Fear and Loving in Labyrinth: Text, Subtext, and Headcanon

When I was a little girl, my favorite movie of all time was Labyrinth.

I can still remember the anticipation with which I went to see it in a theater for the first time, after having pondered the implications of the trailer for weeks of a summer vacation when I was seven. I can still remember the multiple afterschool afternoons I spent watching it—speaking along with the lines, singing along with the songs—and pretending I was a character in the story, on my own quest to save a lost sibling. I can still remember how early my own personal headcanon of the film’s subtext had taken over my perception of the story.

A snapshot of a conversation between my mother and I. I am perhaps nine years old:

Mom: I will simply never understand why Sarah doesn’t take the Goblin King’s offer. ‘Fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave’? No problem!

Me: But, Mommy, it’s all a glamour. It’s just a trick. He doesn’t mean it!

In my headcanon, every single creature that Sarah encounters in the labyrinth was once a human being. The creatures she meets within the pathways are girls (or boys) who got lost in the maze and failed to meet the deadline; those she meets in the caverns (the helping hands) and tunnels (the seeing stones) are girls (or boys) who fell into the oubliettes and were forgotten; the firies she meets in the forest are girls (or boys) who got distracted by something off the path and lost track of time. Over ages they have evolved, grown stunted and twisted and strange—their physical forms reflective of their internal bitterness and despair, their memories of their past lives eroded until nothing is left but a vague remembrance and a volatile sense of resentment. The junk ladies are those who chose material possessions over their duty to find their family member, and now they carry the burden of that sin on their backs and seek to entice others to fall from grace as they have done. The ballroom beauties are those who reached the final confrontation and accepted Jareth’s terms of surrender, never realizing it was their surrender rather than his. And the goblins… the goblins are the lost children—a dozen, a hundred, a thousand or more—whose loved ones could not or would not save them.

For me, this vision of the world adds a deliciously horrific flavor to the story—taking it effortlessly from fairy tale to dark fairy tale. But such a horrific re-imagining of the world need not negate the pathos of my mother’s preferred headcanon, which positions Jareth as a tragic figure.

It is, in fact, remarkably easy to see Jareth as a tragic figure (even in the horror context). David Bowie, being the fine actor that he is, played the role completely straightforwardly and imbued Jareth with a deep-seated sense of loneliness in his private moments. His observation of Sarah’s struggles in the Escher room, in particular, is rife with barely restrained longing, a longing that can be read as a desire for her to want to save him as much as she clearly wants to save her brother.

I’ve read analyses of the film that attribute this longing to an initially thwarted romance between the Goblin King and human girl named Sarah. (There’s a brilliant one here.) However, I prefer to slot Jareth’s longing for salvation at Sarah’s hands into my own personal headcanon.

Because imagine how tedious and bereft his existence must have become; all those girls and boys, all those little children. And here he is after who knows how many eons of decadent malevolence—a sad little king of a sad little world. He wants to escape it as much as any of his subjects do, and he can’t. Not without help. So when he asks Sarah to fear and love him, to give in to him so that he can be her slave, I don’t think that is hyperbole. I think that he truly does think—he hopes, he prays—that she is the one who can save him.

But, of course, she isn’t. Because in order to save him, she would have to sacrifice a fundamental element of her own integrity. And she cannot do that and keep herself. The circumstances of the world he created, of the ground rules he set, place them in completely untenable positions vis-à-vis one another.

The person who could save Jareth, wouldn’t. And the person who would save him, couldn’t. For Jareth, it’s one of the oldest (and saddest) stories in the book: We make our own hells.

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