Why You Should Watch Labyrinth Over Again

The happiest day of my life was March 4, 1988. I was six years old and my little sister was born. I was very excited for her to be kidnapped by goblins.

See, I was a big fan of the movie Labyrinth. The first time I saw it a few years prior, I watched only a little bit; sitting on the carpet at my grandparents’ beside the plastery white fireplace hearth (never used as a real fireplace in my lifetime, only as a cavern of impossible depth that housed a mysterious, dusty plastic potted foliage), I knew it was serious because it was on HBO, a network that with its starfield logo and super-serious music proclaimed that everything on it was a Big Deal, highly sophisticated and adult.

All I caught at the time before my parents took me home post-dinner was the part where Sarah has to cross the Bog of Eternal Stench and nearly falls in – and I was properly terrified. Like, kept up at night terrified, a wide-eyed and sheet-clutching adverse reaction. Which meant, of course, I had to see the whole thing.

My interpretation of Labyrinth at age 7

Because as a kid I loved to horrify myself. I used to lie awake and think about people I loved dying so that I could feel that precious melodramatic tension in my chest and shed real tears. A story on the front cover of TV Guide about AIDS in the early 80s didn’t enlighten me as to what the illness was, but the stark typeface and pained expression of an African child let me know that it was a Big Deal, and so I pretended my stuffed dog, Muppy, got AIDS so that I could gather all the other stuffed animals and we could cry about it.

My imaginary friends at the age of four or five were Cheetara from Thundercats and General Scarlett from G.I. Joe. But because I never nurtured more than one fictional companion at a time, whenever I wanted to switch, the active lady would have to die, and I, wringing a damp tissue, would need to grieve her beside a lump of moss in the backyard that sufficiently resembled a grave to me.  But the funereal day would be eased, time and time again, by the totally unexpected resurrection of whichever friend had died before – I’d look up from my mourning, “Cheetara! It’s a miracle! You’re alive!!” Like ten times.

So because in the face of my play-cartoons my glimpse of the relatively-adult Labyrinth put the fear of God in me, I of course had to own it, and so some adult must have made a present of the VHS tape for me, because for a period in my young life I viewed it on the daily. I hadn’t wore a tape out like that since the Japanese anime version of The Little Mermaid where she really dies at the end (paroxysms of grief every time, of course).

But despite its dark moments – monsters steal a baby! Disembodied hands throw a teenage girl in a dark hole! Stoic boulders speak forbidding warnings with mist drifting from their mouths right before Sarah’s nearly gnawed-up by a giant ambulating can-opener! Labyrinth is actually a dreamlike, hopeful story. Especially for weird girls like me.

Not that I knew it at the time. After school, my first-grade best friend Ashlie and I would settle in to watch Labyrinth together frequently. I preferred that far more than what Ashlie, who had a “cool” older sister in high school, wanted to watch – I mean, she was into Cocktail with Tom Cruise, which I patently did not get, and I didn’t enjoy trying on her mother’s high heels and dancing to the Cocktail tape at five or six years old. What kind of first-grader would?

Well. Ashlie was kind of odd. She liked Labyrinth for one reason: Bowie’s bulge. That’s not an unusual reason, of course, but she used to pause it at the part when he was wearing the white owl suit with the especially flimsy pants and point it out, whispering about it with uncomfortable proximity to the shell of my ear. Then she would make out with the door of her bedroom closet and pretend it was Jareth The Goblin King. Sometimes she’d go inside it for a bit while I sat in her room and played with her stuff. Y’know, whatever.

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  • Deranged

    This was very poignant. I hadn't made the connection about growing up and Labyrinth. Very insightful and very well written!

  • http://widescreen.org OAR_John

    All that I can say about “Labyrinth” is this… David Bowie + Jim Henson = Automatic WIN.

  • Seaturdle

    great article, makes me furious about my fucked up VCR :(

    • http://www.facebook.com/wingedthing Leigh Alexander

      you can get it on dvd i did

  • Oliver Miller

    I could never figure out the “one door is always lying, one door is always telling the truth” thing from the movie. Granted, Sarah couldn't figure this out either, so. It also drove me crazy that she could have walked in a straight line to the castle if she had only listened to the little worm thing for three seconds longer.

  • http://twitter.com/LulabelleNiche Gabrielle Bodek

    Your drawing of David Bowie is spot on, no lie.

  • M.E.

    There's actually a novelization of Labyrinth that was released at the same time as the film. Sarah's mother isn't dead–she's a successful stage actress and has remarried. I can't remember correctly, but I think it might be implied that Sarah's parents' marriage broke up years before over an affair that the mother had with the co-star who later became her second husband.

  • http://www.kathygambo.tumblr.com Kathleen Gambo

    Oh my word Leigh Alexander this is brilliant. It's one of those films you see when you're young and will always have a mysterious inexplicable connection to it thinking it was the greatest film ever made.
    Now can we get an in-depth analysis of The Neverending Story because I KNOW you had to have thought that movie was the $$ shit back in the day too (did I have a crush on Atreyu? Yes, yes I did).

  • https://elfinthemachine.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/whats-judge-dredd-doing-in-labyrinth/ What’s Judge Dredd Doing in ‘Labyrinth’? | elf in the machine

    […] So how did the book come to be here? Except for some location filming in New York most of Labyrinth was filmed in England. The Judge Dredd book only appears on screen very briefly, making it likely that it was just thrown in there for the sake of set-dressing. But what a set. There’s a lot that could be written on this topic, and what I’ve written below is not intended do more than gloss the surface. For a more direct and sustained reading of the film’s themes of childhood fantasy and what it means to ‘grow up’, be sure to check out Leigh Alexander’s ‘Why You Should Watch Labyrinth Over Again’. […]

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