My Life in Horror: Labyrinth

Oct 3, 2023
My Life in Horror: Labyrinth

My Life In Horror: Labyrinth

It’s an oddly humbling -yet revealing- experience to understand how deeply a piece of work has imprinted on us, how sincerely it has informed our imaginations and identities. In their own ways, they become sacred texts; gospels of our essential selves, about which it becomes impossible not to be evangelistic. 

Certain images from my formative years are seared into my mind, and recur again and again in elaborated, altered forms in my imagination. 

One of these is a bleak fairy-tale woodland; a quintessential forest that is the seat of our species’ ancestral and evolutionary horrors. I walk there often, in different tracts and seasons, encountering different species of dream and nightmare, depending on my psyche’s condition or requirements. 

Likewise, there is a labyrinth somewhere in my mind; a subterranean structure of wet, broken brick and stone walls, of low ceilings, shadows and flickering, naked lights. It’s a haunted place, the mucus on the walls and uneven floor the trail of something hideous and corrupt, the shadows echoing with the clanging of old pipes, the hiss and gurgle of steam and water, which serve to mask the hungry, malevolent expressions of whatever Minotaur-monster inhabits it. 

Part of this nightmare-scape is undoubtedly derived from that original myth; the story of Theseus, King Minos and the flesh-eating, bull-headed Minotaur itself (I don’t recall where or how I first encountered the story, but it’s certainly one I’ve known in detail since before I started school). 

Later media has included scenes and images redolent of that original labyrinth; post-modern, mythological echoes that carry down through the generations of humanity, to where we stand now, as the ultimate expression of that phenomena: 

From the iconic hedge-maze and shifting corridors of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel to the more overt Labyrinth presided over by the Cenobite’s geometric deity, Leviathan, in Hellraiser 2: Hellbound, the concept recurs again and again not only mythologically, but as a human preoccupation, regurgitated endlessly by our imaginations (both on individual and collective levels). 

As for what the labyrinth itself represents, the answer is neither certain nor simple: 

Both The Shining and Hellbound draw symbolic parallels between the topography of labyrinths and the human mind; of the brain itself. Just as consciousness is a captive ember of abstraction within its cage of meat, so too do human beings -and, indeed, the monsters they give birth to- find themselves trapped within the physical structures they conceive and create. The labyrinth, in one aspect, stands as a space where physical architecture and dreamscapes overlap, becoming expressions of one another: 

By their natures, labyrinths are puzzles, designed to engage, entice and arouse both intellect and imagination. In order to solve or traverse them, aspirants must engage  on an abstract level, imagining how they might appear from different angles and perspectives, thus creating a space that is simultaneously physical and abstract. 

On a mythological level, they are Jungian spaces, where we both lose and find ourselves again, fleeing from and facing off against monsters that manifest the darkest aspects of our drives and appetites (in the case of the Minotaur, sublimated fears of our own atavism and animal natures; bestial appetite run amok, to the utter abandonment of all other concerns). 

Of course, what labyrinths represent has highly personal, idiosyncratic resonance, too. 

For me, they are that mythic space where monsters are born and horrors lurk, but are in no way unappealing or repulsive: If anything, such makes them enticing in ways that more salubrious, sunlit spaces are not. It’s there, in the depths and darkness, that we find ourselves, learn who and what we truly are, with all veneer of civilisation stripped away, existence reduced to a survivalist scrabble, where we must rely on our own intellects and imaginations for salvation. They are nightmare-realms whose structures and dimensions cannot be guessed, that might well extend forever in Dantean visions of Hell for all we know. 

I don’t know when or where my original exposure to the concept of labyrinths occurred, but they have been pervasive in the media I’ve consumed since early childhood: 

From cartoons such as the 1980s Dungeons and Dragons series to the Jim Henson, David Bowie vehicle Labyrinth, the concept has recurred and recurred in many and varied incarnations throughout my life. 

Those earliest impressions -that now have the quality of surreal nightmares, altered and elaborated by time- are likely collages and kaleidoscopes derived from multiple sources, from the stone cellar beneath the cabin in The Evil Dead to the bleak temple haunted by Ray Harryhaussen’s iconic Medusa in Clash of the Titans. The concept of a space in which one is trapped and trammelled but also seems to shift and rearrange itself in the manner of a liminal condition, is one that endlessly obsesses my imagination, and has found expression in various stories and homespun mythologies (my Born in Blood volumes of short stories, for example, revolve around the central mythology of Abarise; an abstract condition born of our collective trauma, the expansive architecture of which puts any and all temporal or physical equivalents to shame). 

The preoccupation with such structures that pervades our cultures, art and mythologies finds consistent expression, even though the language might change to suit different eras and cultures: 

In the post-modern era, the labyrinth is no longer the distant, foreign confection it is in ancient Greek mythology; not something that has to be sought out or discovered: 

We have realised that the labyrinth is both within and without, from the concrete wastelands of suburbia to the human-horror-haunted tracts of our inner-cities, day-to-day environments have become the places where we simultaneously live and are lost. 

Likewise, we find ourselves equally alone and directionless in our interior spaces. Lacking any faith in the systems, traditions and narratives that prescribed identity upon our ancestors, we are caught up in a strange and contradictory juxtaposition of being both the monster and the innocents it devours. We operate in a condition of confusion and uncertainty, lost and often lacking even the means of considering where we are or why. The auto-cannibalistic nature of our conditions is a source of enshrined and normalised madness, in which the assumption of the labyrinth is more powerful, constraining and absolute than any physical structure. Worse, we find ourselves separated from one another, sublimely sealed in our own skulls, confusions and obsessions. 

Indeed, much of the fiction that explores this phenomena preoccupies itself with that very tension: Metaphysical and existential examinations of the inalienable confusions of consciousness itself. The most effective do not pretend to reach any absolute conclusions, but instead preoccupy themselves with the contradictions that make us what we are. 

Escape from the labyrinth has never been the point: The only salvation we currently have access to is Thanatic; the release that comes with the end of conscious existence. Despite what our mythologies might have us believe, there are no threads or formulae that might lead us out into daylight. There are no hidden secrets or unspoken techniques for navigating the endlessly protean corridors of our conditions: There is only the exploration and experience of them; revelation to be found within the shadows, not their abandonment. 

Jim Henson’s strange, florid film of the same name might be the first live-action film I ever saw. It may in fact be the first film that ever seared itself into my consciousness, its themes, images and concerns becoming part and parcel of who I am and how I perceive the world. 

As a child, the ambiguities of the film escaped me, save on the most subconscious levels. Yet, it’s clear even from vague recollections that they registered to some degree, informing the shape and function of imagination in a manner that is still overt and highly noticeable. Whilst most cite the likes of Clive Barker as a significant influence on my own work, Labyrinth is at least as significant, if not moreso: 

A Neil Gaimen-esque flight of fantasy, it marries the world of a teenage girl’s fevered imagination to waking reality, making one explicitly a function and reflection of the other: 

Whilst Sarah struggles to find her place in the waking world -finding it frustrating, oppressive and smothering-, in the realm of her imagination, she is more vital, active and powerful. In David Bowie’s Jareth, The Goblin King, she finds the darkest, most selfish, indulgent and narcissistic elements of her imagination made manifest. He is the part of imagination that is Mephistopholean; a bargain-maker and seducer, coming to her in aspects both servile and antagonistic. Simultaneously, he bends to her whims and gives her all he can, becomes all he can, yet seeks to dominate and impose himself upon her. He is a masculine, controlling, paternal-yet-sensual force, who represents all that is most fractious and uncertain in Sarah herself. 

And he is the master of the Labyrinth; a place whose irrationality and protean nature is reflective of Sarah’s own mercurial condition. Within its shifting bounds, she meets characters who are manifestations of her own selfishness, courage and compassion, as well as others who reflect her cowardice and material acquisitiveness, her irrational tempers and burgeoning sexuality (a particular scene inspired by Cocteau’s La belle et La Bete is unambiguously one of sexual awakening; a far more adult fantasy than those Jareth has attempted to snare her with thus far, in which he himself is cast as the icon of male sensuality; an idealised paramour in whose beauty and promise Sarah might lose herself). 

A sincere part of the film’s genius lies in its lack of commentary upon the Labyrinth’s condition; at no point does the film stop and exposit upon what the Labyrinth is, nor does it feel obliged or inclined to. Rather, it allows them to occur naturalistically and without self-conscious justification. It respects its audience in terms of their intelligence and imagination sufficiently to understand on some level what its imagery implies, i.e. that the Labyrinth is an expression of Sarah’s subconscious, her dreamscapes, where processes of assimilation and confrontation occur more meaningfully than they ever can on conscious levels. 

As a child, I may have lacked the language and sophistication to articulate this to myself, yet, owing to the film’s own symbolic brilliance, understood it on almost instinctive levels, that complexity informing and shaping my own mind and imagination, becoming as sincerely part of them as any waking experience. 

As a queer waiting to realise himself, the film likely had more import than I could ever consciously realise: 

Many heterosexual women describe this film as part of their awakening into sexual awareness, Sarah not only proving a highly identifiable surrogate for adolescent and teenage concern, but Bowie himself manifesting a peculiar species of pubescent fantasy; an idealised consort who is both paternal and seductive, dominant and servile, antagonistic and sexual. The writing, design and performance of Jareth effortlessly encapsulates a suite of concerns and complexities peculiar, but not exclusive to, the various arousals and awakenings of adolescence-transitioning-to-puberty. 

And, as it transpires, not just for girls. 

Though it was a nascent identity at the time, I know for a fact that Jareth is partially responsible for some of the earliest stirrings of what would eventually become my homosexuality. The fascination he exercised from the first instance dominated the film for me, and has done ever since. His peculiar mix of the seductive and antagonistic has become a recurring feature in my own work and imagination, as has his quality as something both actual and abstract; a dream -or nightmare- with agency of its own. 

As a child, I hadn’t the means or contexts to understand that fascination; only that I responded to the character on an aesthetic and visceral level, as I would others as my consumption of fiction in all its forms expanded. 

In Jareth, in the Labyrinth itself, so many tensions that would come to obsess me in later life are encapsulated, but sewn with such deftness, such sleight of hand, the audience doesn’t even realise they’re being influenced and altered by the material. 

My Life in Horror: Labyrinth

He is the product of a mind at war with itself and its circumstances, seeking resolution, escape; some agency in a world intent on denying it. And, in that, he has to be attractive in a way that only a rock star of Bowie’s stature can be: An icon who brings with him a freight of prior associations: 

As a sex-symbol, a revolutionary with regards to gender-fluidity, sexual orientation etc (a more post-modern reading of the film definitely scans like a parable of nascent trans identity; Sarah’s obvious conflict within herself, expressing outwardly against a world that endlessly denies and frustrates her, finding focus in the younger brother who, currently, doesn’t struggle with such confusions, even her insular, imaginative nature are all subtextual markers of someone undergoing transition of identity, struggling to find themselves). 

Returning to the film as an adult proved a revelation: 

Now, equipped with all of the contexts that come with experience and intellectual development, its complexities became startlingly apparent, as did the manner and degree to which they’d influenced my own imagination: 

Beyond obvious nostalgia, the film so burned into my imagination as to be inalienable, it also serves as a subtextual road map of the tensions, concerns, tropes and imagery that have come to obsess me: 

Whilst my own work skews more adult, tending to express itself via horrific images and subject matter, the concerns and implications are often markedly similar: 

States in which reality is inconsistent, where dimension operates as in a child’s perceptions, which are protean and changeable and reflective of the minds trapped within them in the manner of the Labyrinth recur and recur. Liminal spaces; states that occur on the interstice between waking and dreaming, are an almost universal feature, as are protagonists who are at odds with their born conditions (be that with reference to their cultures, social status or even their fundamental humanity). 

It’s an oddly humbling -yet revealing- experience to understand how deeply a piece of work has imprinted on us, how sincerely it has informed our imaginations and identities. In their own ways, they become sacred texts; gospels of our essential selves, about which it becomes impossible not to be evangelistic. 

Labyrinth is certainly one of those texts for me; a foundational myth informed by -and that has, in its turn, informed- numerous others, a post-modern psycho-fairy-tale whose nuance, complexity and insight are as profound as its humour and occasional horror. 

In storytelling terms, it serves as a magical-realist roadmap, demonstrating exquisite balance of information implied or provided without descending into burdensome -and entirely too literal- exposition: 

The dreamscape in which the eponymous Labyrinth sits, its relation to the waking world from which Sarah steps, is never explained, nor does it need to be. Sarah accepts it in the manner of the child she is struggling to no longer be; as part and parcel of her experience of being. David Bowie’s Jareth, being both antagonist and shepherd on the journey, knows more than most about the strange dynamic of dreams and waking in which the story takes place, but is tight-lipped on the matter, save in some extremely subtle implications that deepen and enrich the metaphysics at play: 

Towards the climax of the piece, during an encounter with Sarah that is both subtle and intense, he casually states that he has manifested all she desired, whether she understands it or not: Even his role as antagonist is something Sarah needs, even yearns for, as part of the poetry of her own imagination, but also as an understated fantasy of submission. He is as much a sexual fantasy as he is anything else. In that, his manifestation as David Bowie, a highly sexualised figure in popular culture of the era, makes perfect sense. 

Likewise, he states that he offers her dreams, that he can sustain symbiotically within her. Another reading of Jareth is as a manifestation of the intrusive nature of our own minds: 

He manifests that part of the psyche which turns in against itself, the unspoken and sublimated fantasies, those parts of us we can’t apprehend or articulate. He is a dark mirror of Sarah herself, but also one that -arguably- seeks its own autonomy or cancer-like rebellion. It tries to mould and shape Sarah to its designs rather than conceding to hers, to foster either a dark awakening -in which all that is essentially Sarah is sublimated- or an endless dreaming, in which they can both sustain forever (here, as in all things, ambiguity takes centre-stage; for all the desperation of the moment, there’s an abiding sense of yearning for surrender in Sarah, that is communicated to the audience, who also feel the weight of Jareth’s seductions). 

My Life in Horror: Labyrinth

Ultimately, her way out of the Labyrinth is through; by rejecting its rules and parameters rather than conceding to them. Jareth himself manifests this by reordering reality around her; turning back time, breaking down the Labyrinth, coming to her in the form of a strangely domineering slave. 

Sarah exercises her power over him by simple statement; a spell that has been percolating since the opening sequences, whose final line she can never recall. In that final act of recollection, she draws a perfect circle to her waking self at the beginning of the film, but also supercedes that vain and impatient, fractious, selfish teenage girl. She emerges from the Labyrinth knowing a little more of herself; what she needs, what she wants, who she is, but also in terms of her fears and dependencies. She knows that she’ll always need the Labyrinth, that a part of her will always wander there, for better or worse. 

But now, those journeys occur on her terms. She effectively supplants Jareth as the ruler of that kingdom, the master of her unspoken self. 

Beneath its superficial stylings, the fantasy setting, the multi-colour, comic characters, Jim Henson puppets, is as an astoundingly complex text, akin thematically to more adult fare such as the later Pan’s Labyrinth (which it has resonance with beyond the obvious similarity in title), ostensible horror films such as the aforementioned Shining and Hellraiser 2: Hellbound. 

For me, it is an associative gateway into memory, a labyrinth in and of itself, which we endlessly wander, and which changes with every step we take. 

The experience is never anything less than profound, and I look forward to what revelations I might find there in my next trespass. 

George Daniel Lea 12-07-2023

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