Shaniya Bethel, a 21-year-old from North Carolina, started her dark academia blog in March because she had more time to read, she told me. “I personally dress up to sit in my house, because I can’t go many places during the pandemic,” she said. “I have zero outside socialization. Everything is done through the internet.” It’s fine, because she loves poetry, writing by candlelight, and posting about it. Her blog is full of screenshots of books and photos of milk swirling into coffee.
Pandemic cosplays are visually disparate—one group is planning immaculate picnics, another is hanging out in graveyards—but they have similar functions and postures apart from simply dressing up. Many of them are romantic, as teenagers on the internet can find a way to make anything about crushes. Much of the most popular content is explicitly queer: “We read and write poetry because we are gay,” one dark-academia meme reads. A plague doctor writes: “Plaguecore is like … i am a Doctor ….. I cannot Help …. but I must try …. also im Gay and Trans.”
These communities are also instinctually political and aspire to be inclusive. The Tumblr blogger who coined the term plaguecore wrote that the community “stresses a LGBTQA+ and POC positive attitude.” Cottagecore is explicitly anti-capitalist, and much of the community was vocally supportive of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. (It embraced one suggestion that all Confederate statues be replaced with metal sculptures of frogs.) Dark academia, which has been criticized for focusing on images of thin, rich, white people and reading only the Western canon, has internalized and responded to that criticism. Bethel posted about the representation issue in the spring, and told me that she’s been noticing a change in her Tumblr feed, which lately has more photos taken by or featuring Black creators.
What young people often get out of all this dreaming and posting isn’t just distraction, the fun of dressing up, and a temporary group of online friends, but a bigger understanding of the world. “I believe the thirst for knowledge made dark academia flourish during the pandemic,” Bethel said. “Because of quarantine, reading, writing, and the like became popular pastimes again.” Cottagecore fans learn about sustainability and self-sufficiency, as well as alternative ideas of community and success. The plague doctors are constantly winking at the fact that they don’t understand modern medicine, and that their crushes run away when they take out boxes of leeches, but they’re also gathering information about a historical moment that can teach them something about their own.
And though today’s plague doctors are thankfully not going around offering medical treatment, they still did provide something of a public service this year. Alexandra Vega’s first viral post as a plague doctor was in May, a series of photos her mom took of her pretending to eat out of a hummingbird feeder in her beaked mask. She said she didn’t expect it to blow up, but she understands what people like about the costume. “I think the appeal of plague doctors is what they represent: hope and the resilience of human kind in the face of fear,” Vega said. “They’re a symbol of humans being scared out of their minds but still trying to help others, and I think having a symbol like that is important, especially this year.”
To participate in plaguecore, you don’t have to be a “doctor” with a beak like Vega. You can just wear a cape while you’re sitting at home. Or carry stuff in a vintage medical bag instead of a tote and “always speak at a low volume.” Or join a Facebook group for people with pet leeches. Or take a walk at nighttime, holding a satchel of lavender. According to one definition of plaguecore, really all you have to do to take part in the culture is live in the year 2020.