Following their collaboration on the film Dark Crystal, illustrator Brian Froud and puppeteer extraordinaire Jim Henson agreed to work together on a new project. Froud had a strong image in his mind of a baby surrounded by goblins, influenced by the classic folk tales wherein goblins traditionally trick children or steal them from their homes. Together, Froud and Henson imagined a tale of a girl named Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) who wishes her brother away to a fantastical realm and must journey through many hardships to retrieve him from the clutches of the sinister yet alluring Goblin King, Jareth. Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones was on screenwriting duties, George Lucas would be the executive producer, and none other than David Bowie would star as Jareth and provide a number of songs.
It seemed like the perfect combination for a smash hit, yet when Labyrinth opened 35 years ago, in the summer of 1986, it proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment. With a reported budget of $25 million, Labyrinth grossed only $12.9 million during its initial domestic run. It would be the last feature film Henson ever directed, and according to his son Brian, it contributed to a downward turn in his career. It seemed that Labyrinth would disappear from the pop-culture consciousness, reduced to another ’80s kids movie that failed to capture audiences’ attention in the era of the blockbuster…
And yet Labyrinth has endured, and three and a half decades later, the film is a beloved classic as well as a wildly influential fantasy drama that’s inspired generations of fans. Thanks to many years of TV broadcasts, Blockbuster rentals, and pushy family members with good taste (many thanks to my own grandmother), Labyrinth re-emerged into the mainstream more cherished than ever. After years as a second-hand rarity, the movie became available on VHS and DVD in the late ’90s and greatly expanded its reach beyond its initial fanbase.
Descent into the Underworld
The indelible fingerprints of Henson’s Labyrinth can be found throughout the past three decades of pop culture, from Disney movies of the ’90s to the works of Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman (especially Mirrormask for the latter) to many a romance novel. Just about every geek convention on the planet will feature at least a handful of Labyrinth cosplayers. Even Bowie returned to the world of Jareth, in a manner, with a Louis Vuitton advert from 2013.
S. Jae-Jones is a New York Times best-selling author of the Wintersong series, a fantasy romance with heavy echoes of Labyrinth (as well as many of the stories that inspired the film, such as Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market and the myth of Hades and Persephone). Jones was first introduced to Labyrinth as a child.
“My Korean grandmother was my caretaker for the vast majority of my childhood, and whenever she needed a break, she often put on Labyrinth for me,” Jae-Jones tells IGN. “As a kid, I think I liked it because the protagonist was named Sarah, which is also my first name.”
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When writing Wintersong, Jones was drawn not only to memories of Labyrinth but the broader narrative tropes its story falls under, notably “the descent into the underworld.”
“In Labyrinth, Sarah journeys to the Underground a spoiled, selfish brat and emerges (theoretically) as an adult, changed by the experiences she’s gone through (again, theoretically),” she continues. “Writers — particularly writers of epic fantasy — will often talk about Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but not a lot of time is spent on the underworld story, where the likelihood of the protagonist being femme is much higher. I love an underworld story because I love stories about metaphorical death. What must die so the protagonist can live? What must change so they can re-emerge into the land of the living?”
Folklore and Feminism
It’s not hard to see what keeps people returning to Labyrinth, from its visually sumptuous production and costume design to the absolute everything of Bowie (and those leggings). Yet its most enduring appeal lies beyond the surface. ’80s nostalgia hasn’t left much room for young women, in large part because so many of the most indelible stories from that period of our youth didn’t heavily focus on the feelings and interests of teenage girls. Even in 2021, Labyrinth feels remarkably unique as a fantasy story about an adolescent girl whose emotions, burgeoning adulthood, and interests are taken 100% seriously.
Haley Baker Callahan, a video essayist who talks about pop culture and art theory on her channel under the name Tricksterbelle, explored Labyrinth’s ideas of folklore and feminism in a 2016 video. For her, what remains timeless about the film is its earnest exploration of the autonomy and choices of an adolescent girl, something that remains dishearteningly uncommon in modern mainstream cinema.
“It is a classic Hero’s Journey, but on a more intimate level than your epics like Star Wars and Harry Potter,” says Baker Callahan. “It has this fun, wacky adventure with cute characters, but it’s also about a girl taking responsibility and deciding what kind of person she wants to be. And it’s so rare that you see these kinds of stories with female leads, statistically.”
It’s those ideas and the potential for further exploration that has kept Labyrinth’s fandom thriving for decades, long after even Jim Henson probably expected it to disappear into obscurity. The film’s following remains powerful today, but it’s also been an internet mainstay since the early ’90s, when mailing lists and now-defunct fan-sites like Jareth’s Home Page offered a community for like-minded folks to share artwork, critical essays, images, and theories.
Fan Fiction and Masquerade Balls
Fan groups across Google and Yahoo! flourished during this period, as did fanfiction. Labyrinth is still one of the most popular movie topics on fanfiction.net, with over 10,000 works listed under its name, and crossovers with other films and pop culture entities are frequent. It’s extremely common to find fics in fandoms across genres and time that take inspiration from Labyrinth or even have crossovers with it. Predictably, Jareth/Sarah is the preferred pairing (with the teenage Sarah aged up to an adult for obvious reasons), but not always for romantic purposes. That certainly doesn’t hurt if that was your fan desire, but as with fan fiction in general, the goals are often far more ambitious than adding an old-school happy-ever-after.
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“The open ending [of the film] that doesn’t cut Sarah out from the magic goes a long way to setting the tone of the fic that would come after it,” Baker Callahan explains. “Many of the fanfic I’ve seen deals with themes of dealing with power, and the subsequent loss of it. Sarah has to fix the Labyrinth somehow, or Jareth is stuck as an owl. Those themes of autonomy tend to stick around.”
Labyrinth fandom has expanded beyond the online world in exceptional ways. Since 1997, a special annual event takes place, the Labyrinth of Jareth Masquerade Ball. Open to fans and cosplayers worldwide, the ball is a unique way to celebrate the film and to relive one of its most iconic moments, wherein Sarah falls into a drugged trance and sees herself dancing with Jareth in a lavish scene that inspired many generations of fans.
Taking influence from the Venetian tradition of masquerade balls as well as Celtic lore, the event has a built-in storyline and encourages attendees to “create their own characters and their own mythologies” to add to the “court of strange mythological creatures and characters.” The ball’s focus isn’t just on recreating the film, however; it’s about expanding upon its ideas and influences to create something new and expansive. Therein lies much of the thrill of Labyrinth: It can be whatever you want it to be.
The best fantasy stories leave the door open for audiences to continue the story in whatever ways they please, having created a world of such expanse and potential that we cannot help but want to remain. Whether it’s to rectify the film’s errors or find freedom in its opportunities, Labyrinth fandom has retained its fervor for a reason, and new generations step into the realm of the Goblin King for the same reasons. Bowie’s hair may be entirely a creation of the ’80s but a story of female liberation from a patriarchal system that denies her her own mind and choices remains dishearteningly prescient. The aesthetics of the film hypnotize but it’s Sarah’s victory over Jareth that we love so much. As Baker Callahan puts it, “In this journey of self-discovery and maturity, she wins by rejecting the influence of an older, male, authority figure.
“Considering how the dominant culture loves to dismiss the interests and decisions of teenage girls, it’s a revelation how the film treats those decisions and interests as vitally important to the story,” she continues. “Even little things like Sarah using her lipstick and jewelry as tools is validating her interests as useful. The main antagonist is just playing defense the whole time. The only win Jareth gets is when he essentially drugs her, which is unfortunately still very relevant. (We can dress the scene up in fantasy all we want but the fandom hasn’t called it the ‘roofie peach’ for nothing.) I think it’s key that the story doesn’t dwell on that moment, but [instead on] Sarah remembering her purpose and achieving victory anyway. And that victory isn’t won in a climactic battle or a tense game of wits, but a clear assertion of her independence.”
However you read Labyrinth — as the story of a young heroine fighting against a patriarchal bully; as a tale of blossoming adolescence and coming to terms with one’s desire, or as a simple fantasy movie with big dresses and cute talking worms — it’s undeniable that it remains a potent narrative. Thirty-five years and thousands of fanfictions later and it barely feels like fans have scratched the surface of its creative possibilities. That will only continue thanks to various official manga sequels and spin-off comics, plus a planned stage adaptation.
In 2020, it was announced that Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson would helm a sequel to Labyrinth, with Jim Henson’s children, Brian and Lisa, onboard as producers. While fans may be divided on the need for a follow-up, it’s easy to see the myriad options such a story could explore. Those ideas that made Labyrinth beloved in the first place are still relevant and the parts that have changed still offer interesting routes for allegorical interpretation. Jareth may have had no power over Sarah, but Labyrinth’s thrall over audiences has never weakened.