbone. Pleats are a common detail, and the fit around the ankles (flare, tapered, or straight) are up to personal preference.
Skirts are also featured in more feminine outfits. Pleated and/or check-patterned skirts allude to prep school uniforms; mid-length or long flowing skirts have a more elegant and Victorian feel; and straight pencil skirts, often with button details, make the look more mature and reference the 1930s-1940s.
Dresses are often worn as layering pieces. Pinafores and sleeveless dresses are often worn under turtlenecks or collared shirts. These can include the same details as skirts, and are more basic for the sake of layering, rather than as a statement.
Outerwear is the most prominent feature of DarkAcademic fashion because blazers, cardigans, and different kinds of coats are the most evocative of sophistication and professionalism. Outerwear is also extremely autumnal and an important feature of historical and vintage fashion in general.
The details in outerwear add texture and structure to an outfit. The fabrics used here are incredibly important, and tends to be of high-quality wool tweed. The fit of the outer layer is incredibly important because it makes the silhouette. In the community, it is largely either tailored to the wearer's body to look clean and professional or oversized to have a more cozy or chic look.
The type of outerwear worn with an outfit can greatly change the connotations and style associated with it. Like sweaters, cardigans can add texture and tends to be a softer and more casual interpretation of the aesthetic (especially if over-sized). Meanwhile, long coats, especially in black, add intimidating drama. Blazers, typically associated with men's businesswear, are the most common type of outerwear.
The sweater/cardigan can also be tied over shoulders to mimic the advertisements for American Prep brands.
The shoes tend to be leather men's dress shoes such as brogues and wing-tips. These match the timelessness and professionalism of the aesthetic and match the understated neurality of the other formal pieces.
However, Doc Marten's black boots may be worn to add an edginess to the outfit. This brand is generally trending across many aesthetics throughout youth fashion in the 2020s, and its utilitarian nature make it avoid looking incongruous to the rest of the clothing.
In more feminine outfits, Mary-Janes or Victorian-esque footwear such as boots could be worn. These are typically matched with long socks to match other prep-school styled pieces such as pleated skirts.
Dark Academia tends to feature gender-neutral leather vintage and rectangular bags (mostly messenger bags). These match the professional aesthetic of formal outerwear and the utilitarian, no-frills versatility of the rest of the wardrobe. However, tote bags with an art print could be used for a more casual look while still fitting in with the aesthetic.
Accessories that accompany suiting such as ties, pocket squares, and cufflinks are common. These should follow the same elegant and minimal aesthetic and fit the color palette. Unlike in some other outfits, such as in certain magazine editorials, these accessories aren't meant to stand out and add splashes of color that make it look daring.
Leather belts are an extremely popular component in Dark Academia outfits. It connects to vintage fashion, as this was generally worn throughout history, but lessened in popularity in more contemporary times as fashion became more casual. Likewise, suspenders have the same vintage connotation, but aren't as common in Dark Academia because of the popularity of sweaters.
Glasses match the aesthetic because of its association with bookishness. These are in classic and mature styles, such as in wire, Darkmetal, or tortoise shell frames.
More feminine outfits can feature jewelry, but this is understated and timeless, with simple gold and silver. Solid silver or gold pendants are especially common when worn with turtlenecks. Brooches are a common piece to add character flare to an outfit and are often cameos, skulls, insects, and other vintage things associated with the visuals. Rings, however, are an opportunity for exploring maximalism because many people stack different ring styles on top of each other.
Hair and Makeup
The hairstyles associated with the aesthetic are fairly loose in that multiple styles can fit, from neat bobs to long and disheveled. However, it is noted that alternative hairstyles, such as buzzed or dyed in unnatural colors, tend to be left out from the aesthetic because of its incongruity with the vintage aesthetic.
The makeup associated with Dark Academia should be either minimal and natural or mysterious, almost femme fatale-like. Natural (or no) makeup is associated with the more utilitarian and masculine forms of dress. The more obvious makeup follows the color palette of Dark Academia with burgundy lipstick and eyeshadow in grays and neutrals. Some common trends of contemporary makeup (heavy winged eyeliner, shimmer, contouring, etc.) tend to look mismatched to the more vintage type of fashion in the aesthetic and aren't used.
Likewise, nails should be kept short and natural.
Dark Academia media tends to fall into two types: the first is media that is established as classic, also known as part of "the canon," meaning that the work is considered by academics to have artistic merit and is worthy of academic study. These books tend to be from the Classical Era (such as the plays of Sophocles, philosophical theory, etc.) and Western literature up to the mid 20th century. Literature such as this does not include Dark Academia tropes, but are considered Dark Academia because it has the same associations with intelligence, refinement and would be studied in the setting. Note that what is classified as high literature is connected to critiques of Eurocentrism. For more information and a list of examples of books included, see the Wikipedia entry on Western Canon.
Dark Academia Tropes
The second group is media that is not studied by academic professionals and may often be "pop" literature, which means it primarily seeks to entertain instead of create a philosophical dialogue. They are included here for having visuals and tropes that match the aesthetic.
What is considered Dark Academia media is largely subjective and there is not a set list of rules associated with the aesthetic. The media is recommended through tumblr posts, Goodreads bookshelves, Letterboxd lists, etc.
The Dark Academia community tends to read books or watch movies. Anime, plays, musicals and podcasts are included here for their resemblance to the aesthetic, rather than them being discussed in the community.
Here are the common tropes and traits of Dark Academic-specific media, not canonical literature. Note that not all works below have all traits:
Novels (and films) that are considered Dark Academia take place in an academic setting, which includes high schools, boarding schools, and universities. These schools will have a prestigious reputation, with elements of exclusivity. The students would be of a higher socio-economic status, with mannerisms, clothing, and character concerns that reflect this.
The time period varies, but the 19th-20th centuries are the most popular. The latter half of the 20th century to contemporary times would not include references to pop culture, technology, or the despairs typically associated with modern life (capitalism, consumerism, environmental destruction, etc.) This lack of modern technology may be one of the reasons why the contemprary audience is attracted to the genre- it is a form of escapism that allows the audience to be immersed in an environment that is extremely different from the quarantined audience of 2020.
The academic setting would also influence the characters in that their subject of study would appear in allusions and character motivations. The subject is almost always of the humanities; for example, Shakespeare in If We Were Villains or the classics in The Secret History. Knowledge is often esoteric and forbidden, creating a seductive allure.
The most common traits among the media considered Dark Academia is the emphasis on prose. Elevated vocabulary, lavish detail, and insight into emotions and human character are paramount. Quotes are often shared among the community, making the work cemented as part of the Dark Academia "canon."
The characters, in fitting in with their setting being an academy, would be intelligent and largely passionate about their discipline. This can then turn to obsession, with the scholar or artist being willing to self-destruct or harm others for the sake of their work.
In order to facilitate the drama of the narrative, some characters typically have traits of Machiavellianism, dishonesty, loyalty, and capriciousness.
Plot and Motifs
In Dark Academia novels, there typically is an in-group of students that have an established allure because of their expertise in their discipline, an air of mystery, or certain mannerisms that are foreign to both the audience and the other characters not in the clique. The main character, typically from a background not of the rest of the group, usually has more average traits and is new and/or unprivy to the rest of the group's dynamics and is able to describe these mannerisms to the audience. This is contrasted by the ringleader, who is typically the most intelligent, scheming, and/or authoritative of the clique.
- The characters commit a crime- murder, more often than not
- The characters keep secrets from each other and have intense interpersonal drama such as betrayal and blackmailing
- Elements of esotericism and forbidden knowledge
- Motifs of hedonism, temptation and hubris; similar to Shelley's Frankenstein wherein the character has a god complex due to their intelligence or Faust, where the titular character trades knowledge for their soul.
Please do not list books by authors in the list below. By author surname:
- The Women in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
- The Lessons by Naomi Alderman
- The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis
- Bunny by Mona Awad
- Ninth House - Leigh Bardugo
- Possession by A.S. Byatt
- The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare
- The Shakespeare Secret by Jennifer Lee Carrell
- The Glass Essay by Anne Carson
- Belle du Seigneur by Albert Cohen
- The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
- The Magus by John Fowles
- The Likeness by Tana French
- Mythos, Heroes and Troy by Stephen Fry
- The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman
- The Lie Tree by Frances Harding
- A Discovery of Witches series by Deborah Harkness
- Shades of London series and Truly Devious series by Maureen Johnson
- The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones
- Dead Poets Society by N.H. Kleinbaum
- A Separate Peace by John Knowles
- Nada by Carmen Laforet
- Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
- The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
- Oleanna by David Mamet
- The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller
- Songs of Achilles by Madeline Miller
- The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern
- I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson
- A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
- Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
- If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
- The Harry Potter Series - J.K. Rowling
- Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal El Saadawi
- Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
- The Raven Boys series by Maggie Stiefvater
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
- The Truants by Kate Weinberg
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
- Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
- Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
By author surname:
- Arthur Conan Doyle
- E.M. Forster
- Nikolai Gogol
- Count Lautréamont
- Alexander Pushkin
- Arthur Rimbaud
- J.D. Salinger
- V.E. Schwab
- Donna Tartt
- Virgina Woolf
- An Unkindness of Ravens
- Deadly Class
- Gotham Academy
- Morning Glories
- Purple Hyacinth
- The Umbrella Academy
- Your Throne
By year released:
- Rope (1948)
- In a Lonely Place (1950)
- Dial M for Murder (1954)
- Compulsion (1959)
- If... (1968)
- La prima notte di quiete (1972)
- Suspiria (1977 or 2018)
- Another Country (1984)
- Clue (1985)
- Maurice (1987)
- Withnail & I (1987)
- The Unnameable (1988)
- The Chocolate War (1988)
- Dead Poets Society (1989)
- Metropolitan (1990)
- Scent of a Woman (1992)
- School Ties (1992)
- Peter's Friends (1992)
- Shallow Grave (1994)
- Heavenly Creatures (1994)
- Immortal Beloved (1994)
- Little Women(1994)
- Total Eclipse (1995)
- Good Will Hunting (1997)
- Wilde (1997)
- The Ninth Gate (1999)
- The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
- The Skulls (2000)
- Wonder Boys (2000)
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's stone(2001)
- The Emperor's Club (2002)
- The Pianist (2002)
- The Dreamers (2003)
- Bright Young Things (2003)
- Mona Lisa Smile (2003)
- Like Minds (2006)
- The Prestige (2006)
- The Great Debaters (2007)
- Atonement (2007)
- Brideshead Revisited (2008)
- The Edge of Love (2008)
- The Reader (2008)
- Cracks (2009)
- Detachment (2011)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- Kill Your Darlings (2013)
- The Imitation Game (2014)
- Testament of Youth (2014)
- The Riot Club (2014)
- The Theory of Everything (2014)
- Victor Frankenstein (2015)
- Carol (2015)
- The Danish Girl (2015)
- Rebel in the Rye (2017)
- The Bookstore (2017)
- Disobedience (2017)
- Colette (2018)
- Mary Shelley (2018)
- Vita & Virginia (2018)
- The Nightingale (2018)
- Tolkien (2019)
- Knives Out (2019)
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
- Las Niñas (2020)
- Ammonite (2020)
- Shirley (2020)
- The Dig (2021)
- Seance (2021)
- The Last Duel (2021)
- The Alienist
- The Chair
- Deadly Class
- Doctor Foster
- The Essex Serpent
- Gentleman Jack
- Good Omens
- His Dark Materials
- House of Anubis
- How To Get Away With Murder
- Killing Eve
- Murdoch Mysteries
- The Magicians
- The Nevers
- The Night Gallery
- Ordeal By Innocence
- Peaky Blinders
- Penny Dreadful
- Prodigal Son
- The Queen's Gambit
- The Umbrella Academy
- A Series of Unfortunate Events
Anime & manga
- 91 Days
- Black Butler (especially the Public School Arc)
- Black Museum: The Ghost and the Lady
- Bungou Stray Dogs
- Code Geass
- Death Note
- From Up on Poppy Hill
- Fullmetal Alchemist (both the 2003 and 2009 version)
- Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
- The Garden of Words
- Joker Game
- Moriarty the Patriot
- The Promised Neverland
- The Royal Tutor
- Saga of Tanya the Evil
- Vampire Knight
- Violet Evergarden
- Revolutionary Girl Utena
- Another Country
- The Inheritance
- Spring Awakening
- Total Eclipse
- Angels in America
- Prima Facie
- Bare: A Pop Opera
- The Count of Monte Cristo
- Frankenstein: A New Musical
- Jekyll & Hyde
- Light in the Piazza
- Natasha Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812
- Phantom of the Opera
- Spring Awakening
- Sweeney Todd
- Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities
- Dark Dice
- Myths & Legends
- The Magnus Archives
- The Penumbra Podcast
- Prose Talk
- The White Vault
- Unwell A Midwestern Gothic Mystery
- 1917: The Prologue
- Alter Ego
- Assassins Creed: Syndicate
- Call of Cthulhu
- Layers of Fear
- The Last Door Season 1
- The Metamorphosis
- The Room VR: A DarkMatter
- Rusty Lake game series
- What Never Was
Some music typically associated with Dark Academia evokes the same historical and elite aesthetic through classical music, which is regarded as upper-class and traditional, with multiple people within these types of families encouraged to learn this type of music to create a wide profile of skills.
Specifically, the classical music used is wide-ranging, as Baroque (Bach, Vivaldi) and Romantic (Liszt, Tchaikovsky) are included. The classical music used in the aesthetic is typically in a tone more romantic, melancholy, epic, or severe, as it is played in the minor key and with piano and strings.
Contemporary alternative music is extremely popular in this aesthetic, if not more popular. There is a wide variety of instrumentation, although some common characteristics are: the use of strings or piano, slow and deep bass, and backing or echoing vocals. Tempo tends to be slower and like in classical, has a more melancholy and contemplative tone. Lyrically, these songs would have motifs that fit the drama, intellectualism, and wildness of the aesthetic. The lyrics may reference mythology and literature, have a higher vocabulary than the typical song, and reference yearning.
On YouTube, it is popular to create videos that are playlists for studying, with the video showing an image with the Dark Academic aesthetic. Titles conveying the common tropes in the genre are common, for example, "talking with the ghosts in an abandoned library." These playlists are a common entry for people into the aesthetic. The trend appeared in late 2020 and early 2021, as seen by the most popular videos being created approximately the same time.
The Aesthetics Wiki staff creates official Spotify playlists for aesthetics, which compile the songs most frequently featured on existing playlists dedicated to those aesthetics. Pages about aesthetics that have an official wiki playlist will not include other playlists.
The de facto Dark Academia activities are studying and reading. Learning about Dark Academia subjects (literature, languages, history, philosophy, etc.) is one of the ways that Dark Academia fans build community. Holding book clubs, recommending readings, and discussing theory with peers is done through tumblr asks and reblogs, Discord servers, and other social media sites.
Solitary studying is more popular, however. Essay-writing, memorizing vocabulary and annotating literature are activities that are encouraged to pursue for fun. But unlike Studyblr, less emphasis is placed on sharing studying tips and the scholastic experience. Rather, the subject or the emotions felt during studying is discussed. For example, as opposed to infographics on the advantages of different note-styles, Dark Academics wax poetically about the euphoria associated with finally mastering a language.
However, social situations such as parties and being within a group are more than encouraged. Being drunk and having engaging conversations is a popular wish for Dark Academics to have and why many people bond over this aesthetic. Dinner parties, coffee dates, and picnics in the forest are a frequent outlet for this, and wine, coffee, tea, bread, cheese, and upscale, traditional dishes are mentioned frequently in novels.
Supernatural experiences and loss of control are activities that are wished for (but not done due to their improbability). There are frequent mentions of the "bacchanal," which was the inciting incident of The Secret History, where the characters experienced divine madness through ritual.
Creative pursuits are also encouraged. Romanticism is linked with expressing emotions. Journaling, acting in theater, writing poetry, and creating art are examples of this desire. What makes these activities "fit" the aesthetic is how closely it aligns with the patrician and academic class of the eras. For example, expressing oneself through rap music or making drip paintings would not be considered Dark Academic, but playing Chopin's Nocturnes or painting a naturalistic portrait of a lover would be.
Visiting buildings that fit the Dark Academia visuals, such as libraries, art museums, historic houses, churches, etc. is another way of experiencing the aesthetic. Existing and daydreaming in the space, taking note of the architecture and the people existing in it is in line with the romanticism of the ethos.
Sports such as squash, horse riding, croquet and lacrosse can be claimed as Dark Academia due to their connection with Preppy culture. Multiple private schools' aspiring Ivy League students are encouraged to involve themselves with these sports in order to create a diverse skill set. And as described in the Preppy page, many of these sports are obscure and would not be accessed by an average person.
Chess is connotative of Dark Academia due to its emphasis on strategy, as well as intellect and dramatic tension being two of the main pillars of the game and the aesthetic's appeal. Chess has established itself as a sport done by calculating characters, with its ubiquity throughout history fitting into the 19th-early 20th century aesthetic. Card games can have the same association.
Hobbies that are not necessarily intellectually or emotion-driven, but have the appearance of the aesthetic are also included. This includes calligraphy, book-binding and embroidery. The emphasis on improving oneself, dedication to a subject and active thinking and focus could be applied to these (and many more) hobbies. Again, what determines if a hobby could fit into the aesthetic is its resemblance to the visuals and connotations. The activities should fit the leisure class of the time periods.
For comedy's sake, many Dark Academics banter about committing crimes such as murder, art theft, and blackmail. Of course, this is not achievable in real life nor is it actually done on a petty level. Rather, people read about characters doing this in fiction, create outfits for if they were to do these crimes, or craft a persona similar to a villain, such as recommending to smirk instead of smile.
Aestheticization of unhealthy behavior
Dark Academia has been criticized for its apparent encouragement of unhealthy behavior in the pursuit of both the aesthetic itself and academic achievement. Stress and procrastination related to education, depression and its symptoms, unhealthy sleep habits, including both under and oversleeping and excessive consumption of coffee, are frequently referenced and discussed in Dark Academic communities.
Dark Academia focuses predominantly on languages, literature, architecture, art, poetry and fashion originating from Western Europe and has been consequently criticized as Eurocentric. Many Dark Academics have rejected an exclusionary interpretation of Dark Academia and encouraged academics to include non-Western languages, literature, architecture and clothing in their conceptions and use of the aesthetic.
Lack of True Academic Thought
Another criticism of Dark Academia does not lie in its socio-political issues, but rather that Dark Academics are not necessarily intellectual, and overly emphasize the aesthetic rather than actually participate in academic work. Many, if not most, of the works included in the Dark Academia canon are pop literature, often from the young adult genre. So, some literature fans are exasperated when Dark Academics assume a persona of being intellectual and sophisticated, when the novels they read do not express the same literary quality as more rigorous novels do.
The use of books being a point for fashion and lifestyle inspiration without much emphasis on critical thought is another contention. This is especially true with appreciation for The Secret History, which is supposed to be a satire- people trying to mimic their lifestyle and personality of the characters are missing the point of the novel mocking the main characters. Many books demonstrate that pretentiousness and isolation from non-academics create hubris, leading to the characters' downfalls; readers who understand the theme would be less inclined to assume these relationship dynamics, presumably.
Additionally, many critics claim that Dark Academia is more preoccupied with the visual aesthetic rather than studying and Academia itself. Rather than enjoying studying and reading because of the subject matter/themes, some critics say that these people are more preoccupied with projecting the aesthetic of being sophisticated, in affect being posers.
Fans of the aesthetic also, entirely inadvertantly, changed the semantic meaning behind Academia as an amorphous class that includes the poor, people of color, and a variety of cultures to an aesthetic that emphasizes Western Eurocentricism and classicism, with a set lifestyle and mode of thought. From this, people will continue seeing Academia as a group of pretentious ivory tower types instead of the diversity of the class. Anti-intellectualism and a lack of class solidarity results from this misconception of Academia, and the aesthetic may perpetuate this view to the generation on social media.
External links to help get a better understanding of this aesthetic.
- LitCrit: Dark Academia revisited
- Vice: Dark Academia is the witchy literary aesthetic sweeping TikTok
- Wikipedia: Dark Academia
- Vox: This week in TikTok: Are you cottagecore or more “Dark Academia”?
- New York Times: Academia Lives — on TikTok
References and notes
All references marked with personal communication are interviews. To view transcriptions, access to the Dark Academia interview file on the Aesthetics Wiki Google Drive, which can be viewed here. Included in the file is the methodology, ethical guidelines and reach of the interview, as described by the Aesthetics Wiki interviewer. If you want to participate in this project, please contact graviphantalia.
- Anolik, Lili. (2019, May 29). The Secret Oral History of Bennington: The 1980's Most Decadent College. Esquire. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a27434009/bennington-college-oral-history-bret-easton-ellis/
- metamorphoses (personal communication, May 31, 2021)
- To see examples, check the Aesthetics Wiki Google Slide https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1hy1KXcdszTHfTGje5MyS3KrNiucrCCpGFt5973Hd7P8/edit?usp=sharing
- A fashion class in the Dark Academics discord server
- This has been extrapolated from media that is the most frequent on dark academia lists such as The Secret History, Frankenstein and Kill Your Darlings. The list of tropes should not be seen as an authority and this conversation varies amongst different members of the dark academia community.
- This was discussed in a book club in the Discord server Dark Academics.
- This was found by searching "Dark Academia playlist" on YouTube and sorting it through most viewed. Through this method, one can find that the top ten videos were created from November 2020 to January 2021.
- lil-bit-of-a-mess. (2020, December 1) [text post]. tumblr, archived on Wayback Machine. https://web.archive.org/web/20210610231557/https://lil-bit-of-a-mess.tumblr.com/post/636320046655881216/listen-i-love-dark-academia-i-really-do-it