A few years ago, when I was sixteen, the dark academia phenomenon was in its nascent stages. Tumblr users had just caught wind of Donna Tartt's 1992 novel The Secret History a classic for teenagers in the 2010s. By the time I had picked up a copy of the book and made my way through the 600-page behemoth, the website had turned into a veritable hub for aspiring "dark academics" a term that I did not anticipate would become a cultural phenomenon in the years to come. In its earliest iterations on Tumblr, dark academia focused on The Secret History, and much of it was concentrated on fans' imaginings of characters: creating moodboards (collages of pictures curated around a particular theme), "fancasting" celebrities as The Secret History's central characters, and recommending books and movies that match the "vibe" of Donna Tartt's world (Dead Poets Society, Maurice, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, etc.). Soon, this snowballed into a thriving multivocal online manifesto on how to dress, where and what to study, what soundtrack to live your life to, and how to appear sufficiently mysterious that even the elite at your prestigious school couldn't help but pick you, choose you, and maybe, just maybe, murder you.

Prior to dark academia's explosion into online life, Tumblr had already housed a popular community known casually as "studyblr." In essence, a studyblr is a Tumblr profile focused on, as the name suggests, studying and related aspects of school and college life. Even prior to dark academia's escalating popularity, a community of people already existed on Tumblr who helped each other stay on top of their academic work by posting productivity challenges, progress updates, and templates to help organize their calendar, assignments, and more. In its codification of learning-as-lifestyle, studyblr encourages a view of the act of learning as something that defines you. As a struggling high school student, I had already found this side of Tumblr fascinating. The community shared valuable advice and helped me during important examinations, motivating me to stay focused. I read accounts of the joy of academic fulfillment on these blogs and was inspired to build and attain my own, in time. I used to spend hours poring over the pictures university students posted of their campuses and libraries, trying to construct an image of the university's physical space in my head. At this stage, I had not yet begun to idealize campuses with gothic architecture. The escapism that studyblr offered had more to do with the actual act of learning, not the environments in which it took place; in 2013-14, what I romanticized was pristine note-taking systems, artfully organized calendars and an expansive rainbow of highlighters.

Before the dark academia moodboards took hold of Tumblr, studyblr's moodboards showed us pictures of people with their laptops and notebooks, working at their favorite library or café. Dark academia, on the other hand, focuses on the idea of learning shifting from aestheticized practices to aestheticized environments. Once I encountered this new subculture, my image of the ideal university took on a decisively new shape. All of a sudden, my aesthetic sensibilities (and my inherited colonist mentality) were galvanized. I found myself looking for spaces within my city where I could find buildings that resembled the spired towers that dark academia champions. The only university building around me that fit this gothic bill was St. Xavier's College, located in South Mumbai. This slice of Mumbai contains the carefully preserved areas of Fort and Colaba, which were developed by the British. Decadent colonial buildings: maybe this was what the life of the mind was supposed to look like.

As Mel Monier describes elsewhere in this cluster, dark academia, with its tendency to posit academic life within the hallowed halls of an Oxbridge or a St. Xavier's as the be-all-end-all of cultural attainment, can be profoundly Eurocentric. As a person of Indian origin, I watched dark academia unfold with a sense of awe and aspiration and also with a persistent feeling of imminent dejection. Richard Papen, The Secret History's protagonist, also feels something of this simultaneous allure and exclusion. Richard, a student from middle-class origins, does not anticipate being able to leave his hometown. He is dissatisfied with the things that surround him and the life that lies ahead of him either as a medical student or as someone who would take over his father's gas station. I was similarly caught in familial expectations of studying science and/or joining the family business. But, like Richard, I saw the university as a route out of these expectations.

A few years later, as I prepared to enter college, in a mirror image of Richard's own journey in The Secret History, I ended up at a small liberal arts program. But my college was far away from the beautiful buildings of South Mumbai. It is located in Juhu, synonymous in Mumbai with the booming Hindi film industry, wealth, and the rise of the self-made Indian. This part of North Mumbai was glamorous, and so was my college, with a full-glass façade and a grove of fake trees inside. Everything was picture perfect and completely clean. There was no element of the historic, antiquated gothic within my university campus, made specifically to house MBA students, sparing us liberal arts students a few classrooms on one of its many floors. During my first two years in college, I realized that academia is much less romantic than Tumblr made it seem, and the contemporary neoliberal university will never allow for the hallowed escape that fictional characters always seem to find within the library stacks. I began to question my dissatisfaction, and what the university represented both to me and to Richard, my favorite object of projection.

None of the mental images I took during my first week at university could be edited to become fit for inclusion within the dark academia hall of fame. In an attempt to deal with this frustration, I indulged in more and more rereads of The Secret History. I built my own fantastical, Hogwarts-like academic world in my mind, and nothing seemed more fitting for the romantic within me. In an effort to keep my love for the university and all that it represented to me alive, I entrenched myself further within the oak-paneled imagery on Tumblr. In his book Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters, Les Back writes about the anxieties that the university can inspire in newcomers or outsiders students like me. He observes that the "cloistered world" of the campus can be perceived as "full of eccentricity and intrigue."1 This world, he says, functions according to its own "mysterious unwritten rules" and complicated protocols, with no roadmap available to those who weren't raised within its grammars.2 At college, I felt like an outsider for a good long while until the rocky tides of the first semester settled into a more comfortable and familiar ebb and flow. Attaching myself to dark academic iconography helped me get through the university's Kafkaesque bureaucracy. If I did not belong to this world, I thought, I could at least look like I did. My bank account suffered the effects of an abrupt change in the color palette of my wardrobe a technicolor palette became blacks, grays and browns, with plaid featured from time to time. No luck with tweed, nor with affordable Doc Martens. Young-adult novels were replaced on my shelf with pillars of the Western canon, as I began to train myself in the (Eurocentric) ways of dark academia.

In The Secret History, Richard's sensibilities are offended by the practical matters that have to be taken care of in his life, such as working with someone outside the humanities to make ends meet or taking classes other than Greek and Latin. I, too, felt the oppressiveness of a structure that made it compulsory for me to take courses like Urban Ecology, Science and Technology, and the worst of the lot: economics. "What is this?" I remember thinking. "Why am I not just studying Literature, History and Political Science all the time? This is not what I signed up for," I fumed, despite it having been exactly what I signed up for (be careful and read program brochures thoroughly, all). These "practical" courses were not a part of dark academia's curriculum which I think, upon reflection, is why my reactions towards them were so viscerally negative. The day-to-day work and requirements of the university constantly intruded upon my romantic fantasies of (dark) academic life.

Perhaps the practicality of my course of study rubbed off on me as my tryst with dark academia began to die down in intensity across the intervening semesters. My final realization of dark academia's limits came at the hands of my then thesis supervisor, who had borrowed my copy of The Secret History. The book was returned to me with a curt expression and words that were blasphemous to me at the time, but led, perhaps, to my first thesis-length project and now, this very essay:

The best thing I can equate this book to is the experience of listening to someone else's dream or listening to a very drunk friend ramble on and on and on, revealing a little too much awkward personal information in the process. The climax of The Secret History's narrative was around page 200, but the book was 500 pages long. So, essentially, this book contained 300 pages of scenes where the characters do nothing but drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, go to the hospital for drinking so much alcohol and smoking so many cigarettes, get pulled over for drunk driving, talk about alcohol and cigarettes, do cocaine, and gossip about each other (while drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes).

Disillusioned by the ever-growing disjunction between my visions of academic life and the realities of academic work, yet unwilling to abandon dark academia completely, I decided to explore the insularity of the version of academia shown in The Secret History for a university-mandated thesis project. Hence, in what you might call my final act as a dark academic, I ceased simply posing amongst stacks of books. I morphed from consumer to critic. My professor's review pushed me to rethink the emphasis I was placing on the dark academic lifestyle. As I researched my thesis project, dark academia's hold on me began to dissolve, and for the first time in a few years, much like our anti-hero Richard, I began to see things more clearly. In their book Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education, Jason Brennan and Phillip W. Magness argue that academics can sometimes express a romanticized view of academia as the cure-all for the human soul a romanticized view that will often disappoint them and others around them.3 While the university may aim to advance arguably good ideals, it does not necessarily follow through with their promotion. As Annie Bares, Rachel Tay, Deborah Thurman, and others in this cluster identify, the university's problems are deep-rooted from semi-fraudulent academic marketing, to dark money dealings, to the continued manufacturing and churning out of graduate students into "oversaturated academic job markets."4

Reading books like Cracks in the Ivory Tower translated the way I viewed not only my own university, but even those faultless Ivy League institutions of my dark academic fantasies, too. Richard mentions at the opening of The Secret History that within his first few weeks at Hampden College he is already habituated to "official accounts of financial hardship, of limited endowment, of corners cut" and this in an elite institution decades prior to our present crises of financialized higher education, crunched and casualized academic labor, and runaway student debt.5 Regardless of my fanciful beliefs, no amount of faded stone walls and dark interiors could insulate the academic institution from the endless grind to increase enrollment and revenue.

And yet, despite the gap between dark academia and the real life of the contemporary university, its aesthetic does exert an undeniable hold on young people, and in some cases has reintroduced them to the potential joy of learning. Further, women, people of color and minorities can find a place within dark academia, if not within the actual academy (even if, as Mel Monier notes elsewhere in this cluster, the spaces of dark academia retain the potential to replicate the exclusionary logics of academia itself).6 When I look back at my academic journey from the vantage point of a weather-beaten final year student, I feel fondness and sympathy for both myself and the bright-eyed Richard. The difficulties of academic life push you to extremes you step out of your self-imposed cocoon to experiment with life in the last place that might act "in loco parentis" for you.7 Perhaps that is why academia in The Secret History takes such a dark turn: the Greek Studies coterie are dealing with the pressures of performing their act as accomplished students of such an esoteric field that their burnout manifests itself in a (carefully controlled) breakdown, resulting in a violent bacchanalia.

Anxieties about performing well in an academic space left me discomfited and feeling like an imposter in my own surroundings. It can sometimes seem like professors expect you to know half their lesson plan beforehand, and there have been instances where I have felt completely out of my depth in a classroom where explanations were withheld or glossed over. Dark Academia University, on the other hand, does not hold attendees to these impossible standards. These bloggers share comprehensive reading lists and reviews of dense, classic literature and philosophy that made academia more inclusive and inviting. This led me towards appreciating the online subcultures on Tumblr centered around the life of the mind and studying even more I relied on these aesthetics and predetermined guides to help me traverse this new terrain. It helped me settle down and find my footing in the academy, even if I was just faking it. Before my degree, it was Tumblr's dark academics who alerted me to the ideas of literary and philosophic greats reducing their writings to bite-sized quotes. Although much is lost when lines from foundational texts are taken out of context, what we do gain in terms of the paring down of otherwise inaccessible language and the democratization of knowledge may help to level the playing field.

The university, if you can enter its gates, is a place you go, as Dylan Davidson writes elsewhere in this cluster, "to be transformed."8 And especially for those of us who hope to continue to work within academia, this transformation does not happen in an instantaneous flash, but over a whole life's work. We turn to the external fantasy (dark academia for me, a Dionysian ritual for The Secret History's characters) to surmount our fears in an academic space. Just as I did, people engaging with dark academia across the world could be doing so in an attempt to glamorize their existence and situate themselves with more footing in the liminal spaces of the university, where you are on the cusp of life. Neither here nor there, you face the burgeoning anticipation for what is yet to come and nostalgia for what is over. Who, then, could blame young aspiring academics like Richard and me for wanting our lives in the university, as long as we can hang on to them, to be infused with a touch of the picturesque? As long as you do not end up committing a murder in your quest for the same, dark academia just may see you through some of the tribulations of academic life, its deadlines and its labyrinth of citation styles that you could not navigate even with Ariadne's string, and through to the other side.

Amatulla Mukadam (@amatullamukadam) is an undergraduate student at NMIMS University, Mumbai, where she is working on her final research project about dark academia and its impact on contemporary literature. Amatulla's research in the past has dealt with manifestations of academia in campus/academic novels. This is her first publication.


  1. Les Back, Academic Diary, or, Why Higher Education Still Matters (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 2.[]
  2. Back, Diary, 2[]
  3. Jason Brennan and Phillip W. Magness, Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 10.[]
  4. Brennan and Magness, Cracks, 3.[]
  5. Donna Tartt, The Secret History (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1992), 14. []
  6. Mel Monier, "Too Dark for Dark Academia?" Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]
  7. Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 1.[]
  8. Dylan Davidson, "To Be Transformed," Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]