Pictured above: Sexual predator.

Last week I took a shot at dissecting the allegorical significance of Sucker Punch, in which a troubled girl fights to take back control of her sexuality at the hands of depraved men everywhere, and does so through elaborate song-and-dance action sequences. Where others seemed to get wrapped up in the potentially disconcerting message that the literal text was selling, I sought to examine what the subtext had intended to sell. And it’s with a similar goal in mind that I’ll now be ruining Labyrinth for you forever.

[Editor's Note: This interpretation of the film is strictly that, and does not necessarily reflect the intended vision of the creator.]

Let’s recap.

Labyrinth is a coming-of-age fantasy wherein a girl unknowingly wishes away her baby brother to the Goblin King, and is forced to venture through an enormous otherworldly maze if she hopes to reclaim him. She learns a lot along the way. She learns how to think outside the box by challenging the ways she’s been taught to perceive the world around her. She learns to appreciate the importance of her family over her material possessions. She learns that choosing to always live in a world without rules and responsibilities perhaps isn’t as glamorous as it seems. And most important of all, she learns how to cope with being date raped by David Bowie.

PART I: THIS MIGHT GET UGLY

If there’s one area that tends to get the brunt of the criticism when looking back on Labyrinth, it’s the character of Sarah, played by a 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly. She’s whiny, shrill and appears undeservedly resentful of her parents — who, god forbid, want to have a night out while she helps babysit. How can anybody be expected to empathize with such a self-entitled little snot?

By the end of the film though, the character is grounded in a whole new light. And by that I mean, we gradually discover that she was victimized by a pedophile, and probably deserves to be cut some slack.

The relationship between Sarah and “Jareth” is hinted at early on, with the following exchange:

Sarah: “How do you know what my plans are?”
Sarah’s Mom: “I assume you’d tell me if you had a date. I’d like it if you had a date. You should have dates at your age.”

Upon hearing this, she immediately storms off to her room.

Scattered around the room are dolls, games, books and various other knickknacks that then become reified once inside the labyrinth. The basics of the story (such as the labyrinth and the King of Goblins) are of course built from the book that she reads throughout the film. And Jareth, with his grandiose hair and bulge-enhancing leggings, has his image culled from a figurine on Sarah’s desk. These details make it all very clear that the adventure that follows is conceived entirely within Sarah’s mind, with the various elements found within the labyrinth having all been inspired by aspects of her real life. What part of her subconscious, then, was responsible for developing the psyche of a creeper like Jareth?

We’re first introduced to Jareth as a lurking presence outside her house. In owl form, he claws at a window and tries to get inside. Sarah is frightened, but doesn’t know what to do. The door breaks open and in bursts Jareth. He offers her a crystal ball — one which will show her dreams — as a gift in exchange for the child she was at first so willing to give away, and hypnotically shows off his admittedly pretty sweet contact juggling skills to lure her in. She isn’t buying it. “Don’t defy me,” he scowls, as he turns the crystal into a snake and throws it on her. In other words: He tries to seduce her with the illusion of emotional fulfillment, and when that fails, the sinister impulses behind the illusion rear their ugly head.

Later in the film, any indication of Jareth caring about Sarah’s baby brother vanishes. His intent is clear: He wants Sarah. And he confirms it by tricking her into eating a magical date rape peach.

That’s right. A magical date rape peach. I shit you not.

Sarah takes a bite, and drops into a near unconscious state. Once again using his balls (ahem, crystal balls) to lure her in, Jareth transports Sarah to an ethereal masquerade ball, where she wanders aimlessly through the crowd. All the while, Jareth eerily leers at her in the background and sings her a love song. He eventually swoops in and starts dancing with her, and Sarah appears to be completely under his control. With the world spinning around her, she grows dizzy and literally shatters Jareth’s spell with a chair, descending into the darkness below.

Sarah wakes up in a pile of garbage, holding the half-eaten peach. She has no memory of the events. In fact, she can’t even remember who she is. A junkyard goblin shows her pieces of her childhood, but she struggles to identify them. Her identity — and innocence — has been taken.

It’s that loss that causes Sarah to create the labyrinth in the first place. She doesn’t withdraw into that world just for the hell of it; she invents it as a coping mechanism to deal with her loss of innocence. Jareth taking the child is a metaphor for that. He took her innocence, and she wants to get it back.

Note how the film doesn’t end with her saving the baby. She never even touches the baby while in the labyrinth. Her trip into the labyrinth ends with this:

Jareth claims that everything he’s done has been an act of generosity. She wanted him to take the child from her — to take her innocence — so he took it. She wanted him to change her world, so he did it. All of this has been so that he could live up to her expectations. Sarah doesn’t accept this. “My will is as strong as yours,” she says, pushing forward. “And my kingdom is great.” Jareth whips out another crystal ball to distract her, not realizing that his showy attempts to lure her in won’t work anymore. “I ask for so little,” he pleads. “Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want.” But no, Sarah refuses to let Jareth keep control over her kingdom. She refuses to let him keep control over her mind.

“Just fear me, love me, do as I say… And I will be your slave.”

Sarah ignores him.

With the utterance of six simple words — “You have no power over me” — Sarah’s dream world collapses. She has successfully made her transition into adulthood, and Jareth’s seductive pull has been broken.

(Interesting side note: Anybody noticing the similarities between this and Sucker Punch? Even Baby Doll’s defining character moment rings similar, as she asserts herself by shouting, “You will never have me!”)

The film ends with Sarah sitting alone in her room, realizing that being an adult doesn’t mean needing to abandon the child in her. The camera pans out to show Jareth (in owl form) staring at her through window as she dances with her imaginary friends. No longer a threat, he flies away.

PART II: MUSIC IS FUN

There’s something morbidly amusing about the reception to Labyrinth. While many viewers were put off by Sarah, the sexually confused rape victim, they absolutely adored Jareth, the domineering child-napping pedo. This is surely because Jareth’s motivations are conveyed primarily through super catchy songs performed by David Bowie. And who can resist David Bowie?

Still, it’s bizarre that so few people have questioned the sexual undertones of Jareth’s songs, which include lyrics such as “I can’t live within you” and “Daddy, daddy, get me out of here”.

From the song “As the World Falls Down”:

As the pain sweeps through
Makes no sense for you
Every thrill has gone
Wasn’t too much fun at all
But I’ll be there for you
As the world falls down

From the song “Underground”:

No one can blame you
For walking away
Too much rejection
No love injection
Life can be easy
It’s not always swell
Don’t tell me truth hurts, little girl
‘Cause it hurts like hell

Who else could these lovelorn lyrics possibly be directed to other than Sarah?

Better question: What the hell is with the lyrics to “Magic Dance”, which are sung to the baby?

You remind me of the babe (What babe?)
The babe with the power (What power?)
Power of Voodoo (Who do?)
You do (Do what?)
Remind me of the babe

I saw my baby, crying hard as babe could cry
What could I do?
My baby’s love had gone
And left my baby blue
Nobody knew

Dance magic, dance
Put that baby spell on me

Slap that baby make him free

Translation: The baby reminds Jareth of the young and nubile Sarah. He claims it is her who is responsible for his lecherous desires. She stopped loving him, and he wants to make her love him again. Possibly by way of bitch-slapping.

PART III: ARTSY FARTSY

For a movie with such an arden cult following as Labyrinth, it’s strange to me how rarely anybody comments on some of the more perverse elements of the film. The movie is 25 years old, and yet its metaphorical implications have been left largely untouched. Perhaps that’s the mark of a different time, where the only sensible way to respond to an unexpectedly dark and mature turn from Jim Henson was to point out how unexpectedly dark and mature the film is, and not give it a second thought beyond that.

More recently, critics (and to a lesser degree, audiences) proved themselves far more receptive to Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, which is decidedly similar in the way it chose to approach its abstract subject matter — if a little more blunt about its artistic aspirations. Both films feature their young protagonists retreating into their minds and going on a spiritual journey — with assorted puppet wizardry personifying the characters’ internal confusion and frustration — and then ultimately coming to terms with their predicament and welcoming the reality that surrounds them. Despite these similarities, only the introspective themes of Where the Wild Things Are were widely acknowledged upon release. That could mean we’re making progress. Or, based on the willfully dismissive response to Sucker Punch, it means the only way people will readily accept unspoken subtext is if the film is dressed up as an arthouse film. And that, frankly, is absurd.

(Interesting side note #2: Labyrinth was based in part on the work of Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, taking much of its plot from his book “Outside, Over There”. So this is clearly ground that Sendak has been known to tread.)

I suppose the lesson to be gained is this: The next time you come across a movie that sees a character going on a fantastical adventure and encountering an oddball group of mystical beasties, spend some time deciphering what the filmmaker is trying to say with that “adventure”. Because it may actually be less about David Bowie singing catchy songs, and more about David Bowie fucking underage girls.

Discuss: Do you buy that this was the intended meaning behind Labyrinth? Or do think this theory is reading too much into a silly children’s film about puppets?

Discuss Further: What other films have symbolic underpinnings that may not be widely acknowledged? (For the record, I’m still awaiting a thorough assessment of Howard the Duck.)

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About the Author

Adam Quigley can be reached at adamquigs[at]gmail[dot]com, or on Twitter at twitter.com/alwayswatching.

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