Without a transcript and the awe-inducing presence of David Bowie, I’m almost certain I could recreate the 1986 film Labyrinth scene for scene, re-enacting each frightened look and cautious glance. Whether it was the teenage indignance of Sarah, the Fire Gang who casually tossed each other’s heads around like a band of ironic hooligans or the dangerous charm of the Goblin King Jareth, the movie had me rapt with attention whenever it would play on television. For me, the other childhood classic of the same time, The Princess Bride, could not hold up a gnarled sceptre to Labyrinth.
Aside from the enchanting power that creatures like the hulking, gentle Ludo and the knight dog Sir Didymus automatically had on my child’s psyche, the movie also managed to tempt the writer in me with its metaphors, many of which extended beyond the borders of a child’s experiences. In one particularly striking moment, Sarah escapes from a place that Jareth has imprisoned her only to realize that he’s sending yet another obstacle her way. Once again, Sarah articulates the unfairness of it all, and Jareth comes back with a witticism could be baffling even for an adult. “You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is?”
A few weeks ago, for no reason at all, I thought of Labyrinth as I was falling asleep. I was thinking about how, according to the common metric of the day, I have very little. There is no house I can sell for profit because I live in a $1000 a month apartment in Vancouver, and I don’t have a car and don’t want to get married, and I don’t have a dog I can walk around the block when I want an organic coffee. In that moment, the seeming transience of my life caught up with me – a slow wave of something akin to self-pity – and I was brought back somewhat unexpectedly to Labyrinth’s junk lady.
About three-quarters of the way through the movie, a strange sequence happens. In one of his last, desperate bids to stop Sarah from getting her baby brother Toby back, Jareth has Sarah’s goblin friend Hoggle present her with a poison peach. With one bite, she falls into a deep sleep, and dreams of a masquerade ball, a fancy dress and Jareth. Hearing a clock strike in her dream, Sarah picks up a dining chair, smashes a mirror and drops down into a dump of sorts, stumbling upon a junk lady who presents her with a teddy bear that Toby used to steal from her. As Sarah tries to recall if it is the thing she had forgotten, the junk lady lures her down into a room that replicates Sarah’s own, full of all her familiar baubles and trinkets. The junk lady continues to ply her with stuff until Sarah comes to and suddenly remembers where she is. “It’s all junk!” she screams, throwing a gold ensconced carousel through another mirror, causing the whole room to cave with it.
The comfort of things is illusory at best, but it can still be intoxicating to be lost to the safety of objects and four walls; perhaps the junk lady appeared to me for just that reason. For Sarah, who has seen the Goblin King and the labyrinth, there is no safety net anymore; the fourth wall has been knocked clear and the illusion of security can no longer hold sway over what is. The mistruths of the world can hold no steam because they just serve to obscure what has already been seen. As Arthur Miller said “the apple cannot be stuck back on the Tree of Knowledge; once we begin to see, we are doomed and challenged to seek the strength to see more, not less.” It’s possible that Miller was talking about a peach, after all.
Unfortunately, the language in which we speak of security becomes more muddled as we get older. As the ideals of youth become replaced with measurable objects, the unknowable and often untested things that have haunted us are replaced with what can safely be held between pinkie finger and thumb. Akin to so many of the illusions that are crafted within its 101 minutes, Labyrinth seems to reveal the slow rising swell we get lost in as we age, where comfort and security becomes a pseudo-religion, and the considered maladies of difficulty and failure are things to be denied or best avoided.
It’s a common and not entirely inaccurate belief that we must let go of childish things as we age, but as Sarah’s choice reveals, a certain amount of safety can be a mere antidote to something of greater value. Much like she realized the moment she threw the gold carousel into the mirror, it’s just stuff so, at the end of the day, what can it possibly be worth?