Whether you’re a long-time fan of Dark Academia (like me) or are just discovering this compelling genre (and aesthetic), check out The Dark Academia Aesthetic: A YA and Adult Book List. Let’s talk about what Dark Academia is (and isn’t) and discuss some of our favorite Dark Academia books, movies and shows!
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Table of Contents for The Dark Academia Aesthetic: A YA and Adult Book List
- What is the Dark Academia Aesthetic?
- Why Has Dark Academia Suddenly Become More Popular?
- What Is My Criteria for Dark Academia Books?
- Is Dark Academia a white-centered, classist and sexist Genre?
- The Lists:
- YA Dark Academia Books
- Adult Dark Academia Books
- Dark Academia Shows and Movies
First: What IS Dark Academia, anyway?
I’ve loved Dark Academia since before I even knew it was an official thing. It combines SO many of my favorite things: a vintage/boarding school aesthetic, a bookish sensibility, and a dark, slightly sinister vibe.
I don’t know if there’s an official definition of Dark Academia, but it’s a philosophy and an aesthetic most commonly found in literature, film and fashion.
Here are some elements that characterize it in books and movies:
An academic setting with a vintage/ boarding school/Ivy League/Oxbridge vibe
An emphasis on learning and the pursuit of knowledge, particularly esoteric subjects (like Greek or Latin), classic literature, and existentialist philosophy. May include dabbling in dark topics (see below).
Discussions of philosophy, existentialism, and/or life and death – to me this is an important element. The characters in Dark Academic are often OBSESSIVE, secretive, and cliquish.
Dark Academia typically also features characters who have a preoccupation with “dark” topics: mortality, “seizing the day” or coming to terms with one’s mortality, or even the occult.
In addition, Dark Academia novels and films often include secret societies or closed, tight-knit groups who gather to explore such topics.
Why is Dark Academia Suddenly So Popular?
It’s been around a while and never really goes out of style. But Dark Academia has surged in popularity in the 2020s.
It makes perfect sense to me. These are uncertain times, from the pandemic to global conflict. Part of Dark Academia is a preoccupation with death and a reckoning with our mortality.
But also, (and more reassuringly) Dark Academia focuses on things that have stood the test of time: ivy-covered buildings, antique typewriters, ancient languages. I also think the connection with our past and a reminder of those that came before us can be a comforting thing.
What is my criteria for a Dark Academia Book?
The list will NOT be mysteries set at a school. If you are looking for a comprehensive list of YA mysteries, check out my definitive guide. Or my list of Books Set at Boarding Schools.
To make MY Dark Academia Book List, books have to have three out of four of these criteria: 1) retro academic vibe, 2) secret clubs and societies, 3) a focus on esoteric knowledge or existentialism and 4) a dark feel and/or obsession with dark topics.
How dark does Dark Academia need to be?
There’s a spectrum, in my opinion. But it needs to skew on the darker side! (I am including a light academia series in my list!)
Is Dark Academia a Classist and Sexist Genre?
Many examples of Dark Academia reflect both the times in which they were created and the academic institutions (and areas of study) that inspired the subgenre. Most of those elite academic institutions used to be all male, predominantly white, upper middle class, and Christian. Also pretty heteronormative.
But things have changed in both academia and Dark Academia. Many of the newer books on this list are taking a critical look at the privilege upon which those elite academic institutions were built. They focus more on the people who were once (and sometimes still) shut out of them, and feature characters who question and challenge those old norms and the gatekeeping that upheld them.
My list reflects both classic and modern Dark Academia, and if you have new books to add, please tell me in comments!
The Dark Academia Aesthetic: a YA Book List
Contemporary Dark Academia YA
Very Bad People by Kit Frick
This one ticks off most of the Dark Academia boxes very well! It takes place at an upstate New York boarding school, features a secret society, and definitely has a dark feel.
- True Crime elements
- New England setting
- Social justice themes
A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee
Felicity returns to the Darrow School after the tragic death of her girlfriend and grows closer to a new student who is researching the history of witchcraft at the school.
- LGBTQ themes
- A very witchy vibe (but no actual paranormal happenings)
- a toxic boarding school romance
A Lesson in Vengeance did have the retro boarding school vibe. You’d think this was paranormal but no: the paranormal element was more window dressing/ambiance and not really as much of the plot as I’d hoped – in the end, this read more as a psychological thriller.
How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao
This is also more of a private school thriller, but that’s cool too. I’ll be reading this and deciding if it should stay on this list. But my boarding school YA fiction list is also a great one to check out!
- New York City setting
- Pretty Little Liars vibe
- Diverse characters who address class issues in elite schools
Check out my review of How We Fall Apart here!
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Dark Academia (like most fiction) can definitely use more diversity and an exploration of issues of class, race, and privilege within academia. I’m happy to report that YES this is Dark Academia and YES I enjoyed it.
- Addresses institutionalized racism
- Also addresses the difficulties faced by students of color and first gen students
Read my Review of Ace of Spades here!
The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban (2013)
Death and a secret romance at an elite boarding school. It has the setting, the intellectual preoccupations, and, well, a tragedy. This one isn’t super-dark but the overall vibe is there.
- A very Young Poets Society feel
- New England Setting
Looking for Alaska by John Green
This takes place at a boarding school and the main characters do have an obsession with poetry and death. My (possibly unpopular) opinion is that it’s very close to Dark Academia. If you want to disagree with me in comments, I might change my mind!
- Poetry reading misfits in a Southern boarding school
- A manic pixie dream girl
- Addresses mental health issues
YA Paranormal Dark Academia Books
A Study in Drowning by Ava Reid – new in 2023!
I adored this one, which reminded me of an updated Harry Potter with political themes. But it does have a super-atmospheric boarding school setting, a couple of students who join together in an obsessive academic quest, and a spooky paranormal vibe.
- Academic rivals romance
- Truly creepy setting
- Paranormal/Fae elements
- A feminist and political bent
The Forest Demands its Due by Kosovo Jackson – new in 2023!
I haven’t read this one, but it seems to lean toward the horror side of Dark Academia, and does seem to be paranormal. If I’m wrong, tell me in comments!
- Fantasy/horror elements
- Black and queer main character
- Vengeful creature in the woods
The Ravens by Danielle Paige and Kass Morgan
Murder and mayhem in a sorority of witches. For me, this one was a little light on the academic vibes, so if that’s your favorite part of Dark Academia, be warned. But this book definitely has the dark tone, the secret sorority aspect, and the occult.
- College Setting
- Sorority Themes
- Occult elements
Vicious by V.E. Schwab
Two college roommate friends with a shared obsession with a near-death experience.
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater.
The Anglionby boys, the retro vibe of their fancy boarding school, and their paranormal obsession feel right in the neighborhood of Dark Academia to me!
- Elite boys boarding school
- Paranormal romance
Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
Again, not 100% there, but Ellingham Academy definitely has a dark boarding school academia vibe.
- Past/present storyline
- True crime elements
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
An American girl gets sent to a English boarding school where a Jack the Ripper copycat stalks the streets. The British boarding school setting is definitely there, and the paranormal stuff, for me, tips it into Dark Academia territory.
- An American exchange student in the UK
- Jack the Ripper themes
- Paranormal happenings
Historical Fiction Dark Academia YA
A Separate Peace by John Knowles.
Two friends, a boys’ boarding school and a tragic accident. I read this in eighth grade and was obsessed with it. Yes, it’s very white and male, but I now feel some LGBTQ undercurrents there….
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
This is paranormal historical YA, but I think it really does fit the bill. It takes place at a nineteenth century British boarding school and features a group of girls who are obsessed with the spiritual world.
Some Light Academia
Thanks to Tiff from Mostly YA Lit for reminding me of:
Secret Society Girl by Diana Peterfreund
I’m including this series because it does have many elements of Dark Academia – it’s about a Yale senior who gets “tapped” for a secret society. So it has the gothic/retro academic setting of Yale and the secret society element. And yet, the books also have a bit of a comic, chick lit voice (the books were published in the early 2000s and have very chick lit covers) which makes them …. light academia? In any case, if you’re not sure you want your academia too dark, definitely check out this book series!
The Dark Academia Aesthetic: an Adult Book List
Here are some examples of Dark Academia books. Again, I’m pretty strict in my definition, so I will tell you how closely each book fits the criteria.
The It Girl by Ruth Ware (2022)
I just finished this and, while it has no secret societies, it is filled with tons of Oxford atmosphere, features a group of friends, and has a murder. It’s a classic mystery and I highly recommend it!
- Oxbridge setting
- Agatha Christie vibes
- Past/present storyline
The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
This is the quintessential Dark Academia book, this one fits all the criteria and might have even made it a Thing back in 1992! A group of classics students at a New England university form a secret group and end up covering up a murder. Yes, it’s another Friend Group Thriller.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo.
This very dark and more recent adult book also fits the list pretty much 100%: a Gothic Ivy setting (Yale), secret societies, esoteric knowledge, the occult, and death. This book is VERY dark, just a heads-up.
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio.
A troupe of Shakespearean actors from an elite arts college looks back at a murder within their group.
Bunny by Mona Awand.
An MFA program at a New England university, a clique of girls called the Smut Salon, and a sinister turn of events. Leans toward the black comedy side of dark academia and is a little wacky, but still worth a read.
The Orchard by David Hopen
Described as a “Jewish Secret History,” this book is about an Orthodox Jewish boy who enrolls at a private Jewish school. He joins a group, led by a charismatic rabbi, that explores the boundaries of morality. This one was recommended by a friend, has all the hallmarks and sounds more like a Jewish Dead Poets Society – if you try it, let me know what you think.
The Maidens by Alex Michealides.
YES this one has ALL the Dark Academia vibes. A secret society at Cambridge. A murder. Obsession with Greek and Roman mythology.
- Cambridge (UK) setting
- A charismatic male professor
- Mythological themes
Here’s my review of The Maidens and if you’ve read it, come and join my Spoiler Discussion for the Maidens and my post on The World of The Maidens and The Silent Patient. Who did you suspect as the killer?
The Latinist by Mark Prins.
This one has many hallmarks of Dark Academia but is more a literary fiction/retelling. It does have a British university setting, an esoteric subject matter and some dark themes. I enjoyed it but it’s definitely more literary fiction than thriller. It’s a cerebral book with low suspense, but really picks up at the end.
Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison.
An elite girls boarding school, secret societies, and the death of a popular student. I really liked this one!
Bad Habits by Amy Gentry.
I’d say this is 75% Dark Academia. It’s about a girl with a tough home life who joins her privileged friend at an elite graduate school program run by a charismatic professor. The retro/Gothic atmosphere is limited to a few sentences about gargoyles, but the program feels cultish and the vibe is pretty dark. Give it a try and tell me what you think!
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas.
Is this all girls school with its mysterious curriculum a academic dream or a prison? I haven’t read this (and the reviews aren’t great) so if you have, tell me if it should stay on the list.
The Furies by Katie Lowe.
Girls at boarding school, Greek and Celtic legends, and death….
In 1998, a sixteen-year-old girl is found dead.
One year earlier: a new student steps on the campus of Elm Hollow Academy. She soon finds herself invited to an advanced study group, led by her alluring and mysterious art teacher, Annabel.
There, with three other girls–Alex, Grace, and Robin–the five of them delve into the school’s long-buried grim history: of Greek and Celtic legends; of the school founder’s “academic” interest in the occult; and gruesome 17th century witch trials.
The Secret Place by Tana French.
This is technically a police procedural, so not classic dark academia, but the book’s setting does have some Dark Academia elements.
The Dark Academia Aesthetic: The Movies and Shows
Wednesday on Netflix. If you want to dress like her, check out my post!
Dead Poet’s Society (1989)
The quintessential Dark Academia movie! Has all the elements of Dark Academia (but in the old-school, white guys only way…)
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and (2018)
In Australia, a group of Victorian schooolgirls go on a field trip and one goes missing. Definitely has the retro academic setting and the spooky atmosphere! There’s the original movie and the remake.
Ares (2020): I haven’t watched this, but it seems to fit all the criteria. It’s about a Dutch medical student initiated into a secret society.
One more suggestion: Riverdale season 4: The Stonewall Prep storyline, with it’s retro boarding school setting, the legend of the Stonewall 5, the Quill and Skull Society – it’s very Dark Academia!
Thanks for checking out The Dark Academia Aesthetic: A YA and Adult Book List.
I’m ready for YOUR Dark Academia recommendations. You can use your own criteria! Tell me in comments!
And if you love the Dark Academia aesthetic, come check out my Dark Academia Aesthetic Pinterest Board – if you want to pin on it, just let me know!