Donnie: How can you do that?
Frank: I can do anything I want. And so can you.
I would like to instigate this essay by saying that I am in conflict with everyone who have made assertion that ‘thriller’ is the right genre to be engraved on this perplexing film. In other words, I stand on the contradictory line for I strongly believe that Donnie Darko (2001) by Richard Kelly is a horror film and it is, without a doubt, a good one. The reason behind this drastic argument will be the subject of discourse, timely. Nonetheless, stamping genres on contemporary films sometimes seem like a futile act of the meta-modern film spectators for genre, until today, is still a problematic subject.
This film, under my judgement, is very stimulating for its form is the combination of both traditional horror and also what Noël Caroll would call “art-horror”. (Caroll, 2002) Donnie Darko centralized a renewed and fresh settings and other elements that have shaped the film’s diegesis i.e paranoid schizophrenia and time travel, and simultaneously elevated the film with a narrative form that seem “traditional”. ‘Traditional’ here does not necessarily mean out-dated, as it is also a narrative form that should be cherished for its practicality to awe the audience. As stated by Online Etymology Dictionary, the word ‘traditional’ means “handed down as tradition”.
In his essay “Why Horror?”, Caroll came up with a theory on the paradoxical nature of the horror genre. This ontological writing that I find striking, have successfully dissected the genre in a pedagogical manner. In the essay, Caroll asserted that the horror fiction in nature is built “with great frequency, revolve around proving, disclosing, discovering, and confirming the existence of something that is impossible, something that defies standing conceptual schemes” (p. 34). Now, why does this characteristics listed by Caroll seem so familiar?
The reason behind this is because it is in actuality the internal elements that have moulded the diegesis of Donnie Darko by Richard Kelly. The act of proving, disclosing, discovering and confirming the existence of what usually is a ‘monstrous’ object occurred in this film between its main character, Donnie Darko, and the eerie-looking bunny with alluring distorted voice introduced as Frank since the very beginning of the film. These elements listed by Caroll are the essence of “traditional” horror.
Then again, contradictory to conventional horror films with traditional narrative form, this film does not have an apparent ‘monstrous object’. There is some sort of ambiguity embedded by the director that made the ‘monster’ seem unclear and blurry. This ambiguity is positioned on the point between physics and mental disorder in the film, and that point is the character Frank himself. Frank, in Caroll’s words, is the “functional ingredient”. (Caroll, 2002) Frank is the unknowable, the one that “defies standing conceptual schemes”, at least for the first hour of the film. However the problem is, does Frank fall under the classification of ‘monstrous’? What is Frank’s intrinsic quality? Is Frank a mental projection of the paranoid schizophrenic Donnie or is he an acquaintance of Rose Darko (Donnie’s sister)? The ambiguity of this character, at first, is unbelievably baffling.
I cannot promise certitude of its relation, but after a simple research, I have found something purposeful in order to make meaning in Donnie Darko. Ostensibly, there exist an urban legend in Virginia throughout the 1970’s, about a “Bunny Man” who carries a hatchet around scaring people, and the story became phenomenal and is still mentioned until today. Additionally, the “Bunny Man” became a Halloween icon for the locals. (Blitz, 2015) Though the legend varies and evolves to inaccuracy along the years, the emphasis in this essay is that such legend exists in Virginia, where the film Donnie Darko (2001) happened to be set. Hence, this meets approval with the fact that the character Frank is dressed in a “bunny suit”.
The legend is very helpful in understanding the genealogy of such character design in the production, however it still does not contribute in finding the intrinsic quality of the character within the diegesis. This only add a small detail to the problem and it needs to be reconstructed: Is Frank a mental projection à la “Bunny Man” concretized by the paranoid schizophrenic Donnie, who happens to be an avid reader (assuming he would know about the existence of such legend)? Or is Frank an acquaintance of Rose who happens to dress up as the “Bunny Man” for the Halloween party? These two are the plausible understandings.
The fact that we cannot find certitude in these interpretations proved that Frank is the “functional ingredient” for the director to execute a manipulative ambiguity upon the spectators. This character made it impossible for the spectators to empathize with, for the equivocalness kept us at an emotional distance. This categorical alienation made the character fall under the ‘abject’. Abject, according to Julia Kristeva, is ‘what does not respect borders, positions, rules’, it is what ‘disturbs identity, system, order’. (p. 4) Psychoanalytically speaking, abjection, is the essence of something that is ‘monstrous’. Therefore, in my understanding, in certain ways Frank can be understood as a monster.
The existence of such monster and abjection in the diegesis, partially proves that Donnie Darko is in fact a horror film. Conversely, existence of a monster in a diegesis does not utterly verify that the film falls under the horror genre, at least not yet. For the reason that, according to Noël Caroll, horror “above all thrives as a narrative form”. (p.34) Which means having a monster within the diegesis does not yet promise a horror film, for it is about how the monster is presented or “staged” and how the characters react to it’s existence. Say, there are two separate feature films that convey monsters in the narrative. However, one is a fantasy, the other, horror. Characters in the fantasy film might react to the monster as if the circumstances are natural or ordinary, there is neither disgust nor repulse. Contradictory to this, in a horror, the feeling of disgust and repulse in the protagonist-monster relationship, subsists. To expound the importance of monster presentation in a diegesis, allow me to excerpt Caroll’s own words:
“The locus of our gratification is not the monster as such but the whole narrative structure in which the presentation of the monster is staged”
Now I would like to demonstrate (de-monster-ate) the corroboration on the reason why Donnie Darko’s narrative fall under the analysis “horror”. This film is captivating for the diegesis conveys both types of protagonist-monster relationship i.e the natural and the one with repulse. Frank, exists in association with Donnie. Frank, at some point of the film, can be seen as his companion. For that, Donnie embraces its existence as Frank is considered to be a part of him. Frank commands Donnie to execute some errands that locomoted the narrative progress. Therefore Frank can be understood, in a fantastical terminology, a “fairy godmother”.
Hence, there is neither disgust nor repulse occurred in their relationship throughout the film. On the contrary, the other characters’ response toward Frank are very unpleasant. This can be seen during the first hour of the film (precisely on one hour, one minute and twenty five seconds of the duration) in which Donnie and Rose were engraving pumpkins as a pre-Halloween preparation. In that particular scene, Donnie carved Frank’s facial features on a pumpkin, and to which Rose find it horrifying. To that response, Donnie find it bizarre as his facial expression subtextually propose so. The reason behind this, is of course, Donnie does not have the similar understanding as his sister.
The following scene captures the moment when Donnie’s parents meets Dr. Thurman (Donnie’s psychotherapist) in which Dr. Thurman “lay out” Donnie’s condition, under her understanding and judgement as a professional therapist. When Frank is brought up in the dialogue, Donnie’s parents manifested a drastic fear in expression after they arrive at knowledge that this “giant bunny” figure is the architect behind their son’s aggressive behaviour. The two scenes mentioned in the previous paragraph corroborated the dichotomy between Donnie and other characters’ response toward Frank’s reality. This chasm embedded upon Frank reflects the subjectivity and the ambiguity of the character.
The emphasis here is that Frank, above all, thrives in the diegesis as a monster to perform the elicitation of fear from Donnie’s family and the film spectators. It’s ambivalent or ambiguous nature, coined abjection. In support of this statement, Barbara Creed in ‘Horror and The Monstrous-Feminine’ highlighted that “the crucial point is that abjection is always ambiguous”. (p.71) Therefore, there is nothing fantastical behind the purpose of Frank’s existence, but to horrify.
Hanscomb, in ‘Existentialism and art-horror’, claims that “Monsters must of course have the power to threaten – to be strong, violent, deadly, aggressive, malicious, and so on – but also they are outwardly vile and grotesque.” (p. 3) Though Frank does not explicitly depict any special strength, violence, lethalness or any sign of aggressiveness, his commands subtextually indicate and bespeaks so. It results in Donnie’s vulnerability and acquiescence to execute unlawful acts such as arson, sabotage, verbal assaults et al.
The verbal inducement from Frank is threatening to the system and order of the characters portrayed within the diegesis. Frank might not commit these crimes directly, but without a doubt, he does so through Donnie. Indisputably, Frank is “vile and grotesque”. His physical features suggests an amalgamation of man, rabbit and the symbolical character, Death. This combination results in a very bizarre and simultaneously sinister look. Personally I think, Frank would already be frightening enough even if he did not possess the distorted deep voice.
Another supporting argument in accentuating Donnie Darko by Richard Kelly as a horror film, is that the narrative meets the requirement with one of the most traditional themes in the horror genre i.e. Faustian. As stated by Ryan Stevens in his study, Faustian “is a narrative archetype and an enduring metaphor for people making deals that benefit them in the short term and punish them mercilessly in the long run”. (p. 1) In simpler words, it is the cliché and metaphorical act of making “a deal with the devil”. As mankind thrive forward together with meaning in arts and philosophy, the “Devil” can now be anything that fits the requirements. In this film, Frank, in a certain point can be interpreted as the Devil, and Donnie, as Faust (the one who made the pact).
The “Faustian pact” is the most functional vehicle to move a narrative that questions morality, for the reason that it directly portray the reciprocity of one’s personal welfare with what usually, a worldly betterment. (Stevens, 2017) Unlike the legendary Faust from the German folklore that exchanged his soul for knowledge, Donnie Darko in the film exchanged his time and space with accompaniment to relieve his eremophobia (fear of isolation).
The reason behind his obedience towards Frank, is the feeling of fear and in arrears as Donnie believes that Frank had saved his life. To solidify this statement, Donnie vis-à-vis with Dr. Thurman said in a scene that “I have to obey him, he saved my life” (this is conveyed during the first hour, forty first minute and twelve seconds of the film). Like Faust, Donnie is in debt with the Devil (Frank).
This ‘pact’ amid Donnie-Frank relationship, from a certain point of view, can also be interpreted as parallel to one of the most popular philosophical puzzle in history of thoughts, namely, the infamous ‘trolley problem paradox’. The development of the story and its correlation with time and space, are contingent on the decision made by the protagonist. Like the illustration of the paradox, Donnie is the one holding the “lever” with the power to change the direction of the ‘trolley’. In other words, to change his fate.
To change fate means to believe in the concept of some “higher being” that premeditated the series of events. The polarity between being theistic and scientologic in this film can be seen in Donnie Darko as a moral struggle, an inner conflict. He is described by Dr. Thurman in a particular scene, as being “agnostic” but verily, in a surreptitious manner, he believes in the concept of fate, the notion of “higher being” et al. Science versus religion is one of the most common thematic component in horror films—The Exorcist (1973) by William Friedkin is a film par excellence.
Nonetheless, Donnie Darko broke the conventional “Faustian Story Structure” by changing his own “fate”. While on the other hand the original Faust, in a literal manner, went to hell. (Stevens, 2017) As asserted by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, narrative means a “chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space”. (p. 69) As we all know, time and space is verily the subject within the narrative, for Donnie Darko has developed an obsession with time travel, and he himself obstructs the development of time and space in the film’s diegesis as Donnie got his second chance to rectify his selfish actions—indirectly killing his own family in a plane crash and saving himself by cheating death. I believe that my point here is lucid. This film, with certitude evident, possess the Faustian thematic that conventionally falls under the horror genre. This fact fortifies my argument that Donnie Darko belongs to that classification.
Above all, Donnie Darko is very successful in the elicitation of compound emotions from the spectators. It manipulates the audience with internal components such as paranoia and repulse, always frightening them and making them remain on their chair in a disquiet state. These effect on spectatorship conspicuously are the reason why it is such a captivating new form of horror film. Donnie Darko (2001) cherishes the conventional horror narrative, but concurrently innovate the elements in the diegesis into something fresh. This film projects gratification by both horrifying and provoking moral contemplation amid the spectators.
Blitz, M. (2016, October 21). The Scary, Weird, Somewhat True Story of the Fairfax “Bunny Man”. Retrieved November 13, 2017, from https://www.washingtonian.com/2015/10/23/the-scary-weird-somewhat-true-story-of-the-fairfax-bunny-man/
Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2008). Film art: an introduction (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Caroll, N. (2002) Why horror?. In Mark Jancovich (Ed.), Horror, the film reader (pp. 33-45). London: Routledge.
Creed, B. (2002) Horror and the monstrous-feminine. In Mark Jancovich (Ed.), Horror, the film reader (pp. 67-76). London: Routledge.
Kristeva, J. (1982). Powers of horror. New York: Columbia University Press.
Stevens, R. (2017). Faustus revisited: A cultural, historical, and artistic study. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/etd/4176