Mental Health Metaphors in Labyrinth, brought to us by Jim Henson’s studios, run all over the place. It also depends on which theory you analyze it from. In this blog post I am going to work with Jungian and hermetic symbolism to explain Sarah’s sexual awakening and movement from youth to adult.
One of the best examples of such nightmares that has receded into the recesses of the mind is the Jim Henson/George Lucas production Labyrinth (1986), starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. Famously known for Bowie as “Jareth,” the Spandex-sporting Goblin King who can transform into an owl. As well as trap you in the Escher maze. Packed with Labyrinth with Kabbalistic, Jungian and hermetic symbolism Labyrinth is worth investigating.
Mental Health Metaphors in Labyrinth
The plot revolves around Sarah on the eve of puberty and womanhood. Entranced by the ease and simplicity of her childhood fantasy world. Sarah’s mother has apparently run off to be an actress. we derive this from the Playbill issues in her bedroom. As a result in predictably fairy-tale fashion, Sarah hates her “wicked stepmother.” Sarah’s obsession with fantasies derive from her inability to cope with the harsh reality of the emotional let-downs of the real world.
The opening scene begins with Sarah in a park/garden wearing a virginal white dress. This dress a symbol of Edenic purity, reciting invocatory lines from the child’s book, The Labyrinth. The curious feature of these scenes is her placement in front of the phallic obelisks, foreshadowing the hermetic images and Jungian symbols.
Before diving into the inner, psychological journey Sarah will go into her own subconscious (the labyrinth). Classic labyrinths show great mythological significance. Ancient times used labyrinths for stories such as the most famous of course being the story of Daedalus in Homer, who constructs a dancing ground for Ariadne. Later Ariadne constructs a labyrinth for King Minos where Theseus battles a minotaur.
Henson/Lucas’ labyrinth hearkens back to the labyrinth of classical mythology, as well as relating to the perennial journey of the hero quest to the underworld. One can see how the transference of the earthen labyrinth and abyss-like waterways can be read as an allegory of the unconscious mind. As well as the underworld of Hades and death being associated with the worlds in which we enter into our dream state. This astral realm, intimately connected to the realm of the subconscious is the wellspring from which the archetypes of experience spring, corresponding to the archetypal forms in the outer world of phenomenal experience.
Things Are Not Always What They Seem
Things are not always as they appear in the labyrinth, fairies bite and hidden corridors. Doors are not where they appear and missing where they should be. In the medieval world, labyrinths symbolized making our way through this world to heaven. According to Jung, the Labyrinth represents the individual’s unconscious psyche. We will see Sarah fall several times in the film, deeper and deeper into the labyrinth. In “The Process of Individuation” by M.L. von Franz in Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols, the author explains of the meaning of the labyrinth as subconscious:
“The maze of strange passages, chambers, and unlocked exits in the cellar recalls the old Egyptian representation of the underworld, which is a well-known symbol of the unconscious with its abilities. It also shows how one is “open” to other influences in one’s unconscious shadow side and how uncanny and alien elements can break in.” (pg. 176)
Sarah has entered another world, an alternate from our own, which seems to purposefully mirror all the elements in her bedroom. In her bedroom we see Escher’s maze, the various creatures that populate the maze, a small marble labyrinth, the Wizard of Oz, other fairy tales, and a statue of Jareth. In other words, the world construct of Jareth’s labyrinth is actually a construct of Sarah’s subconscious. Here the transference of Sarah’s pain over her mother manifests in the beastly and foreign forms of the other-worldly maze. Upon entering the labyrinth she learns quickly that things are not as they appear – fairies bite, not bless. Doors are not where they appear and missing where they should be. In the medieval world, labyrinths symbolized making our way through this wayward world to heaven. This is Sarah’s journey through her own inner psychical world towards individuation and adulthood.
Clearly the phallic images come to the fore as Sarah travels through the Labyrinth, The usage of these images tells of Sarah’s process of leaving childhood for adulthood, and specifically puberty. Previously clad in virginal white, the Sarah encounters numerous instances of bodily functions and base desires, such as Hoggle urinating and the Bog of Eternal Stench, prior to her sexual awakening. The mental process itself is conceived of as an alchemical transformation, since the body itself “transforms” as it grows through puberty.
The masked ball sequence symbolizes an adult world filled with sexual allure, and the two scenes are reminiscent of one another. When Sarah enters the ball she is entering an adult world that she is not familiar with. You’ll note the phallus shape of many of the noses at the ball, and the hints of her dalliance with orgies, which I read as the curiosities of a person coming of age. It is certainly possible that there is a deeper reference to sex slavery and the manipulation of alter personas to follow a “programming.”
Sarah’s desire to remain in adolescence and retain her freedom from adult hood and responsibility manifests as her anger towards both her mother and stepmom. She does not want to babysit Toby and instead invokes a curse in anger that the Goblin King (Jareth) would come and take him away. Bowie enters as an owl in a flurry of glitter and spandex as the androgynous, calling to mind alchemical doctrines depicting the union of opposites into one is seen as the highest form of unity.
Sarah’s fascination with his androgyny is associated with her own confused ideas about sexuality as a result of her dysfunctional family life. Sarah learns quickly that things are not as they appear – fairies bite, not bless. Doors are not where they appear and missing where they should be. This is ultimately another reference to her own confusion about the world as it is. Families break up, relationships fizzle, people leave sexual partners for new ones, children become adults, and nothing is as it seems.
Sarah confronts this apparent duality and contrariety of reality particularly as she figures out the relationship of male to female. Presuming as youth does that it has it all figured out, she assumes she has solved the guards’ riddles, but as a result, ends up falling even deeper into her subconscious. Ending up in an oubliette, a place of forgetting things, Sarah is tempted to forget her brother and her responsibilities.
After battling a golem (Humungous), the Jewish tradition of an animated mechanical man, Sarah has a staring contest with Jareth inside the M.C. Escher strange loop maze. Escher is significant here because of the mathematical and metaphysical implications of his artwork. The mathematics and ontology of an Escher work are generally styled in the form of a Mobius strip, where the ending is in a state of eternal recurrence with the beginning.
For Douglas Hofstadter, this has tremendous relevance for our own psyche, as we seem to experience this same phenomena in a multitude of forms in life, from music to math to art. In the Labyrinth narrative it symbolizes Sarah’s own entrapment in her mind. Her pain and resentment has become a psychic prison. Keeping her from obtaining adult maturity. If Sarah does not face her own shadow self, Jareth, and come to accept reality, she runs the risk of arresting her own development. Thus, the classic quest of the hero is here applied to the journey of the individual psyche into maturation.
Luckily, Sara in the trash heap she needs to reject “childish things”, calling it all “junk.” Due to this rejection, she is able to move forward on her quest of individualization and adult hood. During her “stare down with Jareth” she remembers/ realizes she in control on her own mind and world. Sarah utters the famous words, “You have no power over me.” Therefore, shattering his fantasy world and coming back to reality with a more mature outlook on life.
It’s always fun to go back and watch the movies you grew up with. However, it can also be a laughingly disturbing experience. Watching these movies from an educated and adult perspective, like Labyrinth, provide metaphors I can use with individuals in my practice. There is no end to the mental health metaphors in Labyrinth.
If you would like a satirical, educational, and more mental health metaphors in Labyrinth please watch or listen to The Movies That Traumatized US! On Podbean, Anchor, and Youtube.