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The Gothic Appeal of Dark Academia, by Ethan K. Poole

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

Over the past few years “dark academia” has spiked in popularity. I see tons of posts of people celebrating it, particularly around the fall and winter.

To paint a picture of what this means, imagine yourself studying classical poetry or English literature by flickering candlelight in a library, or in an Ivy League classroom with an eccentric professor. Then imagine ending the day smoking cigarettes under deep orange leaves with a group of friends. As the name suggests, dark academia is concerned with any and all traditionally academic topics (at least superficially), but with a more brooding and erratic view on them, looking like a rich kid’s version of being goth or emo.

Think dark colors, tweed jackets with elbow patches, aged leather-bound books, and sophisticated-yet-understated styling. It’s the aesthetic of Dead Poets Society, for example.

As with many online aesthetics, you’ll find examples in the form of Pinterest mood boards, Tumblr pages and TikTok videos. And all of these draw from a vast trove of media that can be fit into the “dark academia” style.

Beyond just films, you’ll find shows like The Queen’s Gambit or The Umbrella Academy, books like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or M. L. Rio’s If We Were Villains, and games like Bloodborne or Persona 5 are all at least partially inspired by the aesthetic in one way or another.

Something about dark academia clearly resonates with a lot of people, raising the question of why.

Several reasons spring to mind. Many of these stories try to create an atmosphere of intelligence, often to an almost pretentious degree, which obviously attracts a certain crowd on its own. Or the general obsession with higher education in many of the stories might appeal particularly to young people or students, who are also more likely to be active on social media.

This second reason has been of particular interest, with writers like Ashley Winstead arguing that as university tuition skyrocket, and as the student loan crisis worsens, people look to dark academia as a form of escapism into an idealized version of what higher education could be.

Attending university is becoming more and more expensive, so it is understandable that many people would enjoy imagining themselves in the kind of ideal educational environment that Ivy League schools represent. People look to fiction to fulfill that fantasy because they are becoming disillusioned with the idea that they could achieve anything like it in real life.

Works in this subgenre tend to be set in elite schools, or at least focus on elite or exceptional academic topics, which contrast the reality of American colleges as many see them. It also often imbues them with a sense of danger (The Secret History and If We Were Villains being stories of brutal schoolyard murders). This can feel a lot more exciting than the more mundane anxieties people associate with real colleges: both educational ones like exams and practical ones like debt.

It is easy to see why the fantasy of studying and dissecting dynamic and revered works of literature, like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, would appeal to people — especially without the pressure of loans or finding post-graduation career opportunities.

It is not without controversy, though. Due to its obsession with Ivy League or other old and prestigious universities, it makes sense that the aesthetic has inherited some of the baggage associated with them, as well. I wasn’t kidding when I said it was a rich kid’s version of goth or emo; old money aesthetics and a general air of classism are heavily wrapped up in dark academia.

Academia has always been, unfortunately, more accessible to the rich. Dark academia often doubles down on this association as much as possible, idealizing a lifestyle of idle wealth.

Not only that, but dark academia areas of study are usually those that old private colleges see as part of the so-called “Great Western Canon.” This often places a focus on the writings of dead wealthy white people as opposed to people of any other demographic.

In short, dark academia has many of the same blind spots and biases the rest of the academic world struggles with; it just does so online instead of in traditional classrooms.

However, due in large part to its far wider appeal and relative ease of access, dark academic content also has the potential to help fix many of these issues. As writer Ariel Yisrael has argued, the aesthetic appeal of dark academia could actually be used to bring attention to the work of marginalized writers such as Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, African-American poet Langston Hughes, and many others whose work is deserving of the attention and critical engagement.

Many modern works that intentionally draw on the aesthetic are interested in using it in this way. For example, R. F. Kuang’s Babel, which takes place in an urban fantasy version of Oxford University, deals with the effects of British colonialism in China and around the world.

It is incredibly important to keep in mind any of the unconscious biases that may inform where an aesthetic comes from. It is also important to see the potential for good that such a large community of people with similar interests could have in modern culture. It is worth trying to use the aesthetics of academia to grapple with the problems present within it.

The community surrounding dark academia is ultimately a group of mostly young people excited to learn about the topics that interest them. That’s a good thing!

It is also okay for things to just be fun and exciting. Escapism, in moderation, is a good and healthy thing for people to indulge in. There is value in people using aesthetics to guide them to stories they are more likely to enjoy and to help them find a community to engage with the stories alongside them.

Dark academia is only going to get more popular as time goes on. More and more dark academic media is going to be made so long as it keeps being successful. As that happens, more people are going to find the aesthetic and have it resonate with them.

This aesthetic is becoming a significant part of our cultural landscape and changing the way some young people view real education systems as it does so. Hopefully this gives us the chance to make those systems better instead of keeping them stuck in the past. They deserve the chance to try, at least.

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