why Gen Z fell in love with the ‘dark academia’

Alisha Howarth, 25, who has the TikTok handle DarkAcademiaOnly, says the term “has been floating around for a while and has probably become mainstream over the past couple of years.” It had already resonated with social media subcultures like cottagecore and naturecore – essentially a romanticized view of rural life, in harmony with nature – and quickly latched onto dark college. It has a similar vibe, but applied more to period buildings and university spaces, and with darker undertones.

“I really like the whimsical Gothic aesthetic,” she explains. “I think of a beautifully ornate house shrouded in mist, majestic architecture and all the literature that goes with it.” It’s kind of a fantastical, deceptively nostalgic take on history, much like Steampunk co-opts Victoriana. A world without technology is probably a decoy – especially since we’ve spent hours and hours staring at screens during Covid. Likewise, few of us who have actually had an uninterrupted education are as eager to return to school, but there are many who have missed school during the pandemic, and therefore romanticize an experience that has been theirs. Refused. There’s a melancholy seriousness to the effort that’s quite endearing.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that black academia has exploded on social media, driven by Gen Z users (Haworth says its core demographic is 13-20 years old). TikTok videos with the hashtag #darkacademia have been viewed 2.4 billion times, while on Instagram there are currently 1.7 million dedicated posts. Significantly, that enthusiasm translates into book sales: that’s not always the case with online fandoms. In fact, sales of Waterstones’ major dark academic titles have seen an increase of up to 325% since 2019.

Fellow BookToker enthusiast Cameron Capello, 23 – aka ChamberOfSecretBooks on TikTok (a Harry Potter reference) – says Dark University “is just depressing enough to create a tension between angst and achievement”. It sums up a thirst not only for knowledge “but the way of life that surrounds knowledge. It’s mysterious, it’s seductive and it’s dangerous to want to know so much. It’s become so popular because we all think of ourselves as intellectuals, whether we admit it or not. We desire something more than the mundane. Black academia is vague enough to apply to everyone’s interests and make everyone’s desires feel validated in a sophisticated way.

Howarth created his dedicated DarkAcademiaOnly TikTok account late last year. His particular angle is to display enviable landscapes and properties that fit the subculture – whether it’s a wrought iron gate, an oak desk, a grandfather clock or of a house on the edge of a picturesque cliff.

She pairs these locations with evocative piano music, aiming to help viewers find calm, but they are also ambitious imagery. “It’s basically ‘Wouldn’t you like to live here?'” She herself lives in Basingstoke, Jane Austen country, which is convenient for location, but she also travels frequently. “I drag my boyfriend halfway across the UK to find new National Trust properties, and I get requests to go places.”

Journeys into the misty countryside remind her of her childhood in North Wales, which fuels the “comforting appeal” of the dark university, and she enjoys sharing these landscapes with others who may not have such natural beauty on their doorstep.

About Joey J. Hott

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