ByElle McFarlane, writer at
'There's always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you.'
Elle McFarlane

I've always loved the challenge of combining two of my favorite things. From leaving rave reviews on Yelp for fictionalized meals at restaurants I've never been to in combination with drinking alone, to buying passive aggressive gifts for detested flatmates in combination with long-term stealth-stealing of their expensive honey, I'm somewhat of an expert at it. But nothing, not even kiwis dipped in peanut butter, could prepare me for the mind-boggling potency that was the realization that Donnie Darko is the dark sequel to Dirty Dancing.

As a child of the '80s, has secured an almost hallowed place in my heart. Balancing just the right amount of intrigue and troubling unease beneath a deliciously familiar blanket of nostalgia, Donnie Darko is a near perfect movie. But, as I lay watching it while mindlessly trawling through other dubiously bizarre restaurant reviews, I became deeply troubled.

As I watched Patrick Swayze (God rest his soul) dominate in a stunning performance as Jim Cunningham, a middle aged heartthrob-turned-shamed paedophile, I was plagued by visions of him in his breakout role as the crotch-thrusting, salsa-loving Johnny Castle from my other favorite movie, , to the point that they merged as one being.

And then I realized. They are inseparable because Jim Cunningham and Johnny Castle are the same person. I mean hello, just look at their initials. Donnie Darko is actually the dark sequel to Dirty Dancing (again, look at the initials), and things will never, ever be the same again.

Referencing excerpts from Roberta Sparrow's 'The Philosophy of Time Travel' from Donnie Darko, it became clear that Donnie is not the only character capable of using the sudden break in the fourth wall to time travel — Jim is also able to jump across the great divide. But unlike Donnie, Jim wasn't sent back to try to prevent the end of the world, oh no. Jim instead returns to the Summer of '63 to a certain repressive holiday resort otherwise known as "Kellerman's" where he was about to have the time of his life, again.

So, whether you have a strong aversion to putting babies in corners or whether you believe that every living creature on this earth dies alone, hold on to your man-suits because this theory puts the indisputable "panchang" in "panchanga."

Preemptive Note: For the sake of continuity and clarity, I will be referring to Johnny Castle as Jim Cunningham throughout.

The Time Traveling Premise Of Donnie Darko

  • Two Separate Universes
Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko

In the opening chapter of Roberta Sparrows' book, she refers to two different universes. The Primary Universe and the Tangent Universe, a Universe which comes into existence after a break in the fabric of the fourth dimension, which is highly unstable and will collapse in on itself after a couple of weeks, potentially destroying all existence in the primary universe.

  • Donnie's Unique Mission

Donnie Darko's Universe is the Tangent Universe, a Universe which will only exist for 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds before it collapses back on itself. His destiny is to use his special gifts as a 'Living Receiver' to close the Tangent Universe safely, without it destroying the Primary Universe once and for all. But this theory puts forward the idea that Jim Cunningham, like Donnie, is also a 'Living Receiver' able to manipulate the fourth dimension.

Why Jim Time Travels Back To The Kellerman's Holiday Resort

  • Jim Is Given A Chance To Hide His Dark Secret

Ever since Donnie is forced to endure Jim's motivational speeches as part of his Gym class, he takes an immediate disliking to him. Later, when he discovers Jim's wallet on the floor outside of his mansion, he decides to burn the mansion down. In the burnt wreckage however, fireman discover a secret room filled with child pornography and Jim is arrested. Game over Jim. Or is it?

Since this is all taking place in a Tangent Universe, none of it technically ever really happened. Jim knows this and he also knows that when the Tangent Universe collapses back into the Primary Universe, he will be given a second chance to right his wrongs. Enter the aptly named Frances 'Baby' Houseman.

  • Jim Wants To Bring Baby Back To The Future

Using the glitch in the space-time continuum, while Donnie tries to save the world in the Tangent Universe, Jim travels back to the Summer of '63, to Kellerman's Holiday Resort. It was here that he spent his youth as a dancer under the name of Johnny Castle (no doubt having to change it due to some dodgy scandal in later life), and it is here he returns with one very specific purpose: to bring Baby, a woman that he had a Summer fling with, back with him to 1988. The reason? With the body and name of a small child, he believes Baby is the only woman he can be with who'll be able to distract him from dabbling in his dark paedophilic habit. Bear with me.

How Jim Tries To Bring Baby Into The Donnie Darko Universe

  • Why 'The Lift' Is So Important

Did you ever wonder why so much of Johnny's time was spent trying to get Baby to perform the perfect 'lift?' Well, when you realize that Johnny is actually Jim Cunningham attempting to take Baby back to the future, things become a little clearer. According to Roberta Sparrow's book, water and metal are the key elements of time travel. Water acts as the gateway between universes and metal is the material that is able to travel across this gateway.

  • Water, The Barrier Element:

The 'lift' is actually Jim practicing to throw Baby across the universal gateway. When he first mentions the lift to Baby, what does he say?

  • Metal, The Transitional Element:

And what does Jim do just before taking Baby to the water to practice the lift? He breaks into a car, covers it up by saying that it's his and that he's left the keys inside, and drives her off for the beginning of the lift-learning montage. The car is the metal which he hopes will get them across the Universal gateway which has opened up in the water. As he plunges the car into the tear in the fourth dimension, he hopes to 'lift' baby through to the Primary Donnie Darko Universe and begin a new life with her in tow.

Dirty Dancing
Dirty Dancing

How Jim Reveals Himself To Be Johnny Castle

  • They Are Both Popular With The Older Women

In Dirty Dancing we see that just as in Donnie Darko, Jim has always been a big hit with middle aged women. Jim is able to wrap all of Middlesexes' cougars around his little finger, at one point Anne, a friend of Donnie's mom (Rose) saying, "Rose, you have to meet Jim Cunningham. I can't believe he's not married." This unbridled adoration reaches disturbing levels however when even after it is revealed that Jim is a paedophile, these women club together to create the 'Jim Cunningham Defence Campaign.'

This is something he apparently perfected in his youth at Kellerman's, using his charm to get his hands on the older female clientele's cash and something he's been practicing ever since. In the above scene not only do we see him explaining how this works to Baby, but we can also see a shiver of disdain streak across his face when he realizes that "Baby" has a rather adult name behind her childish facade.

  • Jim Plays A Lot Of Suspiciously '80s Sounding Music In 1963

One of the biggest clues to Johnny's true identity is that fact that he plays so many songs in Dirty Dancing that have quite clearly come straight out of 1988 and landed miraculously in 1963. In the scene above we see Penny clearly putting on Jim's Eric Carmen 'Hungry Eyes' record which was released in 1987. Then of course there is the infamous climatic scene of the movie where Jim and Baby perform their epic Kellerman's Seasonal finale dance along to the indisputable '80s classic, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes' '(I've Had) The Time of My Life' — all time traveling puns intended.

  • Nobody Puts "Neuron Face Smash" In A Corner
Dirty Dancing
Dirty Dancing

Realizing that he is running out of time to get Baby across to 1988 before the gateway closes, Jim comes up with one of histories most famous and most ridiculous ploys to get her to once again attempt the perfect lift. Sauntering over to her table, he takes one look at her parents and blurts out "no one puts Baby in the corner," before grabbing her and taking her away to prepare for the thinly-veiled, time-traveling-focused dance routine once again.

However, Baby was never really in the corner. In fact, she was actually sat in the middle of the room, just slightly wedged behind a pillar. Jim's illogical outburst only goes to emphasize the increasing pressure he felt to get her across the time threshold by any means necessary before it closed, leaving them stranded forever in 1963.

It's also important to point out that Baby's real name, 'Frances Houseman' is an anagram for "Neuron Face Smash," a well known side effect of time travel which sees the biological cells in your face and body having to quickly adapt to breaking through the fourth wall. It's also an anagram for "Hosanna's Cum Reef," but we won't dwell on that.

How Jim Failed To Bring Baby Back

However, as the final ten minutes of Donnie Darko show us, Jim is unsuccessful in his attempt to bring Baby across the time-space threshold. As the now iconic final 'Mad World' montage begins, we see that Donnie succeeds in closing the Tangent Universe, and all of the characters now return to the point in time when the Tangent Universe was initially created at the beginning of the movie.

Jim wakes up crying and alone, clearly devastated that he now has to face his dark secret without Baby by his side. And things only get worse for Jim from here. According to the official Donnie Darko website,, Jim was found ten days later on the fourteenth hole of the Country Club golf course having shot himself in the head. Before doing so however, he cleared out his underground stash of children porn and his secret died with him.


What is the biggest plot hole in this Jim-Johnny time traveling theory?


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