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!
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?
- 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. But Dark Academia also surged in popularity int he 2020s.
It makes perfect sense in these uncertain pandemic times: 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 reassuringly 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 is a comforting thing during uncertain times.
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!)
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.
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.
The Dark Academia Aesthetic: a YA Book List
Contemporary Dark Academia YA
NEW in 2022 !
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.
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. A Lesson in Vengeance did have the retro boarding school vibe. 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 boarding 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!
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.
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.
YA Dark Academia Books
The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban. Death and a secret romance at an elite boarding school. This one isn’t super-dark but the overall vibe is there.
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!
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 feel of their boarding school, and their paranormal obsession feel in the neighborhood of dark academia .
Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson. Again, not 100% there, but Ellingham Academy definitely has a dark boarding school academia vibe.
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. An American gets sent to a English boarding school where a Jack the Ripper copycat stalks the streets. The setting is definitely there, and the paranormal stuff, for me, tips it into DA territory.
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.
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 serie
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.
New in 2022!
The It Girl by Ruth Ware
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!
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.
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, 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. 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 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
Dead Poet’s Society (1989): the quintessential Dark Academia movie! Has all the elements of Dark Academia.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and (2018) 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!
If you like books with academic settings, you can also check out my list of Best YA Books Set in Boarding Schools and my list of YA Books Set in College.
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!
I was surprised by how many of the YA books I had read. A Separate Peace was one of my high school required reading books I actually liked.
It was such a sad book!
Surprisingly I haven’t read a lot of these, Ninth House was my favorite from this list though!
Also how did I NOT know about Ares???
If you try Ares tell me how it is!!!
OMG, there’s a name for this thing that I love? I honestly never categorized it, it was just “secret societies, weird old traditions, boarding school, Yale, the occult”
PS please read the Secret Society Girl series by Diana Peterfreund. You’re welcome.
Yep. Dark academia is all that stuff: weird old traditions, esoteric rituals and knowledge, secret societies, all with a dark edge!! I will add The Secret Society Girls! They aren’t super dark books but they do have all the other elements. But … is NA YA or Adult?!?!?
I feel that I never really got into this kind of books. But looking at the adult titles, I did read If We were Villains and I really love that.
Haha – Some of those adult titles are great!
Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan. I read this as a kid and loved it. They just put out a not so great movie version, but still worth watching if you like the book.
Elspeth!!! You are speaking my language. I was a child of the 80s and I was obsessed with all things Lois Duncan. I think her books were categorized YA at the time, but now she reads more middle grade/ lower YA to me, so I did not include her. She also wrote a wrenching true crime book about her daughter that I linked in my post about podcasts and true crime
I had no idea looking for Alaska is considered dark academia I’ve read that book over 50 times literally it was one of my favorites when I was a teenager and still is to this day. I was more into the indie grunge phase back then but a lot of the ideas in a way are almost similar. Glad to know the official name for the aesthetic
I’m sure 99% of people reading the post are like, “John Green wrote Dark Academia? NO WAY!” Maybe it’s more light academia. I don’t know, to me it kind of fits! The setting is in the South, so not the traditional Northeast/European dark academia setting, but the philosophizing and the darker themes are there.
I’ve only recentl heard of the term dark academia but I tend to eat up these kinds of books so yay for this post ! And I just finished Good Girls Lie so appropriate! 🙂 And yes to secretive/ cliquish behavior.
Ninth House and The Furies may be on my list now.
I love Dead Poets’ Society!! And I’m so excited to hear that about Riverdale S4. I’ve been lagging w/ Riverdale lately (stuck in mid season three) so this gives me a reason to keep watching. 🙂
Yeah, Riverdale is SO hit or miss. Season 3 was not my thing, I liked 4 and I’m excited to check out the time jump.
These Violent Delights by Michah Nemerever gave me A Separate Peace vibes
Thanks so much! Will definitely check that one out!
I NEED more books like The Maidens!! I haven’t finished it yet but it’s already one of my favorite books and I’m so scared I won’t be able to find another like it
Hmmm. Well the Dark Academia post has some suggestions and I am planning to update it soon. Is is the Cambridge setting you like? Or the Agatha Christie old style classic feel? Happy to make some suggestions for you. Or we can just hope that Alex Michaelides’s next book is similar 🙂