February 2, 2023

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Dark Academia and Horror: A Bloody, Perfect Marriage

Flatiron Books Publishers of Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

Wealth. Power. Murder. Magic. Alex Stern is back and the Ivy League goes straight to hell in this sequel to Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling book, Ninth House. Rich in story and packed with Bardugo’s signature twists, Hell Bent brings to life an intricate world of magic, violence and all-too-real monsters.

The dark academic subgenre and horror are often found hand in hand, playing off each other with their twisted tropes and morally gray characters. Dark Science is a gentler horror – a great entry point for those who might find horror too intimidating or scary to wade into. Or maybe if you wrinkle your nose in horror (“I’m not reading this”) but like dark science… well, you might be in for a surprise. The horror is here with us, my darlings, waiting in the wings of these hallowed halls, in the shade of the trees that cast their rotten leaves on the quads. The horror sits on the shoulder of your argyle sweater-clad protagonist, who stands in the early winter rain wondering how on earth they got so many bloodstains under their fingernails and why there’s a strand of hair instead of a bookmark in that old book, that you borrowed from the library?

As a matter of fact.

Yes, join us horror enthusiasts among these cobweb-strewn, dusty alcoves. Horror and dark science know each other pretty well. If you like dark academic books then I would highly recommend you to delve further into the horror genre; You might feel more at home than you think. Maybe you don’t want to go.

Let’s go through some adorable horror dark academy books to get you started.

Dark Academia and Horror: An Overview and Definitions

Before we delve into some examples, let’s review the definitions. Book Rioter Adiba Jaigirdar wrote a great post last year called What is Dark Academia and Why Is It So Popular. In the post, Dark Academy is discussed as a nebulous term, more of an aesthetic than a strictly defined genre. Jaigirdar writes that the general theme is “a focus on the pursuit of knowledge and an exploration of death and morbidity.” Setting is often key as many (most?) dark academic books take place in an academic institution.

Dark science with horror highlights death, the dark side of the quest for knowledge, and may also include supernatural factors. There is even a subgenre called “Horror Academia” which Aesthetics Wiki defines as “a subgenre of science that is thematically focused on the overwhelming amount of knowledge in the world. Visually, it takes horror — especially cosmic or Lovecraftian horror — and applies it to science, research, and learning.”

When it comes to dark science and horror literature, I think about where the line is crossed in the pursuit of knowledge and how far. What do these characters do with the knowledge – supernatural or otherwise – that they discover and use? And does this power twist their moral consciousness? There are certainly exceptions to every rule, and feel free to discuss the examples below. This list contains titles that explore the above questions. They cross these lines, leap past them and distort these consciousnesses to unimaginable degrees.

Dark Academia and Horror: Books based in academic institutions

The following examples are what could be defined as the purest forms of dark academic horror books, as they are set in and around academic institutions.

cover of catherine house by elisabeth thomas, a gritty academic horror book

Catherine’s House by Elisabeth Thomas

I still think about this book in all its facets; the pressure the students have at this elite school, the research behind closed doors and the tower – *shudders*. It follows Ines Murillo, who is invited to attend the mysterious but super elite Catherine House school. Catherine House is the only home Ines has ever had, but Catherine House has high expectations of his students, and there is something iconic about the small group of students researching the fabric of reality in exclusive laboratories. It’s a claustrophobic, chilling read that explores the twisted heights and abuses of power and prestige.

Cover art of Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth

This book has it all for horror fans: Hollywood, a curse, and a gothic academic institution. It takes place in several eras. In 1902, Flo and Clara, students at Brookhants School for Girls, are obsessed with each other. Together with fellow writer Mary, they form their only club called the Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet at a nearby orchard, which becomes the site of her disturbing death. Fast-forward about 100 years into the future: Merritt Emmons is publishing a book about Brookhants and his queer-feminist history that will be made into a film. Two young stars are cast as Flo and Clara to retell their macabre story, and this story within a story begins to blur the lines between curse and reality.

Cover art of Confessions by Kanae Minato, a dark academic horror book

Confessions of Kanae Minato

Set in a middle school, this story focuses on the teacher Yuko Moriguchi, who has submitted her resignation as a teacher.

But she’s not done yet.

She gathers her students and begins her final lecture, telling a story that sets in motion Yuko’s ultimate revenge for what happened to her daughter. Told in polyphony, this book deals with a tragic event that ends with a final confrontation between teacher and student. This is the ultimate fear building book.

Cover art of The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino, a dark academic horror book

The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino

This 2022 YA release is a great addition to the dark academy horror subgenre. Tess and Eliot follow, who discover an old book found in a hidden tunnel under their school library. That’s a lot of red flags.

In fact, they accidentally free the devil from a book-bound prison. The devil will stop at nothing to stay free, and will get rid of everything and everyone. From possessed ink to murder, Tess and Eliot must find a way to push back the devil before he takes them.

Dark Academia and Horror: Academics/Research Gone Wrong

While the majority of dark academic books are set in and about academic institutions, I believe there is a branch of dark academic horror books in the subgenre, a sub-subgenre if you will, I like to call it: academics and/or research went wrong. Whether it’s investigating haunted houses (e.g. The Haunting of Hill House) or playing god (e.g. Frankenstein), there are academics who believe they can go beyond the laws of nature, cost what it wants. The pursuit of knowledge without limits or repercussions, at least in the minds of researchers. This can lead to unimaginable horrors, often created by ourselves.

Cover of Hell House by Richard Matheson

Hell House by Richard Matheson

Inspired by the structure of Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, this book offers maximum horror. It follows a physicist and two mediums who are hired to find out about the afterlife in one of the most depraved haunted houses, the Belasco House.

Needless to say, they find a lot of data.

Be sure to check out the TWs in this book because there are a lot of them, including rape.

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher book cover

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

I will never look at rabbits/bunnies/bunnies the same way.

This is a great retelling of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, which follows Alex Easton, a retired soldier who goes to the Ushers’ headquarters when they learn that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying.

The dark academic horror branch of this story comes in the form of the British mycologist neighbor who seeks out an American doctor, both of whom become drawn into the investigation of the ailments of Madeline and the House of Usher. It was a chilling delight to read how these two scientists reacted when they performed an autopsy on a rabbit they thought was dead.

Cover photo of Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Nothing but blackened teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Similar to Hell House, Nothing But Blackened Teeth is about a group of old school friends who meet in a Heian-era haunted house in Japan to make up for lost time, marry two of them and also investigate the history of the house . where a bride was buried, with bodies of girls sacrificed to keep her company within the walls.

What could possibly go wrong?

Not only is this a great example of an investigation gone horribly wrong, it’s an incredible exploration of grief, the building of grudges, and old wounds and relationships that have festered over time.

Cover photo of The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

The book eaters by Sunyi Dean

This is an example of dark academic horror, where knowledge is literally absorbed into the pages of books. Devon is part of the family, a long line of people for whom books are sustenance and are able to retain knowledge through the pages they eat. While her brothers gorged on adventure and brave tales, Devon, like the other women in the family, was fed cautionary tales and fairy tales.

Things take a much darker turn when Devon’s son is born, and he hungers not for the pages of books but for human thoughts. This is dark academic horror in its potency, where the knowledge itself can be assimilated into the body.

Dark Academia and Horror: Friends Forever

Dark Academia and Horror will continue their longstanding relationship as the Dark Academia subgenre expands and evolves. I hope to see more terrifying footage exploring dark science and even more hope dark science brings more readers to the horror genre because there are some amazing authors out there. For those who want to delve further into horror, I recommend checking out these posts from Book Riot: