Tag Archives: David Bowie

‘Labyrinth’ Is a Coming-of-Age Story With Puppets

January is a time of reflection and renewal. It also just so happens to be my birthday month. Did I leverage my birthday to convince my lovely Certified Forgotten editors to allow me to write about one of my favorite films of all time even though it’s not technically horror? Yes…yes I certainly did. What movie, you ask? That would be the 1986 Jim Henson classic, Labyrinth.

This fantasy adventure film stars a young Jennifer Connelly as Sarah. Sarah is a teenage girl who is rather stuck in a childlike state of mind, more interested in fantasy worlds and stuffed animals, despite the adults around her telling Sarah it’s time to grow up. One night, while Sarah is babysitting her baby half-brother Toby, the responsibility becomes too much for her and she makes a wish she instantly regrets. Sarah wishes for the Goblin King, Jareth (David Bowie), to come and take Toby away so she doesn’t have to deal with him anymore. When Sarah quickly realizes she’s made a mistake, she begs Jareth to give her brother back. Instead, he gives her 13 hours to reach the center of a treacherous labyrinth and find her brother, otherwise Toby will be turned into a goblin. 

While at first glance it’s easy to dismiss Labyrinth as a simple family film made for kids, there are many elements that can be seen as horror, especially when viewed through the eyes of a child. Sarah comes face-to-face with many dangers including kidnapping, goblins, fantastical weapons, monsters, dark magic, and even the Bog of Eternal Stench. She encounters a number of things someone her age would find horrifying. On top of that, Sarah’s journey is about so much more than saving Toby. Her journey is one of self-discovery, showing how she matures into a young adult while still holding onto the fantastical “immature” things she loves.

Even though Sarah is 16 years old, she is introduced to the audience as someone very childlike and immature. Her first appearance on screen shows Sarah playing dress-up and acting out a fantasy scene from one of her books. She arrives home, late for babysitting Toby, and her stepmother even makes a comment about how Sarah should be going on dates at her age. Sarah storms off to her room in a tantrum, where we see more evidence of her childish ways. Her bedroom is filled with things like stuffed animals, children’s books, and children’s games; it looks like a young theater kid threw up all over the place. When Sarah notices her favorite teddy bear has vanished from her room, she immediately knows the bear is with Toby. In another tantrum, Sarah goes to take the bear back from the baby. Upset by someone taking her favorite stuffed animal from her room and Toby’s crying, Sarah childishly wishes for the Goblin King to take Toby away, not realizing her wish will come true.

Throughout Sarah’s harrowing adventure to rescue Toby, we see her continually forced to face vital life lessons on her journey to adulthood. She learns not everything is as it appears to be, life isn’t always fair, your loved ones are more important than material objects — but growing up doesn’t mean she has to give up all the things from her childhood. 

In the final scene of the film, after the battle has been won and Toby is home safe, Sarah gazes into her mirror and sees glimpses of the friends she made during her adventure. They tell her they’ll miss her and that they’ll always be there should she ever need them. Sarah realizes that, despite growing up, she still needs to spend time with those old friends from her fantasy world. This feels like a nod to the nostalgia we all feel for our childhood. This article alone is a testament to how connected we often feel to movies, toys, shows, and stories from our childhood, and how fun it can be to revisit them as an adult. It’s yet another important lesson Sarah learns along the way.

While the most important aspect of Sarah’s growth in Labyrinth relates to the responsibilities of adulthood, there is also a romantic element in the form of Jareth. Even though he’s a fictional Goblin King, Jareth is still an adult man trying to get a sixteen-year-old girl to fall in love with him. On the surface, yes, it’s very creepy and gross, but Jareth’s character is a bit more metaphorical. In Sarah’s room, among the pictures of her mother, there are images of her with a man who is very clearly David Bowie. The pictures and news articles hint that Sarah’s mother was a stage actress who fell in love with her co-star (Bowie), and her mother left to be with this man. We also see a statue that looks quite a bit like Jareth. 

In Sarah’s mind, the actor must be the perfect man if her mother left the family to be with him. Her childish ideas have conflated this actor with her fantasies to create Jareth, the Goblin King who performed great magic, even turning back time, all for Sarah. Having an older man go to such great lengths is a fantasy many young women have because, in their minds, the attention from a sophisticated, powerful, older man means they must be truly special. Part of Sarah’s growth throughout Labyrinth is reconciling her notions of love and desire, realizing that Jareth isn’t this all-powerful man who can give her the world. That is why, at the end of the film when Sarah and Jareth have their final confrontation for Toby, Sarah utters the lines from her favorite story, “You have no power over me.” The veil over her eyes that has blinded her from the truth has lifted. Sarah finally understands that someone who truly loves and cares for her would never try to separate her from her family and put her through such perils. Saying these simple words shatters Jareth’s power, bringing Sarah and Toby back to the real world. 

While on the surface Labyrinth might seem like your typical ‘80s family fantasy film, upon closer inspection you will find classic elements of a Uterus Horror film. It features a teenage girl, Sarah, trapped in a childlike state while the world around her says she’s too old for such adolescent interests. This leads to Sarah’s voyage of self-discovery, filled with terrors she must battle through in order to learn important life lessons and become a responsible young adult. There is even a romantic element, speaking to Sarah’s budding sexuality, but in this case, she must push past her preconceived notions of romance and redefine them for herself. Sarah manages to reconcile her childhood passions with her growth and responsibilities. Some might argue that everything Sarah experienced was all in her head and therefore not real. While I don’t disagree, I do think the journey was very real for Sarah. If it wasn’t, I doubt she would have experienced such growth in a single night. Labyrinth reminds us that getting older doesn’t mean you have to forget the things that made you happy as a child — memories can be cherished and honored for a lifetime.