Dark academia has taken the online world by storm, with tweed blazers, horn-rimmed glasses, Gothic elements, and oftentimes, a deviant journey through self-discovery. The darker side of academic elitism appeals to many because of the twisted, yet comforting, vibes it emits, as well as all of its forbidden secrets.
Dark academia’s character archetypes are bewitching as well, filled with studious, principled students, and young personalities who are intelligent and driven. Strolling into a secret library, solving a dark mystery, or studying near a fireplace with your closest friends is just part of why it’s the perfect genre to dive into, with the best dark academia TV shows and films capturing the essence of the niche.
Updated on June 22, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
Netflix’s dark academia series, Wednesday, took the world by storm when it premiered last year. It was renewed for a second season last January 2023, but no release date has been set. As fans eagerly wait for additional details about the hit series, it’s the perfect time to delve into similar gothic masterpieces on both the small and big screens.
12 ‘The Skulls’ (2000)
The late ’90s and early 2000s were a jubilee of dark academia and elitist Ivy League worlds. Paul Walker and Joshua Jackson starred in one of the most underrated dark academia movies of the time: The Skulls. The film follows the lives of a secret society deep within the walls of the Ivy League’s most prominent campus where power and the elite are bred.
Only a few are chosen to join the society, where they are then groomed, and wealthy bloodlines bond into dangerous and mysterious plots. This film deserves a mention because of its incredibly sinister, dark atmosphere. Watching the lives of these perfect young men begin to crumble under the weight of their own wrongdoings fits the aesthetically exquisitely.
11 ‘Dorian Gray’ (2009)
Ben Barnes launched a thousand dark academia dreams with the 2009 adaptation of Dorian Gray. He played the part of devilishly young and handsome, Dorian, so well that many Harry Potter aficionados fan-casted him as a young Sirius Black almost immediately.
The film is full of Victorian costumes that border on dark prep-school attitude, and it portrays the lascivious lust of Dorian and his queer sexual exploits flawlessly. Its dreamy atmosphere is a warm welcoming hug as Dorian increasingly loses parts of himself in the charismatic social whirlwind of Victorian London.
Watch on Starz
10 ‘Cruel Intentions’ (1999)
Among the classic dark academia films, Cruel Intentions takes place in the upscale world of Manhattan, where wealthy and popular Kathryn unravels her wild exploits at the prep school she attends. In the twisted world of step-siblings, Kathryn and Sebastian, the two wager diabolical batches of sexual conquest in order to try to one-up each other. Young Annette becomes their next pawn after she writes about how she intends to stay “pure” until marriage.
Kathryn and Sebastian wage a deal that if he can seduce Annette, Kathryn gets his vintage car, and if he fails, she will finally sleep with him. The film is a deviant depiction of corrupted youths in the wealthy prep school world and has enough seedy atmosphere and preppy outfits to fit the dark academia bill perfectly.
9 ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ (2018 – 2020)
Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina did an incredible job of filling the dark witchy-academia hole that had been missing in pop culture for so long. It is based on the Sabrina the Teenage Witch comics that follow Sabrina Spellman and her adventures in the world of witchcraft as a normal teenager. The show takes on a much darker tone though: there are no more happy-go-lucky crushes and a wise-cracking black paint – Kiernan Shipka‘s Sabrina traffics in horror and the occult.
Everything about this series screams dark academia. There are references to Shakespeare‘s Macbeth, and Sabrina wears dark prep school-chic clothing, complete with bobbed hair and headbands, black tights and knee socks, and argyle sweater vests straight out of the Ivy Leagues. In the show, Sabrina must choose between the fascinating witch world she was born into and her group of human friends.
Watch on Netflix
8 ‘The Magicians’ (2015 – 2020)
Leo Grossman‘s The Magicians is one of the best fantasy book adaptations streaming on Netflix right now – it’s also one of the grossly overlooked dark academia shows. The series is filled with the quintessential dark academic atmosphere including magic, historical classrooms, Gothic settings, and just enough mystery to keep you on the edge of your seat.
The series follows Quentin Coldwater who gets recruited to a secretive academy and discovers that he can use magic. The series is much more grown-up than the likes of Harry Potter though, as the characters are older, and the magic system is more complicated and alluring. His group of friends begins to lose themselves in their new dangerous world, creating a sensual dark academia series that weaves in morose relationships, high stakes, and devastating goodbyes.
Watch on Netflix
7 ‘Maurice’ (1987)
Maurice is one of the first excellent film forays into the dark academia aesthetic. The film combines the perfect elements of the genre: the romanticization of the posh Ivy League university setting, scandalous love secrets, and school backdrops so luscious that they seem straight out of a dream.
The film provides a look into the surreal lives of the wealthy and the queer, with superb acting and an exquisite capture of its time period. It takes place in 1909 and follows a young man named Maurice who enters Cambridge and slowly realizes he is gay. He embarks upon a journey of secrets and cumulative relationships to hide both his and his lovers’ reputations.
Watch on Mubi
6 ‘A Discovery of Witches’ (2018 – 2022)
A Discovery of Witches follows Diana Bishop, the last in a long line of distinguished witches. In a world where demons, witches, and vampires live discreetly among humans, Diana has immersed herself into a career as a historian. She loves alchemy most though, and while visiting Oxford, she makes a discovery that changes her life forever.
A Discovery of Witches is a wonderfully underrated treasure in the dark academia aesthetic. It provides brooding relationships, lots of preppy fashion, and a dark atmosphere bathed in Gothic architecture. Teresa Palmers and Matthew Goode make sure that every mystery and secret that they unravel is drenched in chemistry.
Watch on Shudder
5 ‘Penny Dreadful’ (2014 – 2016)
Penny Dreadful does not take place in a university or school. Despite this, the beloved series fits the dark academy aesthetic incredibly well. From its incredible Victorian-era sets and costumes, its Gothic landscapes and atmosphere, and its ever-mysterious monsters and creatures, Penny Dreadful ticks every box.
It is more of a psychological thriller than most that take place in the genre as well. The series follows Ethan Chandler in 1891 London, as an American gun show and roadshow artist. He is hired by the adventurers, Vanessa and Malcolm to help rescue Malcolm’s daughter from a creature. The show is filled with dark mystery and suspense, where personal demons become stronger than vampires and immortal beasts.
Watch on Showtime
4 ‘Black Swans’ (2010)
A film where the protagonist’s psyche deteriorates, director Darren Aronofsky‘s masterpiece is a captivating yet disturbing psychological thriller that delves into the dark world of ballet. Black Swans revolves around Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a talented ballerina whose pursuit of the lead role in “Swan Lake” leads her down some unsettling paths.
Exploring the real and imagined consequences of obsession with perfection as an artist, Black Swans applies dark academia aesthetics and concepts to the rigorous training of ballerinas go through behind the scenes. As Nina’s determination leads to her sense of self and reality’s dramatic transformation, audiences are taken along for the frightening ride.
3 ‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989)
Director Peter Weir‘s Dead Poets Society is a classic in the genre, with the coming-of-age film known for its heartfelt story set within the conservative Welton Academy in the 1950s. When an unconventional English teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), arrives, everything changes. He encourages a profound transformation in his students by teaching them to embrace the power of poetry and seize the opportunities that life presents – and allow for a bit of rebellion, of course.
With great emphasis on individualism and its link to the power of literature to change lives, Dead Poets Society celebrates what genuine learning can help achieve among even the most stubborn students. The timeless classic is a more light-hearted example of dark academia, which is still worth watching again today.
Watch on Apple TV+
2 ‘Wednesday’ (2022 – )
In the newest foray into dark academia television, Tim Burton‘s Wednesday takes on the weird, the outcasts, and the gothic school of Nevermore Academy. Unlike before AddamsFamily titles, this Netflix original focuses on their oldest daughter and the chaos she causes at school with her morbid humor, macabre interests, and deadpan face.
Wednesday’s deadpan face is no accident either. Burton fell in love with a scene where Jenny Ortega didn’t blink, so he asked her to do it for the rest of the show. Wednesday’s cold, emotionless personality and defiant nature fit right into the aesthetic, along with the gothic sets. Watching Wednesday Addams transform from a “freak” into finding her own people who will warm anyone’s cold heart.
Watch on Netflix
1 The ‘Harry Potter’ Film Series (2001 – 2011)
the Harry Potter film series is one of the most well-known portrayals of dark academia. The wonderful world of magic introduced children all over the globe to this dark, prestigious aesthetic as Harry Potter makes his way through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The films provide stunning settings in a world of magic and libraries, ancient secrets that rely on books and smarts, and a look into a doomed boy’s coming of age.
It’s worth noting that while Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 holds the highest ranking on Rotten Tomatoes, it provides the least amount of the dark academia aesthetic. The first three movies, as well as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Princereally lean into the style of studying with friends in an old castle while trying to figure out the secrets of their worlds.
Watch on Fubo
NEXT: The ‘Harry Potter’ Movies, Ranked by Their Rotten Tomatoes Score