by Benji Boyd, Sophomore
“You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.” – M.L. Rio What is dark academia? An aesthetic centered around the moody and gothic aspects of academic study, dark academia celebrates literature, history, philosophy, and other studies through their darkest elements. It’s the gargoyles that keep watch over a college library; the restricted section at Hogwarts. It’s Yorick’s skull and the Dead Poets Society. It’s reading Greek tragedies and the Brontë Sisters. But it’s also reading modern books that celebrate rather than define the aesthetic – the ones that transport the reader into the romantic and slightly evil world they’ve created in their minds. Dark academia is books like M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains.
The story starts as seven acting students – soon to be six – begin their fourth and final year enrolled in a Shakespeare program at a prestigious but isolated university. As their obsession with their craft begins to darken and poison their relationships, friendship turns to antagonism and, eventually, murder. If We Were Villains is a prime example of ‘dark academia’ literature, in the sense that it portrays the negative effects academic or artistic obsession can have on the psyche brought to an extreme level.
Is it realistic? Of course not. I’m fairly certain that studying Shakespeare or attending prestigious colleges is still completely safe, and the chances of being murdered in real life are low. As long as you’re safe with the stage weapons, you should be fine. However, the allure of this story is the same as the allure of all psychological horror: it explores what could happen if the immersion into one’s studies goes too far. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that our characters can no longer tell where Brutus or Macbeth or Edmund end and where they begin.
As I read this book, I felt a little sucked into the story myself. The great thing about consuming ‘dark academia’ media is that it’s a great motivator to pursue academic excellence without going insane. The plot and the characters were unique and unforgettable, but I found myself frequently reminded as I read of another piece of dark academia literature that is often attributed to being a core inspiration for the genre.
The Secret History, by Donna Tart, was released in 1992, and has since become a cult classic and a favorite of dark academia nerds everywhere. It too tells the story of a small group of students in an exclusive program at an isolated college who murder one of their own when the line between the real world and their studies starts to blur. When compared, these two novels seem to follow almost identical premises. As If We Were Villainswas published in 2017, it’s clear which one is the inspiration and which the homage. However, having read both, I can confidently say I prefer the knockoff.
As you may have guessed, dark academia can easily be criticized for being pretentious. Both of these novels romanticize the evil aspects of elite aspirations inaccessible to the majority of people. An important element of these novels is how the vapidness of their characters makes room for their obsession, and their otherwise empty lives encourage a divergence from the modern world. This can both be relatable and alienating to readers, as many dark academia fans may share the desire to escape into the romantic past but find themselves unable. The problem with The Secret History is that the characters aren’t likable enough to envy or pity, while in If We Were Villains each character is able to be connected to, even when they themselves are caricatures. Comparison and cultural relevance aside, If We Were Villains was thoroughly enjoyable and has been stuck in my head ever since I first picked it up. If you’re looking to live vicariously through a cast of characters as they’re slowly driven insane by the ghosts of their past, this is the book for you.