"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation."1 So begins Donna Tartt's 1992 novel The Secret History. Tartt starts her novel by quite literally revealing where the body is buried the body of a character who will in fact die some 260 pages later, at the close of the novel's first part. Beginning with endings, The Secret History's prologue is a foray into the novel's own future.

The Secret History is widely understood as the inception point of dark academia, setting the stage for dark academia's narrative tropes, aesthetic reference points, and cultural intertexts. In its scrambled chronology, it also introduces a kind of playing with time as a key aspect of dark academia's formal and affective terrain. Media scholar Toni Pape terms the temporal device Tartt deploys in The Secret History's first sentence a "loop through the future."2For Pape, the loop through the future is a narrative structure in which a fiction begins in the future, only to loop back to unfold a narrative whose "present" is also in some way taking place in a "past." The loop through the future allows audiences and readers to glimpse events that come chronologically later before we see events that occurred chronologically earlier, opening up the possibility of reading the bulk of the narrative that follows as an extended flashback. This time-scrambling device animates a whole corpus of dark academic fictions across media following The Secret History, from Amy Gentry's 2021 academic novel Bad Habits (where the narrative toggles between a future-present and a past-present) to the dark academia-themed fourth season of the teen drama TV series Riverdale (which flashes forward/back to the forthcoming death of main character Jughead Jones) to Leigh Bardugo's 2019 dark academic fantasy Ninth House (which switches between flashback chapters labeled "Last Fall" and present chapters labeled "Winter" or "Spring"). All this looping and twisting indicates that dark academia is invested in thinking about time and in thinking, specifically, about relationships between and attachments (or lack thereof) to particular pasts and futures.

Like the mystery narratives and thrillers it is generically indebted to, dark academia employs the loop through the future to generate curiosity and suspense, but notably, the narrative tension is overwhelmingly directed not at the question of "what will happen" but instead toward "how will the foretold future come about." Narrative becomes a matter of fulfilling a prophecy. In The Secret History, we know from the first sentence that Bunny will be murdered; everything that follows is read in the light of and inflected by the prologue revealing his death. Pape clarifies that these disruptions of linear time are not, in fact, atemporal; rather, they call readers/viewers in to awareness of how time operates narratively and affectively. As Pape describes, fictions that utilize the loop through the future "activate the interval between the present moment and the foretold ending as the domain where reality is generated, where time is made."3 Time and reality are made in the interval between the present-that-comes-after and the future-that-comes-before. In dark academia fictions and online activity, the loop through the future has two key effects, which also function as its key affects: nostalgia, the attachment to a particular past, and futility, the inevitability of a particular future.

Part of what dark academia offers whether in narrative or digital "aesthetic" form is a nostalgic fantasy of an authentic, aestheticized life of the mind. It casts a wistful backward glance toward a potentially nonexistent past in which, as Ana Quiring writes, "higher education isn't instrumentalized, but rather self-sustaining and inherently valuable."4 At the same time, dark academia's online manifestations particularly the moodboard imply the forward-facing scope of aspiration and planning. A moodboard allows you to assemble the cues for an aesthetic that you might then seek to enact: the nineteenth-century novels you might hope to read, the luxe black turtlenecks you might hope to wear, the gothic vestibules you might hope to linger in. However, an assemblage of dark academic images isn't actually a plan for a reality (of, say, going to Oxford or Bennington, or joining an exclusive coterie of murderous and magical scholars) but rather a substitute for it in the absence of its possibility.

In this way, a backward glance can itself loop through the future, and vice versa. By looping through a future-present toward the creation of an imagined or imaginary past (which may also function as a substitute for an impossible, aspirational future), dark academia fixes the future-that-comes-first to fantasize the present-that-comes-after. As Quiring argues, "the real power of dark academia is the way it compresses and thus preserves humanistic study at a time when the humanities are under constant threat."5 I want to suggest that dark academia nostalgically compresses humanistic study in part by compressing time, by fixing the present-that-comes-after via the future-that-comes-first. The bracketing of the future-present is what allows the past-present to be preserved or sealed. Dark academia content loops through the future, projecting an imaginary fantastical life, in a way that preserves the past through its use of nostalgic images. In doing so, it makes a future futile, but the crucial difference is the future it makes futile is the very one it depicts.

Fixing something in space and time may offer a sense of stability in the face of uncertainty, but it can also feel constraining, like an evacuation of agency and choice. Pape suggests that in television, the loop through the future can "make felt that the status quo is highly unstable, that minor decisions or deviations from plan can lead to utter devastation, and that it is always almost-too-late for course corrections."6 However, part of the preservation-compression that dark academia enacts in its loops through the future is a fixing of outcomes, such that the narrative cannot be or become any other way. The time movement of the loop through the future no longer seems like the sort of time travel where the future-present is vulnerable to the course corrections of the past-present; rather, it seems like the sort of time travel where whatever happened, happened. Unlike in Pape's argument about loops through the future on TV, dark academia's loops through the future may make it appear as though it is already too late for course corrections. Resistance, as they say, is futile. As Mark Currie puts it, taking a detour into a narrative's own future makes that future "predetermined, literally already written, and lying in wait."7

Of course, this is the case with all fictions: by the time it reaches a readers' hands, no novel could actually be any different than it is it is both literally already written and also lying in wait. The loop through time perhaps merely makes explicit how the novel form itself fixes narrative potential, bringing audiences into relation with time, rather than out of awareness of it. In the case of novels like The Secret History and its imitators, we could also read this fixing of potential internally by beginning with Bunny's death, Richard can present it as an inevitable outcome within his own narration, evacuating his own agency or responsibility for what occurs, making an implicit structural argument that things could not have been any other way. Looping through a particular future not only works to preserve the past, but also makes thinking other futures futile. We know how this will end; how could it be otherwise?

Understanding the simultaneity of nostalgia and futility in dark academia's temporal structures an attachment to a romanticized past alongside a sense of inevitable momentum toward a certain future lays the ground for interpreting dark academia as one of many genres of the quotidian apocalypse, as yet another entry in the inventory of life lived at and under the crest of our coming extinction. As dark academia fictions loop through a particular future, they conceive of "the present [as] the object of a future memory [ . . . ] envisaging the present as past."8 This envisaging shares a logic with both the proliferation of approaching apocalypse(s) across media, which often view the present from the vantage of a coming blighted future, and with the curatorial imagination of internet aesthetics, which often strive, above all, to reconfigure the present as a set of pleasing images to be looked back on. The moodboard's paradoxical futurity depends upon the construction of an imagined aspirational future via these kinds of pleasing images, but this future must be synthesized online precisely because it cannot be actuated in reality.

Viewed this way, the nostalgia-futility that recurs throughout these fictions marks dark academia as one structure of the feeling of no future. After all, if the fixed, foretold future is a bad one, we might not even understand it meaningfully as a "future" at all. Part of the ideological and political work that the idea of a possible future can do, for good and for ill, is to mobilize individuals and collectives toward its actualization. An inevitable, unstoppable future already written, only lying in wait, cannot be mobilized for or against only received. It is a future that can feel like the lack of one. We have what feels like no future because we have what feels like no agency, no choice, no power. Like its close cousin, the adjunct novel (and like its slightly more distant relatives, climate and apocalyptic fiction), dark academia indexes, however obliquely, the ambient despair of contemporary life our nostalgic attachments to real or imagined pasts, our feelings of futility about increasingly inevitable futures. However, unlike, say, Christine Smallwood's adjunct novel The Life of the Mind, dark academia fictions do not mediate this atmospheric despair by taking place in "the epilogue of wants,"9 in a time where the act of wanting itself has passed its expiration date, but rather by lingering in a loop through the last chapter of wants, reorienting themselves recursively back toward wanting wantonly.

Whatever else, dark academia orients itself far more toward "want" as in desire messy desire, problematic desire, trying, curating, striving, desiring than "want" as in lack. For the adjunct novel, "want itself [is] a thing of the past,"10 and the largely white protagonists of novels of precarity, from Smallwood's Dorothy to the protagonist of Lynn Steger Strong's aptly named Want, primarily experience their desire as stalled, sputtering, foreclosed, or forgotten. In contrast, dark academia fictions are populated by characters striving to curate and cultivate their desires, their worlds. As Deborah Thurman describes in her essay for this cluster, by the end of The Life of the Mind, even Dorothy's commitment to envy itself a form of desire is abandoned in favor of a far less sentimental position. By contrast, The Secret History's core group of Classics students has a mass of bacchanalian desires with a body count. Dark academic fictions traffic in a wide array of discomfiting desires and their murky ends desires for, as others in this cluster note, education and other bourgeois attainments, for inclusion in histories and canons,  for class mobility, for tortured romance turned true love, for transformation, for an "aesthetically and intellectually satisfying life."11 Similarly, carefully curated dark academic online aesthetics reflect desire, too desire for meaning, for beauty, for envy and being envied, for the ability to craft a life worth living. Dark academia's nostalgic gloss is, in part, a fantasy about the ability to shape and unshape a world, even a world as small as a bedroom or a blog.

In other words, dark academia in both its fictional and digital forms indexes ambient despair not primarily through performing the flat posture of boredom and/or lack endemic to contemporary literary fiction, but instead through the curation of vibes through the free-flowing, nebulous character of atmosphere, as Mitch Therieau theorizes in his essay for this cluster. Vibes encompass the sense of the feeling of a moment, a place, or an artifact. In the context of online life, the discourse of vibes inventories a turn toward the therapeutic potential of curating one's atmosphere, curating one's environment curating the vibes. It's the end of the world as we know it maybe Bunny is dead, or Dorothy's career prospects are dead, or the job market is dead, or the profession itself is dead, or the planet will be dead soon but hey, maybe we can still have some good vibes. As Therieau has written elsewhere, "If naming a vibe is a way to register the encompassing badness of things, there is also a sense that embracing a vibe might be a strategy for repairing this badness, or at least shutting it out."12 Despite their melodramatic plot antics rife with rituals, incest, murder, secret societies, and affairs, many dark academic novels are arguably above all about vibes and curation, about both inhabiting and crafting an aestheticized world. In the same way, the online life of dark academia emphasizes the curation of the life you desire via material signifiers, or at least digital mediations of the material life you can imagine but can't access a life where books are weathered and leather-bound, not flimsy and jacketed by images of brightly-colored interchangeable abstracted faces, where buildings are ornate and gothic, not bland and office-like, where wearing a tweed blazer somehow means something. In short, dark academia's affinity for vibes arises out of the nostalgia-futility that its play with time indexes: when you feel like you can't control the future, at least you can curate the vibes.

Mary Retta has written that "vibes exist where time does not."13 But it may be fairer to say that contemporary vibes discourse exists in part because the future does not; the out-of-time relief that vibes provide feels like a relief precisely because feeling in-time feels bad. Though it may suspend our sense of time, a vibe may also be dependent on time on creating a nostalgic facsimile of the imagined material texture of an education, on viewing the present as the object of a future memory, on looping through and fixing the future.

The "fixing" I've referred to here fixing as in cementing, preserving, stilling fails to capture the other central valence of the word: that of restoration or repair. As subjects under neoliberalism, we operate in the structure of the feeling of no future in part because we feel the acute absence of agency and power in our everyday lives. But as Hannah Alpert-Abrams and Saronik Bosu illuminate, there is real power to be found in solidarity, in vulnerability, in building communities "with shared struggles, shared values, shared goals."14 The proliferation of labor and justice movements within and outside of the academy and the very real gains won by organized collectives of workers and activists also indicate the power we have to mobilize, together, for better futures, better presents. Dark academia's loops through the future may aim to bracket off the future-present from the past-present, but as Bruce Barnhardt argues, this proleptic move is also "always some way of yoking the present to the future."15 Read this way, the loop through the future might also remind us that the status quo is in fact unstable and untenable, and also, crucially, vulnerable to course corrections and to collective action in the present, when we come to understand the gravity of our situation.

Olivia Stowell (@oliviastowell) is a PhD student at the University of Michigan, where she studies the intersections of race, genre & narrative, and temporality in contemporary reality television. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Television & New Media, New Review of Film & Television, Post45 Contemporaries, and Avidly: A Channel of the L.A. Review of Books.


  1. Donna Tartt, The Secret History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 3. []
  2. Toni Pape, Figures of Time: Affect and the Television of Preemption (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 1. []
  3. Pape, Figures, 13.[]
  4. Ana Quiring, "What's Dark about Dark Academia," Avidly: A Channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, March 31, 2021.[]
  5. Quiring, "What's Dark."[]
  6. Pape, Figures, 14.[]
  7. Mark Currie, About Time: Narrative, Fiction, and the Philosophy of Time (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 49.[]
  8. Currie, About Time, 5. []
  9. Christine Smallwood, The Life of the Mind, (London: Hogarth, 2021), 13.[]
  10. Smallwood, The Life of the Mind, 13.[]
  11. Annie Bares, "Dark Academia, Dark Money," Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]
  12. Mitch Therieau, "Vibe, Mood, Energy: Or, bust-time reenchantment," The Drift, January 19, 2022.[]
  13. Mary Retta, "on vibing: on vibes, the apocalypse, and non linear time," Close but not Quite: Essays on Pop Culture, Anti Capitalism, and Dreams of a Better World, Substack, January 28, 2021, https://maryretta.substack.com/p/on-vibing.[]
  14. Hannah Alpert-Abrams and Saronik Bosu, "What's hope got to do with it?," Post45: Contemporaries, March 15, 2022.[]
  15. Bruce Barnhardt, "Prolepsis and Parabasis: Jazz and the Novel," NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 42, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 216-222.[]