Dark Academia 101

When the lockdown had begun, my watchlists on all streaming platforms were completed— some being shamelessly re-watched— Dalgona coffees were whisked and banana bread loaves were baked. Finally, after weeks of subjecting myself to excessive amounts of blue rays, I had reached an epiphany that I should be getting off of social media (where every other post complained about how terrible the lockdown was) and getting back to my one true source of artistic and literary inspiration— Pinterest. Hence, I proceeded to deactivate my accounts, isolated myself on messaging apps and trodded down the path to re-discovering my love for books, art, and writing. That’s when I came to know about the little niche of dark academia. After observing several mood-boards and blowing through endless YouTube videos, I was ready to turn my life around and become a true dark academic— mysterious, creative, pretentious.


What is Dark Academia?

In simple terms, it is a subculture with a distinctive aesthetic which revolves around the arts, academia, literature, learning, poetry, classic Greek, romantic longing and suffering.  

While dark academics had quietly thrived in their niches on Tumblr since 2010, it wasn’t until 2020 when the Coronavirus pandemic snuck into everyone’s lives and along came dark academia. Suddenly, TikTok couldn’t produce nearly enough videos on the aesthetics of dark academia. Wikipedia accredits the rise in the overall interest in the subculture during the lockdown imposed by COVID-19.

Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History has been credited with creating the literary genre of dark academia which worked as a precedent for categorizing existing literary pieces into the same and for other works like M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villians to be written. The first piece of cinema which falls into the realm of dark academia would be Peter Weir’s 1989 movie, Dead Poet’s Society based on N.H. Kleinbaum’s novel of the same name.



Perhaps the aesthetics of the subculture are the most important part of it. On the surface level, muted, dark, earthy colors with the exceptions of rich emerald green, blood-red ruby, and teal constitute the color palette for dark academia. As per Tartt’s book, dark academics would always dress in prep school uniforms from the 1930s and 1940s— tweed blazers, crisp white shirts with French cuffs, corduroys, Oxfords, pince-nez, and turtlenecks. Other aesthetics that the subculture adores are gothic architecture, deep and dark forests, quiet secluded cafes, museums with Greek sculptures for as far as the eyes can see, second-hand bookstores, and libraries with just a sliver of sunlight falling from a window that is cracked open.

Hence, my quest to be a dark academic had started off rather easy. With a wardrobe full of neutral-colored semi-formal clothes and an endless collection of blood-red lipsticks and studiously stylish glasses, I was already looking the part. Additionally, to create a dark academic atmosphere, I strung fairy lights against my curtains, placed a candle on my desk alongside a tall stack of books, and pinned printouts of Greek sculptures on my corkboard, thereby feeling the part of dark academic. However, I was yet to become one in practice.



What gives this subculture its name is its indulgence in questionable life choices. The generic portrayal is that true dark academics would lose sleep in order to read, write, or study by the candlelight all the while having a cigarette pressed between their lips. The most ethically and morally questionable out of these practices would be the longing for death or the yearning to associate themselves with something sinister. The Secret History characterizes this in a backward retelling of a murder committed by the protagonist and his friends during their time in a school in New England. 

For me, the romanticism of dark academia came to life when I read about Richard and company study about ancient Greece in classical Greek, spew fluent Latin into everyday language, write exclusively with fountain pens, and speculate on how “beauty is terror” is a very profound idea. Outside of their ivy-covered brick-building school at the end of the woods, they would spend time by the candlelight talking about poetry and literature. Hence, with every word of the novel, I manifested a yearning to learn about cultures, literature, and forgotten ancient languages all the while pretending that I was one of the main characters in the cinematic rendition of the novel. I wanted to look ethereal and mysterious while I did the most mundane chores or wrote a college essay and when the internet told me that the entire online literary cult of dark academia does exactly that, I had felt right at home.

This brings me to practices in dark academic. Visiting museums, art galleries, or checking out historical architecture; attending the opera, the theater, spending time at a used bookstore, or just working at the university library until it closes. Other activities aestheticized by the subculture are playing classical instruments like the piano and the violin, making art, journaling, practicing calligraphy, reading classic literature, and learning classical languages. 

That said, while the dark academia subculture had essentially emerged within the literary community to appreciate the arts, literature, and poetry, it has bled out into other branches of academics wherein anatomy majors are encouraged to draw sketches of the human body and pin them to corkboards and computer majors can listen to Beethoven while coding. In a nutshell, the general idea of the practices of dark academia is to romanticize knowledge and learning and having fun doing it.

And I did just that. I took up junk journaling and started listening to classical music, practiced writing in cursive with my very first fountain pen in a black leather-bound notebook about anything and everything that caught my fancy. I took up Latin and compiled lists upon lists of the books I wanted to read. The unprecedented outcome of this endeavor of mine was that I began appreciating the sky when it turned pink, the sound of the rain and I pondered over every little piece of quote that I came across.


Dark Academia in Media

Apart from The Secret History which laid my base understanding of the subculture and its practices, other pieces of this literary genre that have caught my eye are:

If We Were Villians by M.L. Rio







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Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling







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Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle







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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo







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The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde








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Dead Poets Society by N.H. Kleinbaum







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Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami







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Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë







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The Shakespeare Secret by Jennifer Lee Carrell








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The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky







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Maurice by E.M. Forster







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The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman








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In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust







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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley







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The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater







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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy








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Looking For Alaska by John Green







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Dark academia has also found its rightful place in cinema where all the visualized aesthetics of the subculture come to life on screen. Some of the most inherently dark academic movies I have come across are:

Kill Your Darlings

Dead Poets Society

Little Women

Mona Lisa Smile

The Imitation Game

The Dreamers

Harry Potter


Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Enola Holmes


How To Get Away With Murder




Criticisms of Dark Academia

While dark academia is essentially about a niche of creative people who revel in their passion for learning but with speculations, problems with the community and its practices have surfaced. For starters, the aesthetics and practices of dark academia are deeply western and Eurocentric. The token dark academic fashion style is drawn from Ivy school uniforms and ways of life are deeply influenced by the west. This leaves out a significant chunk of other cultures and heritage. Today’s online community and forums of dark academics make sure to make it a point to encourage learning about eastern literature as much as it does western; mood boards consisting of hijabs and sarees are created and shared to establish inclusivity of all cultures.

Additionally, dark academia in its initial stages had seen very little representation of people of color which fit the subculture and its aesthetics in a non-inclusive box. Now, efforts are being made within the online community to encourage a healthy diversion from the status quo of dark academic aesthetics wherein people are encouraged to embrace their cultures by incorporating traditionality into dark academia. 

The subculture has also been scrutinized for its classist and elitist attitude that looks down upon menial work while encouraging unhealthy lifestyles with very little sleep, endless smoking, and intoxicating oneself. Now, however, the community has been trying to make it a point to cultivate healthier practices with the overall idea that learning, in whichever way you want, makes you a dark academic.

With this, my training to be a dark academic was complete. I knew that as long as I held onto my passion for knowledge, whether I learned about ancient Greece and Rome or the history of internet memes while I wore my prim black blazer or my worn down sweatpants, I would qualify to be called a true dark academic.

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