Decoding Donnie Darko – Esoteric Analysis by Jay Dyer of Jay’sAnalysis.com
Donnie Darko is, on its most basic level, a film that is homage to 80s culture. It’s a cult classic (like many 80s films!) that references other 80s films, uses popular 80s film themes, and is set in 1988. But that is not all Donnie Darko is about. The film also makes statements about the socio-political and cultural developments of the late 80s, the reversal of family roles, etc., as well as being a superhero film, or more properly, an anti-super-hero narrative. It’s also a film that presents the age-old debate about predestination and free will; it posits alternate dimensions and worlds. But that isn’t all, either. It also contains elements of Jungian psychoanalysis, gnosticism, and the occult.
And now, let’s analyze. Here is the opening sequence:
It ends with the line from “The Killing Moon” song, ‘fate, up against your will; he will wait until you give yourself to him.” The classical hero had to face up to his face and survive it with stoic resolve. That is one level of Donnie Darko – the hero who must face up to his destiny, and we have been clued in to this by the opening song.
We see at the dinner scene that the family is dysfunctional – the father is not a father, and will remain passive throughout the film, as the mother runs the family and the children are rebellious and profane. This relates to the film’s criticism of 80s culture, especially its backward, hypocritical suburban morality. Note at 5:53 we see the Escher drawing of the eye prominently displayed, and as many know, in the reflection of the pupil, is death. Death will be a major theme in the film, but not just the generic notion of death, but death from a particularly Jungian and gnostic perspective.
Consider as well when Donnie awakens from his dream state and enters his trance state, at 8:23 what is visible is the Led Zeppelin album label image for Swan Song, which features an image of Lucifer falling, next to the upside down flag, signifying nation in distress. I am speculating here, but perhaps the two images are linked. Perhaps not. Regardless, the Lucifer and eye imagery is prominent in the film throughout, as we will see. Consider again the two prominent images in Donnie’s room. Recall that it is the engine that will “fall” through the roof – right where the image of Satan is. Without getting into too much speculation, the All-seeing eye is sometimes associated with Lucifer or Satan, but it generally depends on the context and intent, since it is also used to refer to the omniscience of the true God. Solomon speaks of God’s all-seeing eye in the Proverbs. Egyptians applied the image to Horus as a symbol of the divine attribute of omniscience. Point being, it means different things, but in modern masonic and Satanic culture, it is often applied to Lucifer:
It’s important to know as well that in most films, the details are crucial. Directors and producers place things there for a reason – acute attention is given to details. And, if you watch DVD commentaries, you will see them often speak of this.
It is significant that Frank, the dead spirit that possesses Donnie, communicates at midnight. Midnight is associated in many traditions with liturgical actions, and presumably in the occult as well. We read in Stoker’s “Dracula”: “It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway?”
The spirits of the dead and demons commune at midnight, and this is when Frank speaks to Donnie, especially as we move closer to Halloween, which will be very significant. That is when Donnie’s “world” will end, as Frank explains, when he first speaks to Donnie in a trance. Again, speculating here, but the first list of numbers are all composed of or can total 666. Six, in gematria, is the number of man, and in the Apocalypse of St. John, the number of the Beast. Frank says “28 days, 6 hours, 42 mins, 12 seconds” and the world will end. 8-2 is 6, 6 hours, 4+2 is 6, and 12 is 6 + 6. With the level of depth and thought put into the film, I don’t think this is a stretch, though I have no way to prove it, of course.
It is also significant that as the engine crashes into the house, the father is watching the Bush/Dukakis debate of 1988 and is totally invested in the neo-connery. We know that what was really going on in Nicaragua and elsewhere was drug running, as the Iran-contra scandal showed. The great irony here is that Donnie is drugged up, and experiencing serious spiritual problems, while the “war on drugs” was just getting started. The establishment is shown to be a fraud, and this anti-establishment theme runs throughout the film, because Donnie isn’t a hero in the traditional sense. He is a dark hero – if a hero at all. In fact, I suspect he is a kind of “Satan-hero.”
The school’s mascot is the “mongrels,” which carries the connotation of retardation and idiocy. The teachers and principal are all duped members of the establishment who fall for self-help guru, Jim Cunningham’s scam, “Attitudinal Beliefs.” The “Cunning Vision” production of “Controlling Fear” is hilariously awesome, but it also has a deeper sense, since a person of “cunning” is someone who has pyschic or occult powers, and Donnie is the visionary prophet of the film. It’s also significant that the woman who was a prisoner of her fear looked “through the mirror to see the reflection of her own Ego.” This will be crucial when we consider the other instances of Donnie seeing his Ego’s image in the mirror – Frank.
Frank, who begins to take a larger picture in Donnie’s life, is Donnie’s Ego, which, in Jungian analysis, must be integrated into the waking self. In this gnostic theory, the self is not whole until it reconciles all dualities into itself. The archetypes must be reconciled, or they will control us, Jung argued. In Donnie’s progress at his psychiatrist’s office, he goes deeper and deeper into his subconscious, and the therapist finally pulls Frank out, who we learned, was, for Donnie, “god.” But Donnie also can’t make sense of this rationally, and argues that God doesn’t make sense, and that perhaps raw materialism and atheism are the case, but in the end, he’d rather not debate it, because Frank is leading him. If his world ends, the therapist tell him, it will only be Donnie and God/Frank. Frank, you recall, is Donnie’s Ego – his mirror image, and is the personification of Donnie’s fear of death. Remember – this is all an alternate reality where Donnie has asserted his will in the face of what he fears is raw determinism. Instead of predestination, he has opted to fight his dark shade (Frank, in Jungian lingo), who is both a devil figure and a good deity. For evidence of this, consider this short explanation of Jung’s individuation process and then listen to Jake Gyllenhaal’s explanation of the film.
And here is Jake Gyllenhaal saying essentially that the film is about the self-individuation process:
Donnie is what he comes in contact with – the manifestations in the film are elements of his subconscious he must reconcile. That is not to say they are not real, as is the case with Inception, which has a very similar plot, and as I layed out here in my analysis. I disagree with Jake – I think we can tease out what the objective meaning is, more or less.
Jena Malone plays Gretchen Ross, Donnie’s girlfriend. When she arrives, she becomes the love interest, and will function to wake Donnie up. This is precisely the function of the Anima and/or mother archetype. It would be tempting to say Donnie’s mother is the mother archetype, but she plays a minor role, so I suspect the two archetypes of anima and mother are combined in Gretchen, since she awakens Donnie.
But lets back up. When Donnie arrives at school and we have the iconic scene where Tears for Fears plays, the camera is noticeably sideways. This clues us in, both to the sideways nature of this alternate world, as well as the sideways, out of kilter nature of the school itself. The entire social structure is askew, and Donnie is apparently the only one who has the guts to point this out. This is why Donnie is anti-hero. The link to the Satanic/Luciferian nature of Donnie is found in the key scene where he explains the meaning of the Graham Greene story, The Destructors, that “destruction is a form of creation.” This is the mindset of the darkest of the dark – since reality is determined by brute force and raw materiality in an irresistible causal chain that cannot be broken, all actions are thus levelled and ontologically the same. There is thus no good or evil – all acts are part of the “machine,” and recall that Donnie will say to the bully at the end, “Deus ex Machina” or God from the machine. The world, Donnie struggles to accept, appears to be a determined machine. Since this is the case, burning down Old Misery’s house is qualitatively no different from destruction. This constitutes the most Satanic/gnostic element in the film. Recall as well that Graham Greene was a British intelligence agent, working for MI6.
Donnie is drugged by BigPharma, and as a result of this, he continues to have intense experiences of synchronicity, communication with the dead spirit, Frank, and visions of the future. In the famous scene where Donnie talks to Frank in the movie theater during Evil Dead, Frank responds that Donnie “wears a stupid human suit.” In one of the debates with Monitoff, Donnie was told that bodies are “vessels that travel along vectors in spacetime.” So Donnie is inhabited by the spirit of dead Frank, but since this is a gnostic/Jungian film, the external world is not a real, objective reality, but rather a projection of the psyche and the subconscious desires that are yet to be integrated. Since Donnie has not reconciled good and evil in himself, as well as male and female, and all dualities, he is presented as a “prisoner of fear” – ironically showing the Cunning Visions self-help infomercials to be *correct. This is a masterful use of irony and humor. But again, when I say “correct” only within the gnostic/Jungian paradigm – not correct in reality. Significant also is the fact that when Donnie leaves the movies, we see the sign for “The Last Temptation of Christ” playing, cluing us in that Donnie is a kind of anti-Christ hero – a gnostic savior, as the “Jesus” figure of the Last Temptation was in fact an unorthodox, gnostic/Nestorian portrayal of Christ.
Now, I think with my Inception analysis and with this analysis, we have seen that the Jungian elements are there. And in case you think my further speculations about the gnostic and Satanic elements are going too far, I would ask you to consider Jung himself. You must understand the milieu this is working within. Carl Jung was himself a gnostic and in some form or fashion,an “Illuminist.” Observe as he explains that the archeytpes are not just symbols, but, in his actual description, gods, or demons. In fact, not only that, he attributes the “discovery” of all people having an anima to the “Illuminati” at 1:54:
There you go. So, by default, whether the writers know it or not, when you are heavily steeped in Jung, you are dealing in “Illuminism.” There is, in fact, an article Jung wrote about evil and the “anti-christ” where he argues that evil and anti-christ are as necessary as good and Christ. He argues that they are flip sides of the same coin.
But back to the story. Donnie sees a vision where the school is flooded, and Frank leads him to bust the water line, causing school to be out the next day. As a result, he is able to ask Gretchen out, and they “go together.” We see Samantha Darko, Donnie’s little sister, reading a poem titled “The Last Unicorn.” The unicorn’s name is Ariel, and is saved by a prince named “Justin,” who is translated to another world of “magic and wonder.” The poem seems irrelevant and out of place, unless we understand that this alternate world is Donnie’s alternate world where he (Justin) saves the unicorn (Ariel). Recall also that in Scripture, ‘Ariel’ is another name for Israel, so in terms of occult lore, it is a spirit in Judaism and gnosticism. See the hyperlink for all the associations, many of which could be relevant for Donnie Darko. Of particular note is the “wrathful” conception of “Ariel” from the gnostic text, the Pistis Sophia, which pictures “Ariel” as a destructive spirit — precisely what Donnie is. Wikipedia says (accurately):
” Ariel has been portrayed as a destructive spirit of retribution. In the Coptic Pistis Sophia, Ariel is in charge of punishment in the lower world, corresponding with Ur of the Mandeans. (Possibly due to Ariel’s association with the Archangel Uriel who is often equated with Ur and said to serve the same role.) Both Ariel’s leonthromorphic and destructive attributes have led to associations with the deities Nemesis and Sekhmet, among others. However, Ariel’s position as a spirit of wrath seems to be more in keeping with Judeo-Christian tradition of heavenly servitude. Ariel is usually depicted as a controller and punisher of demons or wicked spirits rather than a general retributive force.”
Donnie, when he saves Gretchen, his Ariel, and has sex with her, reconciles with the anima and lets loose his sexual repression, which he had expressed under hypnosis to his therapist. Gretchen is his Ariel, and his anima. It is when he unites with her that he then sees his destiny (at midnight), and it is when he looks into her soul that he sees his destiny – “cellar door.”
When Donnie looks into Gretchen, his anima, sophia, Ariel, he sees a portal and hears “Cellar Door.” Donnie has realized his destiny, and he must face it – to travel to Roberta Sparrow’s house, where the continual synchronicities had been leading him all along. Roberta Sparrow was the ex-nun who became a radical atheist after writing her book on time travel. She left the church and became ‘Grandma Death,’ as she is called throughout the film, hearkening to Lilith, as well as to Old Misery in the Graham Greene story. When Donnie arrives, what he discovers is that it is his nemesis, the bully who is waiting at the Cellar Door, and that he must face the bully, as well as the fact that it is he who kills Frank. So Frank, the spirit who has been haunting him all along, and who figures as God and a projection of his psyche, is also his shade, or darkside, representing his own evil. As a side note, “Cellar Door” is said by Drew Barrymore’s character to be the most beautiful combination of words in the English language. This is reference to Tolkien, and of course with Tolkien we associate the Eye of Sauron (another eye image), but it was also supposedly said by Poe and others.
Why is this important? For the same reason that Cobb in Inception has to reach the deepest levels of his subconscious – it is there that he has hidden away his shade, or darkside. For Donnie, it is at Roberta Sparrow’s house that he has hidden away the fact that he killed Frank, his sister’s boyfriend in rage for accidentally running over Gretchen. The “cellar door” is the doorway to the basement – in Jugian analysis, this is the subconscious realm, wherein man is the most evil and bestial. Donnie must face his fears – his evil – that he has, by his triumph of will (note that when he last visits the therapist, he is wearing a teeshort that says ‘Triumph” on it) and decision to be a superhero – an ubermensch, set in motion a course of events that leads to the death of his friends. So the resolution comes in the fact that Donnie decides to be a stoic – to accept his fate as Donnie Darko – the kid who was smashed in a freak jet accident. The entire alternate world story is the elaborate story Donnie concocted because his world came to an end – just as happened to Cobb in Inception. God is just a projection of the subconscious’ fear of death – and hence the identification Donnie makes between Frank and God to his therapist. This is why Donnie says Deus ex Machina to the bully – God is a product of the determined machine, he realizes. That is why the film poster has a collage figure of all of Donnie’s projections/archetypes making up the God/death mask of Frank.
And so we end with a rupture in the subconscious of others as a result of Donnie’s death. It is as if they dreamed the alternate world Donnie constructed where he was the anti-hero, and they are noticeably distraught at his death on Halloween. So Donnie’s alternate world is one of fiction, and the reality is that one must face one’s fate stoically. So the film presents us with two false alternatives – a world where one is a Crowleyan/Nietzschian dark hero who does as he lists, wreaking havoc, or a world where we are determined by purely brute natural forces. Is it better to be Donnie Darko, the dark hero who burns down the establishment, doing some good in the process, like exposing Jim Cunningham, the self-help guru, as a pornographer, and ultimately killing two friends, or is it better to be a stoic acceptee of fate – to be that kid who died a crazy death in high school? So it does devolve back to the free will, predestination debate, but only to pose it in the context of the occult – will you be the overman, the anti-hero, the Satanic Saint, or will you be the obscure nobody? A gnostic, false dichotomy indeed.