Now let’s get down to what makes a Dark Acadamia setting truly dark: the secret societies!
There are for students, and in the Ivy League schools, for the elitist of the elite. Dartmouth has its Sphinx Society, Princeton its 21 Club, and Yale, the most notorious one of all: The Skull and Bones, thrust into the public eye in the 1980s when it was revealed President George H. W. Bush had been a member and they performed esoteric rituals with, variously, Geronimo’s, Martin Van Buren’s, or Pancho Villa’s skull. Since then, the society, and others like it, have been tied into conspiracy theories and the Illuminati, generally around the idea that “they” are the ones really in power and don’t want the lowly “you” to know the truth of that.
The organization, recruitment, activities, and members of these societies vary by school, and their activities and rituals are… well, secret. Many of the oldest, however (we’re talking early 1800s) revolve around death and mortality, with Gothic imagery and even, in the case of Skull and Bones, a clubhouse shaped like an Egyptian tomb. Therefore, it isn’t too hard to speculate they had Freemason roots. It also isn’t too hard, also, to speculate on connections to the occult.
But, there’s a more mundane, though no less fascinating, explanation. Many of the earliest ones grew out of debate and rhetoric clubs, which relied on the teachings of Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato — ancient Greece. Socrates, the first great philosopher, offed himself with hemlock after being accused of corrupting the (male) youth of Athens with his teachings, which his accusers thought showed impiety to the gods: Athens 1, Socrates 0. So naturally, the debating clubs were associated with death, and also rebirth, as the Neoclassical movements were in full swing at the times these first clubs were founded. In a way, Socrates and students were the first college. Debate, philosophy, and rhetoric were given more weight in schools of the 19th century, as they were considered the first steps toward intellectual enlightenment.
A long list of schools and their clubs has been compiled by Wikipedia, and is here.
Need a secret society for your Dark Academia setting?
Dark Academia, Secret Societies
|The Plume and Pen Brotherhood
Order of the Lamb’s Mouth
Gold & Ivory Society
The Black Veil
Olde Thunderfellow Club
Fellowship of Providence
The Stone Wasps
Crown & Bone Covenant
Belt and Brass Club
Sheath and Stalk Society
League of the Golden Harp
Order of Horn and Fog
The Adder and Amity Archives