Today I will be examining the greatest and most obvious influence on Wintersong: Jim Henson’s last and arguably least successful movie, Labyrinth.
The 80s were already half-over by the time I was born, but something about its aesthetic still clings to me, especially its over-the-top, weird, melodramatic, goth bits. I was pretty goth as a child, before I even knew what goth was. I was fascinated that all things creepy, unsettling, grotesque, romantic, and decaying, and I trace all of that back to:
God, this ballroom scene. I mean THIS BALLROOM SCENE, AMIRITE?1 Words can’t even begin to describe the effect this scene had on four-year-old JJ: the glitter, the lights, the masks, the costumes, the excess, the menace, the confusion—this scene was the first time I developed a notion of desire.
Desire to a four-year-old is generally fairly simplistic: I desire this toy, I desire this thing to eat, I desire to nap, etc. But sexual desire is fuzzier. Children experience sexual desire, but sexuality in developing humans isn’t on the horizon, or at least not yet. So while four-year-old JJ couldn’t parse the exact subtext of the ballroom, she sensed there was subtext.
Labyrinth the movie was not initially successful; it didn’t make the money it was supposed to, plus I don’t think it’s a particularly good film: the pacing is strange, character motivations are underdeveloped, acting is uneven, etc. Yet images and scenes from this movie have staying power. Why?
Part of it has to do with Brian Froud’s character designs and Jim Henson’s vision, but I also think the core story of Labyrinth is universal: it’s a young woman’s coming-of-age narrative. 15-year-old Sarah2 wants to stay in her realm of fairies and goblins and make-believe and resists growing up and taking responsibility. When she’s saddled with babysitting her little brother Toby one night, she throws an epic hissy fit and makes a careless wish that “the goblins would take [Toby] away.”
Boom! Crack! Thunder! Glitter! Her wish is granted in the form of The Goblin King, who says he’s taken Toby to his castle Underground. Sarah, regretting her thoughtless words, asks for her little brother back. The Goblin King refuses, but allows her the chance to win him back: if she’s able to solve the Labyrinth surrounding his castle and find Toby in thirteen hours, then her little brother is free to go. But if she fails, Toby stays as one of them forever.
What follows, of course, is Sarah’s journey through the Labyrinth. In theory, each trial and obstacle she overcomes should have some sort of metaphorical resonance in her coming-of-age, but, ah, remember what I said about the film being not quite successful? Yeah…it doesn’t quite succeed at that. Her misadventures feel more episodic than anything else, plus Sarah is often quite dense, and doesn’t learn much of anything at all.
Except when it comes to the Goblin King.
Now, a lot of the execution of the story doesn’t hold up very well, including Sarah’s sexual awakening. Is the Goblin King…real? Is he a manifestation of Sarah’s sexual longing? Does he represent the part of Sarah that doesn’t want to grow up? Is she fighting him? Or is he helping her? WHAT DOES SHE WANT? And so on and so forth. Yet, there is power whenever Jareth is onscreen, and especially when he’s onscreen with Sarah. Why?
Because he’s dangerous, that’s why.
Oh sure, Jareth can send the Cleaners after her, or send her to the Bog of Eternal Stench, but it’s not physical danger he represents—it’s sexual danger.3 The subtext of this is not exactly explored in the movie, but it’s definitely there, whether intentionally or not. And it all comes to a head in the climax, the infamous Escher staircase scene:
The Goblin King is menacing, he’s seductive, and he also, possibly, wishes Sarah harm. That much is established at the very beginning of the movie. Jareth is your classic Red Flag Do Not Want love interest: he manipulates her, he tricks her, he guilts her, etc. He also (in the aforementioned ballroom scene) roofies Sarah with an enchanted peach. Run, Sarah, run!
And yet…and yet. As a little girl, while I found the Goblin King desirable, I also thought he was scary. The tension between those two conflicting emotions is fraught with such delicious pleasure, like a guilty secret. And though I thought the Goblin King was frightening, it was okay, because Sarah defeats him at the end.
Her final confrontation with the Goblin King is incredibly powerful, but moreover, it’s incredibly empowering. Jareth offers Sarah everything she’s ever wanted, all her dreams to come true, if she would just let him rule her. (Danger, Will Robinson!) “Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I shall be your slave.” He tries to trick her by playing on her dreams, or else trap her by offering to be at her beck and call. These are all lies, of course, as they are in every abusive relationship.
So what does Sarah say?
You have no power over me.
That line, the line Sarah struggled to remember at the very beginning of the movie, breaks the spell. In some ways, that line defines me as an adult. As a little girl, I thought the ballroom scene was romantic, and at the very end of the movie, couldn’t understand why Sarah didn’t take up Jareth’s offer and stay to rule as the Goblin Queen. Jareth’s lies cast a spell over me. But as an adult? They have no power over me. I see those lies for what they are: dangerous.
The Line, coupled with the ballroom scene, was the fertile soil in which I planted the themes of my book. The push-pull of fear and desire, and the ability to say that neither fear nor desire have any power over you are incredibly powerful realizations that you come into when you come of age.
In many ways I would love to write a straight retelling of Labyrinth instead of a novel inspired by it. There is a lot of missed potential, despite the combined talents of Jim Henson, Terry Jones, David Bowie, et al. Labyrinth is in many ways a Peter Pan story, but infused with what J. M. Barrie’s tale lacks: sex and menace. All my favorite stories are about the painful rightness of growing up, and perhaps that, more than any other theme, is what I return to again and again in my own work.
That’s all for this month! If you want more behind the scenes goodness about Wintersong (and maybe the occasional recipe and giveaway!), please subscribe to my newsletter! The content you get in the newsletter is exclusive, and won’t be on my blog, so don’t miss out!
- What is it about dancing scenes and sexual tension? Because, uh, can we talk about the ländler scene from The Sound of Music? I would be lying if I didn’t mention that this scene didn’t also have a teeny bit of influence on me as a kid…
- My first name is Sarah. You might suppose that because the heroine’s name was also Sarah, little JJ was predisposed to think fondly of Labyrinth. You suppose correctly. ↩
- Yes, yes, yes, let us discuss the ENORMOUS elephant in the room: David Bowie’s crotch. Yes, it’s obvious, and yes, it arguably got more screen time David Bowie’s face in the movie. And while I am talking about sexual danger and the Goblin King, let me also state that The Tight Pants did not actually factor into consideration. ↩