Dusty libraries, long-haired youths writing poetry, candlelight rituals… welcome to TikTok’s love for old books and “dark academia.”
According to an article by Marianka Swain in the Telegraph, when it comes to “dark academia” think
“tweeds and corduroy, leathers satchels, autumn leaves whirling outside the windows of an Oxbridge (or, in America, New England) college, a dusty library with secret tomes, long-haired youths handwriting meaningful poetry, brooding lovers with turbulent inner lives, and, at the sinister end, cult rituals performed by eerie candlelight.”
Yes, this is a “new generation commandeering a long-established Gothic aesthetic and making it their own.” Think the Brontës meet J.K. Rowling meets Stephanie Meyers meets Stranger Things.
This is no small cultural development. TikTok videos with #darkacademia have been viewed 2.4 billion times. Hop on Instagram and you’ll find 1.7 million dedicated posts. Waterstones, a leading bookseller in the U.K., has seen an increase of up to 325% in the sales of dark academia titles since 2019.
The most popular books within the dark academia genre tend to deal with magicians and wizards, caretakers of lost knowledge from ancient civilizations, or putting supernatural spins on Jane Austen fare. On the surface of things, it would be easy to turn a blind eye to it all. Or even an appreciative one. I know that I am deeply drawn to the ethos of much that goes with dark academia in terms of architecture and setting. It’s one of the reasons why I loved my time studying at Oxford.
But there is more to dark academia than ethos. One doesn’t have to look too deeply into the books and the sensibilities that surround them in order to see dark academia as a potential gateway drug to the occult. It triggers a thirst for mysterious knowledge. The landscapes and architecture associated with it have been described as “dripping with dark and eerie power.”
As I wrote in Meet Generation Z, the spiritual vacuum for young adults is largely being filled by the occult.
You can find a case study in Norway. While Norwegian churches may be empty and belief in God in sharp decline, “belief in, or at least fascination with, ghosts and spirits is surging. Even Norway’s royal family, which is required by law to belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, has flirted with ghosts, with a princess coaching people on how to reach out to spirits.” Roar Fotland, a Methodist preacher and assistant professor at the Norwegian School of Theology in Oslo, notes that, “God is out but spirits and ghosts are filling the vacuum.”
This is an important dynamic to understand.
Pitirim Sorokin, the founder of Harvard University’s department of sociology, argued that the pendulum of civilization generally swings in one of two directions: the “ideational” and the “sensate.” The ideational civilization is more theological and spiritual, while the sensate culture is more rational or scientific. Sorokin contended that the classic ideational period was the medieval. From the Enlightenment forward, we have lived in a sensate world. Sorokin’s thesis rings true. Now, in our struggle with what the modern world has given to us – or more accurately, taken away – there seems to be a swing back toward the ideational.
We live in a day that is more open to spiritual things than ever before. Not defined religion, mind you, but spirituality. And specifically, the supernatural. There is a keenly felt emptiness resulting from a secularized, materialistic world that has led to a hunger for something more, but many are unable to go further than the search for an experience. As a result, an extraterrestrial will serve as well as an angel; a spiritualist as well as a minister. Borrowing from the late historian Christopher Dawson, we have a new form of secularism that offers “religious emotion divorced from religious belief.” So God is out, but ghosts are in.
So yes, take dark academia seriously – but less for what it is,
… and more for where it leads.
James Emery White
Marianka Swain, “TikTok’s Old-School Books Boom: Why Gen Z Fell in Love with ‘Dark Academia,’” The Telegraph, July 27, 2022, read online.
James Emery White, Meet Generation Z (Baker).
“Norway Has a New Passion: Ghost Hunting,” Andrew Higgins, The New York Times, October 24, 2015, read online.
Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, Revised One-Volume Ed. (1991).
Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History, ed. by John J. Mulloy (ISI Books, 2002).
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.