A Brief History of (My) Dark Academia – Literary Hub

Origins
Where there is academia, there is dark academia. Dark academia is academia’s black swan and shadow self, a mirror that reflects and opposes: it’s how academics want to see themselves, the apotheosis and the parody of who they always already are. Pythagoras, chased by enemies, refusing to run through a field of beans because he believed they resembled fetuses, and wouldn’t kill them, so died himself instead. Hypatia, Neoplatonist mathematician, martyred for teaching philosophy. The invention of the zero.
Dark academia is both young and old, richly storied yet impossible to pin down. But the internet iteration of the genre [1] officially began in 1992, with the publication of The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s disgustingly delicious debut novel and the ürtext for the next decades of meme. [2] “Beginning with endings, The Secret History’s prologue is a foray into the novel’s own future,” writes dark academia scholar Olivia Stowell. [3] The first wave of Covid-19 saw a rise of “pandemia”––that is, pandemic dark academia. School closures sparked a massive orgiastic frenzy of academy worship. [4]
The core dark academia aesthetic comprises many delicious subcategories. Prep school dark academia—What Was She Thinking?: Notes On A Scandal; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Dead Poets Society, etc.—tend to be very Brit-based, very Gothic architecture erogenous zone, very white. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark’s novel and the film adaptation starring a young Maggie Smith as the blondest of dark academes, are equally prime examples of this subset. The story features the titular Miss Brodie, a prep-school teacher who cultivates her cult of personality, who develops her “set,” a harem [5] of academic types (Sandy, the brunette with “insight but no instinct”; Rose, the strawberry blonde with instinct but no insight; Monica, the maths genius; dweeby dim Mary; Eunice, the athlete; Jenny, the beauty; etc.). Everything is very arch, very cool; there are artists and attics and affairs and also a terrible death by wandering in conflagration, in flagrante literally.
Dark academia fuels itself, a snake eating its own tail, a fractal monster that can never be meta enough for its own satisfaction. A boarding-school girl named Brooke is reading a book about a boarding school featuring a doppelganger who’s obsessed with Instagram ads for Sylvia Plath-inspired skirts—there’s never enough darkness within the darkness. First as tragedy, then as farce, then as flourish, then as requirement.
College dark academia is more overtly homoerotic; the girls are both reading and living My Brilliant Friend and Rebeccaand The Talented Mr. Ripley as they carry fuzzed-out thrifted Evelina and Colette and B-side midcentury jams, Elizabeths Taylor and Hardwick. The literary magazine party at the Jane Hotel, old-growth potted plants in a red-gold light, iron balustrades and a mahogany bar puddled with light. A dark academia fuckboi pitches me his idea about the university as a medieval Marxist institution. I see it as MmarxI: the Video Game. Nobody is talking about how the University is actually this deeply Marxist capitalist thing, he says. I’m Nobody! I say. Who are You?
Harvard is brick Bostonian Brahmin, J.Press and cross-dressing and deep mahogany encased inside; Princeton is Oxonian Gothic, plus new-money wood glass; Yale is Gothic on the outside with a Georgian interior courtyard and streets you cannot cross at night. Christ Church is Harry Potter, Cambridge is the secret best.
The fantasy division of dark academia—Harry Potter and ilk—heavily flirt with steampunk, a cog-based analog world that by very dint of its mechanical nature supports the magical all the more. Gothic academia, windswept moors, a direct line from Wuthering Heights to Kate Bush swaying on the heath in a period-red gown like one of those inflatable air-dancing tube guys for used cars, impossibly tall with skinny arms, cylinder for a bottom, grin fused on and wildly prized-open lidless eyes, over-swaying in a flat breeze, stoically maniacal in a gale. There’s fairy academia, Mists of Avalon, Goblin Market; there’s Pre-Raphaelite jewel-tone academia, the Lady of Shalott; there’s Darkest Academia, my all-black mass-market paperback cover of The Hobbit, black nail polish, House of Leaves. [6]
*
Beginnings
Everything freezes a little later than you think it will and thaws much later than you expect in Vermont. The trees off-gas a maple scent that smells like fake syrup. In most of the northern hemisphere the earth’s solidly spongy, but here, the landscape is ashy mushroom bone, denuded, just a few tufts of ambitious neon grass. On this first night of the vernal equinox, we wrap ourselves in tattered tartan blankets and traipse out to the old sugar shack, the wood swelling with dark winter rot.
We peel off the blankets, we’re wearing nothing, we’re naked, not nude, pale fungal bodies, skin translucent in the moonlight; we join hands in a weird rangy circle and dance until we’re motionless. Later, someone has lit a fire by the shack; we’re shivering in old cords and fisherman sweaters, swigging Talisker from silver flasks, our feet in three layers of LL Bean socks. We’ve killed Bunny, but he’s blond, also a WASP, it doesn’t matter, he was always already dead. He’s also already reborn, a pink overgrown baby suckling a martini.
The autumnal equinox is the first day Sylvia can wear her flannel miniskirt and we’re here for it. We hate sweat, we only worship the sun in the buff. It is the fifteenth truly cold day of fall, beyond crisp, the mud dried in brain rivulets. The deciduous trees are on the waning side of flaming, the garnets and atomic tangerines and insulting marigolds all melding into a gray stubble. We’re cold, clammy. We’re by the sundial on the flagstones, the thin light bringing no warmth. We stub out cigarettes.
Viv describes the inside of the fifty-year-old professor’s apartment, white bathrobe, rain-head shower, surprisingly modern wall of glass staring into the lawn. Deer peer at themselves and stupid birds smash into it at alarming velocities, their fat bodies quivering; sometimes they bounce off, dazed, but more often than not they spatter, blood and guts and disgusting sinew smeary as baby poo, smutty splutter across the flagstone patio. They hadn’t bother to cover the pool so weird biomatter floats on top like lesions, and by “they” Viv means the professor and his wife, he’s married, she’s eighteen or whatever, we’re all Lolita in our minds.
*
My Dark Academia
When I was ten, I wrote short stories to make my mother cry. Mariel and her little sister are alone in the desert, stranded, perishing of thirst. Their grandmother, who was their caretaker, has just passed away. Their mother died in childbirth; no father. Mariel and her sister struggle into the hot wind, in tattered school uniforms, stockings with deep runs. Mariel’s sister’s flask tips out across the desert, the dark pool spreading across the light tan until the sand easily absorbs it, reversing its course into dryness. Here—Mariel hands her own small flask to her sister. You have this. The sister drinks, revives, surges forward. Just then Mariel sees an oasis in the distance, hallelujah!; but it’s an illusion, she reaches toward it, leaves her mortal body in a skinny-ass heap as she launches into the ether and dances in the rain.
In a seminar on Joyce and Beckett in the basement [7] of the Harvard English department, a tenured drama professor in horn-rimmed glasses and no body fat introduced the “always already” tense: something has happened, but it’s already happened, and was already going to happen.
Past perfect, future perfect; the only place it doesn’t exist is the present. In this way, dark academia is also sleepaway camp. What’s a dark academia scholar but a PhD student earning nothing but glory?
I have a surfeit of gold stars: valedictorian, Princeton, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Harvard, Phi Beta Kappa, Princeton again, summa cum laude, book reviews, publications, green juice. I’ve found this Vitamin C supplement all the celebrities love. Squeeze it out into a glass and it bobbles like a little jelly.
*
Hunks
In Julia May Jonas’s Vladimir, the narrator is a lusty English professor in her late fifties, leering after the younger junior prof, Vladimir, a forty-year-old with a hot mind and a ripped bod. After she devours Vlad’s “experimental” novel, our narrator invites him over for a swim, where she ogles his washboard abs, her gaze lingering over their ridges; every description of her own husband’s physicality thereafter emphasizes his decay, like she’s wielding a contour brush from hell: the sweatshirt that accentuates his gut, the unfortunate shorts. The narrator remembers herself at the carousel as a child, in a hideous acrylic outfit, hating every minute of it. But when she looks at a photograph of herself, she reports, she’s got a dopey smile plastered to her face, a kid with a sticky face from a melting lollipop. The memory is too bright, a glare without sunglasses.
When I was dating a much older man, we went to the beach to see a solar eclipse. Everyone insisted we couldn’t stare straight at the sun, but he was blind in one eye, so he rolled his glass eyeball straight into the white- hot orb. A pall came over the beach. It was noon, but everything was black. We shivered in suddenly inadequate thin cotton. The beach wasn’t really a beach, it was Lake Michigan, everyone insisted that there were waves so it was like the ocean, except pine trees and campus and leafy Midwest campus suburbia marched straight up to it. He was compact, fit without trying, except that he did try, tennis and long sports massages.
The Secret History’s Henry is the Humbert ürhunk of the bunch, muscled from the might of translating Milton into Latin in the dead of night. Nobody sees him eat anything except black coffee, and Scotch, and, once a week, a steak generously seasoned with salt and pepper, cooked in cast iron, sizzling with butter.
*
Conference Affairs
At a conference, I check in to find that the hotel has already put a man into my hotel room. We’ve slept together. More than once. He has a girlfriend. He sends me a picture of the hotel television. Good evening, it says, and it gives my name. Make this journey even more rewarding. A fake fire burns in a fake fireplace on the screen. He says he didn’t plan it, but his room charges are on my bill.
Instead of sleeping with my dark academic, I drink a lot of good whiskey with solidly hunky reliable boys, flirting safely; engaged but not married, so not yet interested in having affairs.
My ex-best friend was, she told me herself, sleeping with the man at the top of the shitty media men list. His name was in red. She wanted to have his baby, she didn’t believe in birth control because she was afraid the hormones would fuck with her body. I told her to take plan B, but did she?
She’d also grown increasingly Catholic for the gilt, it was so beautiful, the way she could buy whatever she wanted to fuck with her body guilt-free.
*
Waifs
The male body is a hunk, the female is a sickle.
Gretel is a recurring dark academia nightmare: stuff and stuffed and stuffed so the once-emaciated body balloons past endomorph and into spherical. Like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float, overnight, the too-thin pale naïf swells into a distended cream puff. Her skin glows, éclair-smooth.
When I was seven, I wrote a book: The Pretty Girl Who Was Smart and the Beautiful Girl Who Was Stupid, about a pair of auburn-haired fraternal twins who lived up to their monikers. Lydia, the titular beautiful/stupid, parades in her curls. Kelly, an Olympic gymnast and award-winning novelist and mathematician before she’s thirteen, is never satisfied. Lydia finally takes a dark turn, becomes so frustrated at her inability to pass the first grade, that she eats millions upon millions of cookies until growing so huge that she bursts.
I had an eating disorder, a common refrain of dark academics, said with shame and sanctimony. True for me. I rarely got my period and when I did it was crusty-maroon. [8] Even with the copper IUD that was supposed to make me bleed and bleed, I cramped up.
*
Dark Academia Patagonia
Men are mesomorphs, women are ectomorphs.
Dark academia Patagonia is a fitness regime bordering on addiction, and it takes up many hours of your day. You tell the reporter that you run in a mohair sweater because it breathes well. Running is preppy sanctimony. The pantheon of punishing pastimes only the elite can afford: Pure Barre, running, Peloton, hot yoga, the class, Reformer Pilates, Refine, Bar Method, Physique57, the Tracy Anderson Method. The Lululemon peels the body.
Lionel Shriver also hates bodies. Alison Bechdel loves and hates bodies. Jock academia.
*
Queer Studies
Dark academia might queer gender norms in its fashion, but much of the aesthetic still relies on conservative standards of heteronormative desire. Pushing the norm involves reification.
Queerness is a central part of the look, brogues and vests and tweeds, but the language of these fashion choices reflects gender divide, not blurring: “mannish” Oxfords, cricket sweaters “borrowed from the boys.” In other words, the surface has queered, but the core remains conservative.
*
Mirroring
When you walk into the English department at Harvard, the first thing you see when you look up is a chandelier made of antlers. Teddy Roosevelt’s portrait stares out at the antlers, Big Buck Hunter. There are lots of mesomorphic white men erotically gracing the halls. Even Eliot is hunky in attractive round glasses. Somebody has stuck up a postcard of John Ashbery in a kimono, in the same conquering pose as Roosevelt.
Dark academic desire is queer mirroring—I want to be fucking Cassandra and Henry and Rebecca and Lavinia and Marjorie and Daniel and Graham and Peter, and to be them.
*
Fear of Pregnancy
“Stunted” and “student” are anagrams.
Christine Smallwood uses miscarriage in The Life of the Mind as a metaphor for adjunct hell. Dorothy, our protagonist, has to terminate a pregnancy medically, but keeps bleeding for weeks, rusty tracks in her underwear that no one else can see; when she finally expels a mucus-y pre-fetal blob, she’s the only one who can know or care. It’s surprising that Dorothy has a name; in these types of situations, I’d expect the narrator to go nameless, as our classic faceless heroine in, say, Rebecca, or, more recently, Vladimir, a book Smallwood couldn’t have read but nevertheless must have always already known.
“Stillbirth” is a particular female dark academia horror we will not speak of. Men will push their ideas into existence, women must become male to birth their book-babies.
After graduating from one terminal degree, I enter another. Everyone in my year presented as cis female, five years before the future is female, so at the time we were all best friends in the eyes of the faculty. Isn’t it sweet, the female cohort. A decade later, one figures out they are not female, and four have male babies. Most of my friends are in geriatric pregnancies. I cannot find a date, let alone a womb.
*
Death Wish
Dark academia’s deathy vibe emerges in its life-or-death argot. Adjunct hell. Bone-white. Method wars. Publish or perish. Statement of purpose.
*
[1] Is it a genre? PhD candidate Gunner Taylor refers to dark academia a “medium-spanning aesthetic trend” (Gunner Taylor, “Tweed Jackets and Class Consciousness,” Dark Academia cluster, Post45, 15 Mar 2022).
[2] For a primer, see accounts and posts from online dark academics such as ca.tk.in, cosyfaerie, Dark.Academia, DarkAcademiaLibrary, finelythreadedsky, jasminlibrary, Graviphantalia, MyFairestTreasure, quartzdelta, outfit.trends.tt, TimelyWitness5638, and theyluvv_.s, among many others.
[3] Olivia Stowell, “The Time Warp, Again?,” Dark Academia cluster, Post45, 15 Mar 2022.
[4] PhD-adjacent Hollis Bennett traces pandemia to the 1918 Spanish flu, when school closures scattered New York’s elite prep students across the Upper West and East Sides. Bennett tracks the circulation among Brearley and Spence students of calendrical daybooks known as “Tick Tocks,” in which teenagers relied on quick sketches and elaborate shorthand to note their daily fashion choices. Senior adjunct Willia I. Tate has documented an uptick in “autograph books” among students sent home from Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut: the goal was to collect signatures not only from fellow students, but from professors and influential peers in rival boarding schools. See Hollis Bennett, “Influencers with Influenza: New York City’s Boarding Schools and the 1918 Pandemic,” Brigantine Media Journal vol. 6, no. 27: St. Johnsbury, VT, 2018. Tate’s work is unpublished.
[5] “Harem” was once clued in the New York Times crossword as “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group.”
[6] I’m indebted to the Aesthetics Wiki for illuminating dark academia taxonomy and identifying crucial touchstones.
[7] Dark academia scholar Hollis Bennett traces the history of dark academia basements. In “The Antisocial Network: How Princeton’s Tunnels and Harvard’s Catacombs Limned Liminal Desire,” Bennett excavates the secret history of subterranean punk-goth culture underneath campus life. In a similar yet entirely opposite architectural vein, William I. Tate’s “Rarest Air: The World Above the Ivory Tower” investigates the long yet unspoken tradition among rogue students of scaling academic buildings. One such climbing cult, at Princeton University, had a yearly tradition of stealing the clapper inside the bell at the top of Nassau Hall. A member of the junior class, designated the Clapper Keeper, is granted custody of the object. On the night of graduation, the Keeper must return the clapper to the tower so that at the stroke of midnight, the bell can toll once again for the new outgoing group of seniors. If the clapper is not returned, that class, unbeknownst to them, falls under a curse, the spell of which can only be broken when the bell rings once more. It is not known how many cohorts of Princeton seniors have been thus afflicted.
[8] For the same-different see Caren Beilin, Noemi Press, 2014. See also Hannah Sanghee Park, The Same-Different, Louisiana State University Press, 2015.
__________________________________
Our Dark Academia Adrienne Raphel
Our Dark Academia by Adrienne Raphel is available via Rescue Press.
Created by Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature

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