Schizophrenia In Film: An Analysis Of The Psychopathology Portrayed In Donnie Darko


The aim of this analysis is to evaluate the overall psychopathology utilized in Donnie Darko. Donnie’s symptoms of schizophrenia can be analyzed mainly through his hallucinations with Frank and the delusion of the world ending in 28 days. These delusions and hallucinations affect how he interacts with people and his actions. The actions include him committing a series of crimes such as flooding his school and burning down the house of a motivational speaker who’s a pedophile. A proper DSM-5 based diagnosis is made through these various aspects of the film. Despite the science-fiction aspects playing a major role, the psychological aspect is not ignored. Donnie’s symptoms can be seen becoming more severe over the span of the 28 days. The therapist in the film, Dr. Thurman, offers insight into Donnie’s condition through a proper diagnosis. The film further finds a balance of the fictional aspects so that the mental illness portrayal is not tainted obscenely.


The aspects of mental disorders are frequently represented in film as it is a way to show society how they are portrayed. Mental disorders in film often draw in the attention of numerous viewers as people are infatuated with how the mind works. Not every film portrays these aspects correctly as proper research, or for other reasons, is not performed prior to the production of the film. When done properly, an excellent production with a great message about mental disorders can be accomplished. The film, Donnie Darko, is a prime example that has performed this difficult feat. The plot of the movie revolves around a teenage boy, Donnie Darko, who sleepwalks out of his house one night and sees a six-foot-tall person dressed in a creepy bunny-rabbit suit. The bunny-rabbit, named Frank, tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days. While Donnie is outside with Frank, a jet engine falls mysteriously into Donnie’s room. Following this, Donnie begins to obey whatever Frank tells him as he feels that he saved his life. Donnie, who suffers from Schizophrenia, begins to commit a series of crimes throughout the film, which is dictated by Frank. These acts include flooding his school, burn down the house of a motivational speaker/pedophile named Jim Cunningham, and steal his father’s gun. Besides this, the film deals with science fiction aspects such as time travel, portals, and the supernatural. In the end, it shows how Donnie is ultimately killed by him going back to his room and the Jet engine falling on him on the final 28th day (the end of the world). It is not for sure known how Donnie ended up back in his room, but it must do something with the aspect of time travel. The ending is really up for interpretation and it is still debated and theorized to this day. A popular fan theory includes the involvement of a tangent universe. However, there is still no real answer. This aspect of interpretation and debate makes Donnie Darko, retrospectively, a cult classic. Looking past the science fiction aspects, Donnie Darko does an excellent job of expressing Schizophrenia throughout the film. It is often portrayed through Donnie’s overall mood, his interactions with people, the hallucinations with Frank, and his sessions with his therapist!

Description of Psychopathology

Donnie Darko is a sixteen-year-old white male who lives in the town of Middlesex, Virginia. The year is 1998 and the month is October. He lives comfortably with his Mother, Father, and two sisters, Elizabeth and Samantha Darko, in the suburbs. Donnie is an intelligent boy who expresses himself poetically and speaks with rhetorical tendencies. His intellect is supported by his test scores, which are phenomenal according to his principal. Even though he has a comfortable life and is loved by his family, Donnie has Schizophrenia. This was made apparent when Donnie’s therapist, Dr. Thurman, informed his parents about the diagnoses. According to the DSM-5, Schizophrenia “is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech and behavior, and other symptoms that cause social or occupational dysfunction.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). These symptoms appear earliest in during the mid-teens. It can be difficult to make a diagnosis as there are no lab tests that can be utilized yet. For Donnie to be properly diagnosed with schizophrenia, he must meet certain standards stated in the DSM-5. According to the DSM-5, the typical symptoms to look for are delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, catatonic behavior, and negative symptoms. An individual must experience 2 of these symptoms for at least a month, and one of them either must be delusions, hallucinations, or disorganized speech. The span of the film lasts 28 days and within this time frame, you see Donnie portray these symptoms. Donnie experiences hallucinations when he sees Frank. During these hallucinations, Donnie is in a catatonic state as he is either sleepwalking or has no awareness of what is going on around him. All he is aware of is Frank and what he is saying. Donnie experiences the delusion that the world will end in 28 days if he doesn’t listen or do what Frank tells him. Donnie follows through with this delusion throughout the 28 days. He experiences disorganized speech when has therapy sessions with Dr. Thurman and will sometimes talk in a baby voice. Negative symptoms can be seen all throughout the film as he has reduced emotional expression. He can often be lethargic and sometimes angry when has to communicate with people, especially his family. Donnie has an impairment in the major areas of functioning during this period. This area includes work (or school in this case). Even though Donnie is an intelligent teenager, he struggles in school and gets into trouble. He often argues with teachers, even insulting one explicitly during a lecture. Due to this insult, Donnie was suspended from school. The DSM-5 claims that the signs for schizophrenia must last for at least six months and include at least one month of active symptoms (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Since the movie spans only 28 days, this is difficult to configure. At the beginning of the film, it was revealed that Donnie has been going to therapy and taking medication for some time. Also, Donnie claimed that he burnt down an abandoned house when he was younger. Based on this, it can be assumed that Donnie has been experiencing some form of symptoms for a long time. Schizoaffective disorder and bipolar or depressive disorder have been dismissed as claimed by Dr. Thurman’s diagnosis. His disturbance is not caused by the effects of any other drugs as Donnie only takes the one medication provided by Dr. Thurman. There is no reported history of autism spectrum disorder or a communication disorder from childhood. Besides meeting these major qualifications, Donnie also experiences some associated features. He has a disturbed sleep pattern as he is often restless at night and sleepwalks. He is sometimes hostile towards other people, such as his mother and older sister. It is apparent that Dr. Thurman’s diagnosis of schizophrenia is indeed correct. According to the DSM-5 standards, Donnie meets all of them.

Description of 3 scenes

There are various scenes throughout the whole movie that portray schizophrenia and its symptoms. The film can be viewed as a metaphor for schizophrenia and mental disorders in general. The 3 scenes that portray these psychopathological factors most apparent include Donnie’s first hallucination with Frank, Donnie publicly embarrassing motivational speaker Jim Cunningham, and Donnie’s final session with Dr. Thurman. During Donnie’s first interaction hallucination where he met Frank, the scene begins with Donnie taking his medication and going to bed. During some time in the night, Donnie has an auditory hallucination where Frank tells him to wake up. Donnie wakes up from bed in a depersonalized state and starts to sleepwalk. His eyes have become dilated as well. As Donnie begins to walk through his house, Frank can be heard telling him that he has been watching him and to come closer. Donnie unconsciously follows Frank’s voice until he treks out of his house. Once outside, Donnie sees Frank for the first time. Frank then tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days. Donnie’s reaction is him just smiling sinisterly at Frank with no other emotion. This is the first hallucination with Frank and creates the delusion of the world ending in 28 days. It is also the start of an irregular sleep pattern, as Donnie wakes up in a golf course the next day.

During the scene where Jim Cunningham, a motivational speaker, is giving a motivational presentation at Donnie’s high school, Donnie starts to have an auditory hallucination with Frank. Cunningham is having students come up to the microphone and tell him about their fears and worries. Cunningham provides students with answers by telling each one to find their self-worth and to not be afraid. He also brings each student up the stage. When Donnie goes up to the microphone, he asks Cunningham how much the school is paying him to be there. Cunningham, flabbergasted, begins to question who Donnie is. Donnie tells him that his name is “Gerald” and that essentially all his motivational advice is a farce. He then tells each student upon the stage the harsh blunt truth to each of their fears and worries. Cunningham explains to Donnie and the administration standing by that Donnie is a troubled young man and needs to find self-love. Donnie responds by admitting that he is confused, troubled, afraid. The stinger occurs when Donnie proclaims that Cunningham is the antichrist. At this point, Donnie is taken away by the school administration and is laughing on the way out. This scene portrays Frank's influence on Donnie. Donnie was under a hallucination while he was speaking to Cunningham. Likewise, Donnie was experiencing additional symptoms of schizophrenia. This included hostility and inappropriate effect. He had no self-control of his actions and was desensitized to what he was saying.

During Donnie’s final session with his therapist, Dr. Thurman, Donnie was under hypnosis. Dr. Thurman was asking Donnie if ever feels any regrets or current troubles. He responds by claiming that he has regrets flooding his school and burning down Jim Cunningham’s house (who is a pedophile). While Donnie is revealing this, he is speaking in a mumbling baby voice (disorganized speech). He further claims that Frank is making him do these crimes because he must obey him. Donnie feels that if he doesn’t obey Frank, then the end of the world will happen. He then becomes agitated and scared, transitioning from the hypnotic state and into a hallucination. He tells Dr. Thurman that he sees Frank and the sky will open up, leading to the delusion of the world ending. Dr. Thurman tells Donnie that if the world ends, all that will be left in existence is just him and Frank. Donnie proceeds to become emotional and embraces Dr. Thurman. She then snaps him out of the hallucination. During this scene, this is the first time where Donnie can describe to someone what he is seeing in his hallucination. The combination of the hallucination, delusion of the end of the world, and disorganized speech present the full expression of schizophrenia. It was also revealed by Dr. Thurman that the medication Donnie was taking were placebos. This promotes that his disturbances were not being caused by any medication.


Throughout the progression of the film, it can be seen how Donnie is steadily consumed by schizophrenia. Progression through the film can be identified through the 28 days by periodically showing the date/countdown. As the days go by it can be identified how Donnie starts to experience more symptoms of schizophrenia. From the beginning of the film, it is only Donnie experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations of Frank. As Donnie starts to be consumed, his acts of violence/crime become worse. From flooding the school, to burning down Jim Cunningham’s house, to shooting an individual with his dad’s gun. Through all of this, Donnie’s symptoms become worse. The periodic date identification signifies not only the countdown to the end of the world, but also how Donnie is slowly deteriorating. The film’s awareness of the time allows for the audience to keep in position with the concept of reality. Since the film spans a course of 28 days, it is imperative for a presence like this. If not, it would be difficult to realize when the end of the world would happen. Characterization of psychopathology is performed well in the film due to this aspect. From the beginning to the end of the film, Donnie’s hallucinations become more and more frequent. They go from just short auditory hallucinations to vivid visual hallucinations. Likewise, Donnie’s delusion about the world's ending becomes obsessive. At the beginning of the film, it is just a concept that Donnie was casually wondering. His obsession grows through his acts of crime and listening to whatever Frank says. This is due to him wanting to know what Frank’s master plan about the end of the world is all about. Donnie’s negative symptoms become more severe and present can also be observed. In the beginning, even though he is irritable, he is communicative with who he talks to. By the end of the film, he has no emotional expression. When he shoots the individual with his dad’s gun near the end of the movie, he shows no remorse or any emotions whatsoever. The overall combination of the concept of time and the progression of Donnie’s symptoms vividly portrays how he is slowly succumbed by schizophrenia throughout the film. This accomplishment is impressive since the film relies heavily on science fiction aspects and audience interpretation.

Positive and Negative Messages

The pacing in Donnie Darko allows for the audience to understand what is going on with Donnie in his struggle with Schizophrenia. Frank’s frequent presence portrays Donnie’s descent into the condition. Schizophrenia is taken seriously in this film and in all its aspects. Realizing its presence and how it can affect an individual psychologically can be clearly observed. The film's utilization of symptom progression and psychological treatment through Dr. Thurman portrays the film’s awareness of the condition. The film can be utilized as a metaphor for not only schizophrenia but mental disorders in general. Every individual who has mental experiences in their own manner. If the film is interpreted solely as a metaphor, the plot is basically a first-person perspective of schizophrenia through the eyes of a teenager. Even though the film was released in 2001, these psychological aspects can still be interpreted today. The film was essentially ahead of its time, as mental health and various mental disorders are prevalent. This is especially true for young people around the age of Donnie. Besides these positive aspects regarding schizophrenia’s portrayal, there is still one main hindrance presence. The science-fiction aspects can sometimes obscure the reality of the condition. With these science-fiction aspects, there can be sometimes over the top portrayals. These include the ideas and visualizations of time travel and portals. The problem is that you do not know if they are real or not. They can be interpreted as either real or apart of Donnie’s hallucinations and delusions. The aspect of interpretation helps aid with understanding these fictional concepts. Ultimately, the decision is left to the viewer and what they think.


The portrayal of schizophrenia fits well overall in the plot of Donnie Darko. The film knows what is doing and what is trying to be. Donnie’s symptoms were accurately represented, according to the DSM-5, and it shows that research was done prior. Even though the film is considered science fiction, Donnie’s descent into schizophrenia can still be analyzed from a real-world perspective. From how he interacts with individuals to the crimes that he commits due to his hallucinations with Frank, it can be visually observed how Donnie becomes sick over time. It was interesting to see how this condition was overall diagnosed due to there being no real lab tests for schizophrenia. Clinicians who make schizophrenia diagnoses need to be able to recognize the symptoms and follow the DSM-5 guidelines. What is really alarming about a condition such as this is the toll it can take on an individual. Conditions such as schizophrenia and other mental disorders plague millions of individuals each year. It is imperative to seek help if an individual suffers from a mental disorder. If aide and therapy are not found, the consequences over time can be significant.


  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
  • Hooley, J. M., Butcher, J. N., Nock, M., & Mineka, S. (2017). Abnormal psychology (17th ed.). Boston: Pearson.
  • McKittrick, S., Juvonen, N., Fields, A., Kelly, R., Gyllenhaal, J., Malone, J., Barrymore, D., ... Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc. (2008). Donnie Darko. Beverly Hills, CA: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
16 December 2021
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