Think elite schools, secret societies, satire, stacks of books, and a hint of magic. Dark academia has a lock on the darker themes present in fantasy that overlaps with a reality most can connect with. We’ve all gone to school, whether a prep school or not, and we can relate to too much homework, difficult teachers, problematic classmates, and a plethora of secrets.
As we wrap up with our reading of Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, I thought it would be fun to dive into what makes a fantasy, horror, or thriller fit into the dark academia subgenre.
Elite Universities/Boarding Schools
The main setting is at an elite university, private boarding school, or special training program. Structured within this setting is some secret society or social group, usually made up of pompous, aristocratic characters.
Clubs conceal dark secrets and nefarious schemes that have us questioning their true intentions. They provide us with the starting point for the mysteries surrounding the setting and the dangerous, cultish activity sets the backdrop to the evils that will be revealed during the story.
Books & Secrets
We usually get a protagonist who loves to read; allusions to literature, history, philosophy, or some type of academic pursuit; and magical, mystical libraries. These stories typically overly romanticize the liberal arts, so you’re bound to get a bit of existentialism.
Morally Gray Characters
Unhinged and morally loose characters mean they’re likely to make room to justify their cruel and criminal behaviors. They’re unpredictable, which amps up the tension, and the moral ambiguity creates more complex characters.
Relationships that Become Toxic
A clique of eccentric or troubled friends that represent the rollercoaster of adolescent relationships and can be cringey to read about. This is because high school and college are times of discovery for young adults; as they learn about themselves and navigate their way into adulthood, they are more likely to make life-changing mistakes as they mature.
Main Character as the Outsider
Our protagonists are usually of the working class, and therefore, struggle to fully connect and integrate with their new social group, most of whom come from wealthy families. As they fear not fitting in, this sets us up for their bending morality to be accepted by their peers.
Class, Race, Religion, or Sex as an Obstacle
Beyond the ostracization of the main character, there is a clear separation between social groups—like the school versus the locals. This highlights real issues within the real academic settings, especially the more elite schools where eurocentrism and older traditions have a stronger foothold.
Their authoritative guide to the dark arts is often a professor, an older friend, or a government official. They are known for their quirky but sage advice. They’re too old to complete the task at hand, but they often hope to pass the torch before they die.
The Dark Arts
Some characters might struggle with the onset of new powers. This confusion or fear sends them in search of explanations and mentorships to navigate the new magical world they’ve been thrust into. However, the dark arts are dangerous to practitioners, costing them a heavy price for power and easily corrupting users.
United Against Evil
Accidentally release a powerful evil at the start of the book? You might be reading a dark academia novel. This evil incarnate might be a murderous demon or a psycho human, but either way, it’s going to take some planning, teamwork, and smarts to conquer.
Murder & Death
Cue the darkness that makes the subgenre, having a death, or multiple deaths, propels the storyline and gives the main character something to solve—and make mistakes while doing it. This can be a single murder, a series of murders, or mass casualties. In any case, it often showcases the inequalities of the society in which the hero operates.
Bad Weather or Darkness
Another means of adding darkness to dark academia is via the weather, a gloomy autumnal setting aids the ambiance. Since secret societies are a main part of the subgenre, having nightly excursions also amplifies the ambiance. Plus, plenty of older buildings have dark and dusty hallways and corners to amp up the creepy factor.
Adult Figure as Main Opponent
Representative of the opposition against changing social norms, an adult figure tends to stand in the way of the protagonist’s ability to save or help the people who need them at best and actively undermine or harm them at worst. Making the adversary adult seem like the hero’s nemesis can also be used as a red herring, especially when darker entities are present.
Appearing in the tragic versions of dark academia, the downward trajectory and unhappiness toward the end of a dark academia novel can signify the hero’s fall. When this happens, the outcome seems inevitable due to the human limitations of the protagonist. They suffer terribly, which is usually disproportionate; however, it often showcases the steep learning curve of the hero’s potential. We see this used to highlight that suffering can be redemptive—prompting the protagonist to take moral responsibility for the tragic situation by uncovering their weaknesses, flaws, and errors in judgment.
Dark academia tackles some interesting sides of the human psyche and uses satire to highlight social norms with its dark themes.
Have you read anything from the dark academia subgenre? Let us know about them in the comments below!
And don’t forget to join us at our live event on Tuesday, February 28 at 1pm CST. We’ll be discussing Ninth House and dark academia tropes!
Wow! Great blog and I agree with it all too. I have to admit, i did most of this in my own book but not on purpose though.