Donnie Darko and the Four Basic Functions of Myth

I wrote this for my Historical Archetypes and Mythology class at Full Sail Online. I recently watched Donnie Darko, so when the instructor asked us to find modern examples of Joseph Campbell’s four functions of myth, I went overboard. By the by, have you guys seen the Donnie Darko website? It’s so fucking cool! It gives extra material beyond the movie too, naturally. It makes me really want to get the Director’s Cut DVD. Anyways, before I post my little “analysis”, here’s Campbell’s four functions for those of you who don’t know it:

  • First is the metaphysical function. Myth awakens and supports a sense of awe before the mystery of being. It reconciles consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence. Myth induces a realization that behind the surface phenomenology of the world, there is a transcendent mystery source. Through this vitalizing mystical function, the universe becomes a holy picture.
  • The second is a cosmological dimension deals with the image of the world that is the focus of science. This function shows the shape of the universe, but in such a way that the mystery still comes through. The cosmology should correspond to the actual experience, knowledge, and mentality of the culture. This interpretive function changes radically over time. It presents a map or picture of the order of the cosmos and our relationship to it.
  • Third is the sociological function. Myth supports and validates the specific moral order of the society out of which it arose. Particular life-customs of this social dimension, such as ethical laws and social roles, evolve dramatically. This function, and the rites by which it is rendered, establishes in members of the group concerned a system of sentiments that can be depended upon to link that person spontaneously to its ends.
  • The fourth function of myth is psychological. The myths show how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. It is this pedagogical function of mythology that carries the individual through the various stages and crises of life, from childhood dependency, to the responsibilities of maturity, to the reflection of old age, and finally, to death. It helps people grasp the unfolding of life with integrity. It initiates individuals into the order of realities in their own psyches, guiding them toward enrichment and realization.

And now my analysis–feel free to contest it or ask questions! If you haven’t seen the movie yet–please do. It’s really good.

Joseph Campbell’s extensive research into world myths led him to write a great deal of theories and observations, all substantiated by his findings. His findings showed that though each culture independently developed their own myths, each followed a similar pattern of initiatory adventures. He further explained that all myths have four basic functions. These were: cosmological, metaphysical, sociological, and psychological.

In modern culture, it can be easy to assume that today’s stories, in whatever form or media they come in, do not follow these patterns or exhibit these functions. But this is not true. George Lucas’s Star Wars is probably the most famous example of a modern day initiatory adventure as defined by Joseph Campbell. Lucas even cited Campbell as being an inspiration and mentor, but far more recent than Star Wars, is the film Donnie Darko.

The psychological function is perhaps easiest to determine in the film,but each of the other three functions can be found as well. The story follows a troubled young teen who begins having visions of a twisted looking rabbit named Frank, who (functioning both as the Herald and the Mentor) warns of impending doom. A plane turbine crashes through the roof of his house, destroying his room while Donnie is out sleepwalking. It is later revealed that the turbine came from a tangent universe, pulled through a time portal by Donnie’s telekinetic power (facts only revealed in the Director’s Cut DVD commentary). The Donnie Darko website goes on to reveal that the turbine is the only thing to survive from the tangent universe. The same plane in the new universe actually remains intact and lands safely. Richard Kelly (the film’s writer), in his DVD commentary, doesn’t outright say whether or not the tangent universe is “real” (as if God were showing Donnie his path and why he had to be killed by the turbine) or if it was a vision.

Donnie also begins seeing the very elements of time and space (fulfilling the cosmological function) and struggles to uncover its secrets before disaster strikes as Frank had warned. This search leads him to not only wrestle with the scientific functions of his world, but with the concepts of free will and the role of God and the mystical nature of the universe (fulfilling the metaphysical function). As a very lonely individual, he clearly struggles with connecting with others and following the conventions of society. But as the story progresses, he succeeds in forming a relationship with the new girl at school, Gretchen, outing Jim Cunningham as a pedophile, following his mother’s wishes to take his medication (after a fight between them makes him feel guilty), working in harmony with his sister to throw a party at their house, reaching out to Grandma Death (the woman who wrote the book that filled his understanding of tangent universes and time and space), and standing up to the school bullies (though all of this inevitably leads to tragedy.) This all fulfills the sociological function. Donnie’s relationships with his family, his girlfriend, his school, and with society at large, are finally reconciled when he realizes that in sacrificing himself, he is actually creating life, thus overcoming his fear of dying alone and achieving his destiny. Collapsing the tangent universe, Donnie goes back in time to when the turbine crashes through the roof, laughing in (what seems hysterical) joy, just before he is killed. This fulfills the psychological function.

Donnie Darko is a very dark and mind-bending story, and even its genre and target audience seems slippery and broad. But through simple analysis, one understands how this tale of death, time travel, and coming-of-age follows Campbell’s initiatory adventure, and satisfies the four functions of myth he outlines. While some may disagree with Campbell’s emphasis on the psychological versus the sociological, and even his somewhat formulaic detailing of an adventure, one cannot deny that his research holds some truth, even in modern day stories.


Donnie Darko Analysis:

Everything You Were Afraid to Ask About “Donnie Darko”:

The Donnie Darko official website:

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