Science Fiction and Fantasy are full of magic school stories, from contemporary and urban fantasy colleges to second world universities, private schools, academies, and boarding schools. Many of these tales contain horror elements, even if they aren’t monsters and mayhem through and through. Increasingly, these sorts of stories—especially ones set in some version of higher education—are getting branded as “dark academia,” an aesthetic that uncritically privileges a certain, exclusive sort of scholarly “life of the mind” and mixes that ideal with elements of mystery, crime, danger, and, well, general darkness. And that’s a problem.
There are compelling reasons for “dark” or “gritty” representations of college and grad school, even and especially in a fantasy setting. But as a subgenre, magic school stories tend to skip over those compelling reasons in favor of external monsters and villains. In the process, they miss the fact that the murderer isn’t just calling from inside the house—it is the house. Or, rather, it’s the ivory tower (and its self-appointed gatekeepers).