Due to the tragic death of David Bowie and the subsequent revival of his best works, I decided that it was finally time to upload my psychoanalysis of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. This is the first chapter in a wider study into fantasy films and how they show ‘domestic discord’ – which basically translates into broken homes and unsettled families. It is a totally original theory so you wont find anything else quite like it, hopefully it will shed some light on the fantasy genre and the sick sick mind of Jim Henson.

This has been submitted through DeMontfort University, so if you plagiarize my work you will get rumbled… enjoy!


Chapter One: Labyrinth

Chapter one will discuss how Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) uses the fantasy genre to depict coming of age and maternal instincts due to Sarah’s inability to love her step-brother and accept her father’s remarriage.

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth follows Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a teenage girl who lives with her father and stepmother; she rejects responsibility to indulge in fairytales. Sarah has a baby stepbrother, Toby whom she resents and wishes that the goblins would take Toby away. Jareth (David Bowie) the Goblin King grants her wish, but Sarah changes her mind so Jareth challenges her to work her way through his labyrinth to gain her brother back within thirteen hours or he will turn him into a goblin.  It is important to note that Sarah is not a child, she is fifteen years old, but still uses escapism as a coping mechanism.

The opening scenes show Sarah in a garden, she is wearing long white dress and head garland and seems to be talking to someone off camera. Sarah forgets her words and pulls out her book ‘Labyrinth’ as a prompt. Sarah realizes she is late, she hikes up the dress to reveal her jeans and rain starts to fall. Sarah’s fairytale monologue and costume suggest that she is part of another world but this clever deception is soon made clear and the audience are placed in an overcast park with a teenage girl pretend acting from the book ‘Labyrinth’.  The scene displays the stark comparison between escapism and mundane reality.  It also makes the text self referential to itself a fantasy book – the audience are now fully of Sarah’s reluctance to live in reality.  T.S. Miller’s comparative essay on Labyrinth and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth, recognises that the book Sarah reads entitled; ‘Labyrinth’ follows the same plot and refers to this as “meta-fantastic”. Miller adds: “The two films foreground not only their own textuality but the textuality of fantasy itself.” [1]

Sarah’s Room


The toys[2] and books on Sarah’s shelves refer to characters in the film and the origins of a fairytale narrative, books such as The Wizard of Oz heavily relate to the films message; Sarah will enter a fantasy world that features characters from her reality and that this will be a fairytale. Sarah is creating the fantasy world through her obsession with the fantastic and fairytales.  Sarah’s room is key to understanding the film and its message which can be interpreted in many different ways; Miller reads the toys as merchandise and suggests that it is an ironic take on George Lucas collaring Hollywood’s merchandising potential. [3] However, I would argue that the mise-en-scene in Sarah’s room represents domestic discord and coming of age while also referring back to the film as a fantasy.  Shiloh Carroll also argues in The Heart of the Labyrinth that Sarah’s room is a way to understand the films deeper messages, but Carroll’s essay argues that the film is a modern dream vision, rather than escapism: “Nearly everything in Sarah’s room is reflected in the Labyrinth in some way, indicating that her journey through the Labyrinth is a journey through her own self conscious.” [4]

The labyrinth and Jareth are coping devices in Sarah’s psyche, although it is ambiguous how Sarah got to the labyrinth or if she is dreaming (as Carroll argues) it is made obvious that Sarah is already familiar with her situation. She does not seem bothered about being taken away from reality and into Jareth’s kingdom and is fully understanding of what she must do to reclaim her brother. The book she reads so often has already prepared her for her hardships. Bettelheim’s argues that fairytales equip children with the knowledge and tools to cope with adult situations, Sarah’s desperate need for fantasy and escapism suggests that Labyrinth is showing her internal workings and how she has recoiled into her imagination to accept her new domestic situation, and embrace the physical embodiment of that change – her stepbrother Toby. Bruno Bettelheim argues in The Uses of Enchantment that:

“A child needs to understand what is going on within his conscious self so that he can also cope with that which goes on in his unconscious. He can achieve this understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams – ruminating, rearranging and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures.” [5]

The most interesting thing in Sarah’s room is her scrapbook and the photographs on her mirror, the camera pans over the scrapbook and the audience can clearly see pictures of a glamorous woman with “Mom” written next to it. These pictures suggest that the woman is Sarah’s biological mother, the press cuttings name Sarah’s mother as Linda Williams; the cuttings say “On Stage Kiss” and the man next to Linda is David Bowie who plays, Jareth the Goblin King. Linda is not in the domestic sphere; she has left the family and abandoned Sarah.


Linda appears to be having a public relationship with David Bowie who plays the villain in Sarah’s fantasy world; Jareth is the obstacle that Sarah has to overcome, much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and the wicked witch – the villain in her fantasy is the villain in her reality.  Linda leaving Sarah behind could be translated as abandoning her responsibility as a mother and rejecting her maternal instincts in favour of titillation and a turbulent romance with David Bowie, she has put her own gratification before that of her child.


Bettelheim’s argument suggests that Sarah invites the fantasy realm into her head and willingly escapes. Sarah’s domestic situation is the reason for her obsession with escapism and fantasy, the stepmother and stepbrother are rejected by Sarah in the opening scenes of the film and can be seen as the catalysts that push her into the world of the Goblin King.


Maternal Instincts

Miller explains that although Sarah digests fantasy literature as a means to escape, the only way to fully change and develop is through the experience of going through the labyrinth and emerging, Sarah has to literally find herself and a way out of her childhood. The safest way for Sarah to deal with her problems is in a challenging labyrinth full of her own desires and relics of childhood such as her toys – her fantasies are a way for her to work out her issues in a world that is familiar to her.  Carroll adds: “Sarah’s psychological state and the parallels between Sarah’s room and the labyrinth both indicate that Labyrinth is still a journey rather than a ‘real’ one.”[6]As the books in her room imply, Sarah can associate her problems with fairy tales.  Sarah is seen in the opening scenes play acting and her stepmother suggests that she lives her life like a fairytale: “She treats me like a wicked stepmother in a fairy story no matter what I say.”

Karen Lury argues the importance of fairytale narratives in The Child in Film in relation to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth a film that also uses fairytales to display emotional trauma and national trauma. Lury’s focus is that fairytales are accessible to children, although Sarah is a teenager she still uses fairytales as a coping mechanism, the friends she makes when in Jareth’s labyrinth are the typical character arc for a fairy story, as Lury adds: “The child’s experience is represented through a series of embodied encounters that resonate within but do not faithfully reproduce the most familiar form of narrative and aesthetic that the child has access to – the fairytale.[7] Sarah’s embodied encounter with Jareth, are a direct response to how she feels toward David Bowie in reality and how she blames him for the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, it would also imply that the friendships she makes propel Sarah into her new role of being a maternal woman.

Sarah refusing to accept Toby as her brother is similar to Linda and her rejection of motherhood. Sarah’s denial of maternal instinct is connected to Linda rejecting family life and running away with David Bowie. Jareth is Sarah’s obstacle and retrieving Toby is her challenge; Labyrinth is not only a journey of Sarah entering womanhood but also of maternal instincts and motherly love.

Coming of age

Sarah must accept her new domestic situation and embrace her stepbrother as part of the family, while having a maternal instinct is advantageous to accepting this change Sarah must also mature to understand and cope with her new family. Labyrinth shows Sarah entering the fantasy realm as a child and shows her emerging with a new found maturity and ability to accept her brother and step mother, therefore, Labyrinth can also be read as a coming of age film. Carroll notes that: “Sarah matures by several years in a matter of hours after travelling through a fantastic labyrinthine world.”[8] Sarah uses fantasy as a form of escape at the beginning of the film, when she is arguing with her stepmother it is easy to notice that Sarah over identifies with Cinderella. As Cinderella was a slave to her step mother and sisters, Sarah feels she is a slave to Toby and her stepmother’s social calendar. Sarah makes her feelings clear when she tells a fairy story to Toby: “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl whose stepmother always made her stay home with the baby. And the baby was a spoiled child, and wanted everything for himself, and the young girl was practically a slave.” She is also seen to value material possessions and is reluctant to share her toys with Toby, this is immature because she is too old for toys, and should be going on dates as her step mother points out. However, upon Sarah’s return to reality she gives Toby her favourite bear, Lancelot and starts removing the fairy tale toys from her room and puts the pictures of her mother, Linda and David Bowie in a drawer – a sign that she is mature and able to deal with her parents separation.

Sarah’s maturation is most obvious when Jareth drugs her with a peach to make her forget about Toby, the peach causes Sarah to hallucinate that she is at a masquerade ball trying to find Jareth. This scene has a sexual undertone, Sarah becoming aware of male advances finally removes her from childhood, but it is also dangerous. Miller creates a strong argument around this scene and suggests that it represents a mixture of sexual desire and danger: “His spell carries her off into a fantasy within the fantasy, a grotesque masquerade ball that further demonstrates how the fantastic is bound up with her incipient sexuality.”[9]

Jareth lures Sarah into the fantasy by blowing crystals to her, in one of the crystals she sees a toy from her room; a princess in a pink gown. Sarah is then transformed into the princess and she is inside a transparent spherical room which suggests she is inside the Jareth’s crystal and that Jareth has control over her. Jareth making Sarah forget about her maternal responsibility for Toby and creating a sexually tense masquerade ripe with phallic imagery holds similarity with David Bowie ‘luring’ Linda away from Sarah. Miller adds: “In this rather ostentatiously Freudian masquerade sequence – in which dripping candles, outsized wands, a serpentine staff, and protuberant noises and horns adorning all of the masks further accent Jareth’s always prominent genital bulge.” [10] This scene translates to Sarah experiencing sexual advances from Jareth; it has already been suggested that Sarah was able to summon him because he loves her: “The Goblin King had fallen in love with the girl and he had given her certain powers.”  Jareth has offered Sarah what she desires- to become a fairytale-like princess and is trying to dissuade her from her responsibility to her family, like David Bowie and Linda. The people at the ball are not puppets, but they are clearly goblins and they all seem to be laughing at Sarah, there are point of view shots of Sarah pushing people aside to find Jareth which adds feelings of apprehension and pressure to the scene.  Carroll notes that: “The presence of raucous adults dressed like goblins reminds Sarah that if she gives in to the sensual pleasure that Jareth offers her in return for giving up her brother, she will end up the queen of the goblins.” [11]

Carroll suggests that Sarah does not give in to Jareth because of the consequences of that decision, and this is a plausible reading. However, I would argue that Sarah’s intimate encounter with Jareth ends because Sarah recognises the similarities between herself and Linda. Sarah has entered the fantasy world and escaped from her current domestic situation, she has sacrificed Toby because of childish jealousy. It is clear that Sarah idolizes Linda and has demonized her step-mother, but as she matures on her journey through the labyrinth, she realizes that the fantasy world is dangerous and no longer a safe haven for her to retreat to. This is arguably because she is too old, and because of her age the fantasy world has become increasingly about sexual desire and coming of age. Sarah fully matures when she rejects Jareth’s advances, she shatters the walls of the crystal and ends the hallucination – this shows that Sarah has regained control over her situation and her own understanding of her mother’s abandonment.

Sarah’s final showdown with Jareth takes place in a room resembling the Escher painting in Sarah’s room and shows Sarah trying to reach Toby, but the stairs trick her and she cannot. Jareth is able to manoeuvre his way around with ease, he therefore, still has control over Sarah’s fantasy. This is the final labyrinthine world that she will have to solve and this involves her accepting her maturation and womanhood, it also forces Sarah to accept her new family. Sarah recognises her sexual desire towards Jareth and understands the appeal he had over Linda. Sarah climbs steps to reach Toby but cannot seem to reach him, Jareth is constantly around her, this acts as a reminder that maternal responsibility and adult decisions are often difficult and that there can be a more attractive and easier route – Jareth/Bowie.  Sarah finally defeats Jareth and escapes her fantasy by reminding him that, unlike Linda, he has no power over Sarah and she will not allow him to tear her away from her new family. Carroll adds: “Jareth represents the danger inherent in Sarah’s tendency to lose herself in her imagination. Everything Jareth has done is because of and for Sarah, because he exists only in her mind.” [12]  Like everyone, Sarah will need to rely on her childhood and her experiences to fully develop into an adult. When Sarah is looking in the mirror she sees Hoggle, Ludo and Sir Didymus and she admits that she still needs them: “I need you, all of you, for no reason at all” and then all the puppets appear in her room and they have a party, escapism is still a part of her personality. Hoggle, Ludo and Sir Didymus also appear as toys in her room and Sarah admitting that she “needs them for no reason at all” is a natural need to hold onto her innocence and her childhood, but with an adult understanding of her domestic situation and acceptance of her father’s remarriage.


To conclude, Labyrinth shows domestic discord through the absence of Sarah’s biological mother and the arrival of a new step family. Sarah is unable to accept her step-mother’s attempts at nurturing her and views Toby as an interloper – a visual embodiment of change.  Sarah’s room shows that she holds her biological mother in high regard and the press clippings of her mother with David Bowie add insight into why she left the domestic sphere. Sarah lives her life in escapism and believes that she is a Cinderella figure who is forced to look after her brother by her wicked stepmother, the toys in her room show that she is unable to accept maturity. When she enters the fantasy world, Sarah learns the importance of family and risks her life to retrieve her step brother. Sarah accepts her maternal instincts and rejects the sexual advances of The Goblin King, by doing so she realises that her mother is at fault for abandoning her. Sarah’s choice to save Toby and decline a relationship enables her to mature and return to the understood reality with a new found appreciation and love for her family. The influence of fairytale literature in Sarah’s escapism is translated in the fantasy realm; her self obsession and unwillingness to share her possessions are also used as tropes in the fantasy world. Her toys become real characters who teach her valuable lessons; this is shown in the final scenes when Sarah admits that she needs them and demonstrates an understanding that escapism is acceptable in small amounts.

[1] T.S.Miller, “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths: Escaping Escapism in Henson’s Labyrinth and Del Toro’s Laberinto”, Extrapolation 52, (2011): 28.

[2] Sarah’s room shows toy versions of  the characters she encounters in the fantasy realm such as The Fireys, Jareth and Sir Didymus

[3] T.S.Miller, “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths”, 32.

[4] S. Carroll, “The Heart of the Labyrinth: Reading Jim Henson’s Labyrinth as a Modern Dream Vision”, Mythlore, 28:1/2, (2009):104.

[5] B. Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1976) 7.

[6] S. Carroll, “The Heart of the Labyrinth”, 105.

[7] K. Lury, The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairytales. (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010) 7.

[8] S. Carroll, “The Heart of the Labyrinth”, 103.

[9] T.S.Miller, “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths”, 30.

[10] T.S.Miller, “The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths”, 31.

[11] S. Carroll, “The Heart of the Labyrinth”, 108.

[12] S. Carroll, “The Heart of the Labyrinth”, 108.



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