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How 'Dead Poets Society' became Gen Z's favourite dark academia film



“We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” — Dead Poets Society


When we search the internet for dark academia films, we see one name pop up often: Dead Poets Society. Released in 1989, the film was a critical and commercial success but remained a hidden gem. This all changed in late 2010s, when “Dark Academia” took the internet by storm, skyrocketing the film as a result. Dark academia is an aesthetic that romanticises the pursuit of education, particularly in literature and classical studies. Boarding schools, tweed jackets, Latin lessons, and black coffee are just a few examples of what the dark academia aesthetic entails.


Dark academia films typically take place in elite colleges or Ivy League universities and Dead Poets Society is no exception. Set against the backdrop of the prestigious all boys preparatory school Welton Academy, the film follows the 17 year old newcomer Todd Anderson, as he navigates through the academy.


It is upon arriving at Welton for the first time that he befriends his roommate Neil Perry. Neil is an honour roll student who engages in various extracurricular activities, showcasing his intellectual capabilities and devotion to the rules.


But their fellow classmates' rule-conforming attitude is impacted when they are introduced to their English professor, John Keating. Mr Keating is as charming as he is enthusiastic. An advocate for intellectual freedom, he urges his students to break out of their shells. To “seize the day” or, “carpe diem.”


A characteristic that has kept Dead Poets Society relevant in the public consciousness is its queer subtext.


Inspired by Mr Keating, Neil goes against his father’s wishes and auditions for Henley Hall's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Theatre has been long associated with queer culture, but it especially holds ties with closeted LGBTQ+ youth, using theatre as a form of liberation and self expression. Along with this, the seasoned eye can note mentions of queer creatives such as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Walt Whitman.


One of Walt Whitman's most acclaimed poems ‘Oh me! Oh life!” is recited by Mr. Keating and later on by his pupils. Whitman had a long-term relationship with Peter Doyle. He discusses sexual interactions between men in works like the Calamus in Leaves of Grass.

Mr. Keating is seen whistling Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture multiple times throughout the film. Tchaikovsky's homosexuality was well known, and also well documented in his letters.


It is important to note the relationship between Todd and Neil being queer has been debated for decades now. While their relationship was not specified as being a romantic one at any point of the film, they are considered romantic partners by the film’s admirers to the point where the duo was given the nickname — “Anderperry.” We could assume that they share feelings from their interactions in the film.


Todd always feels at ease when Neil is around. Todd's freewheeling side is revealed by Neil, who also repeatedly urges him to speak up.


Todd doesn't share his birthday with anyone other than Neil. Neil tries to cheer up Todd, who didn't enjoy his gift, by making “the first unmanned flying deskset” and flinging it from the roof while they laugh. These feelings are reciprocated by Neil as he expresses his passion for acting to Todd, and Todd is the first person Neil tells that he has been cast in A Midsummer Night Dream. They spend a lot of time together; for instance, Todd assists Neil while he prepares his lines at the dock, and Neil consistently encourages Todd in his affinity for poetry.


Many young viewers also resonate with Neil. His father urges him to pursue a career in the medical field. When Neil expresses his desire to be an actor, his father withdraws him from Welton Academy and enrolls him in military school.


Dead Poets Society is the perfect dark academia film, not only because it fits the aesthetic but because of its representation. Its inclusion of queer culture, the internal conflicts of an artist and the fight for self expression, along with the timeless message uttered by Mr Keating, “You must strive to find your own voice because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are going to find it all.” These attributes have culminated to cement Dead Poets Society as a modern classic and Gen Z’s favourite Dark Academia film.



Words by Aadya Paswan


Edited by Lucy Eaton


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