What Labyrinth Taught Me About Abusive Relationships, and How It Helped Me Escape Mine
Originally Published on Medium, June 2018
TW: Domestic abuse
It’s a quiet secret that the 1980's cult classic movie Labyrinth was a sexual awakening for many young women. Quiet, because you can’t re-watch a single scene with Labyrinth’s Goblin King and feel anything but shame about the fact that, of all the men in the world, the first one who ever truly made you feel something was David Bowie dressed in a pair of skin-tight Jodhpurs and a garish feather cloak. Everything about the film, is, in every way, unquestionably unsexy.
For those who haven’t seen it, Labyrinth essentially follows the infamous Jareth, Goblin King, (played by an almost forty-year-old Bowie), as he steals the baby brother of our fourteen-year-old heroine, Sarah, in a strange attempt to seduce her, leading her on a wild thirteen-hour goose chase through his labyrinth whilst she attempts to save the baby from the fate of becoming one of Jareth’s goblin slaves. There is a lot of pelvic thrusting.
Despite the questionable themes, in our household Labyrinth was a firm favourite. Introduced by my mum, but adored especially by my dad, it was one of the few quirky, yet slightly terrifying, films forced on us by my parents that I actually enjoyed. A packed-full cinema screening late last year suggests I’m not the only one with this problem. It has been such a constant source of nostalgic love in our family’s life that our shared Christmas present for 2017 was the critically panned Labyrinth board game.
The premise of the board game is so notoriously frustrating that almost every review leads with the same play on the famous image of a whiny Sarah exclaiming “it’s not fair!” to the Goblin King as he sets yet another obstacle in her way. The culmination of that frustration comes at the very end of the game, when, despite being largely a team effort, only one person gets to face the Goblin King; whose actions are determined by a pack of cards. The only time that any of the players really get the chance to participate is when, if they manage to reach the end, the person playing Sarah must recite, by heart, her character’s now well-known incantation;
“Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City, to take back the child you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great. You have no power over me!”.
To those less obsessively familiar with the film, you might balk at the idea of having to learn, with absolute precision, a few lines of cheesy 80s dialogue. And after a few complaints before we settled down to play our first, and so far, only round of the game after Boxing Day dinner, my brother, my dad, and his partner all tried to imprint those few lines into their minds as best they could.
The game may have been as new to me as it was to everyone else round the table. But, unlike them, I didn’t have to worry about cramming a few seconds of fairy-tale nonsense into my short-term memory because I had already spent the past 10 months unwittingly preparing for this moment.
By the time Christmas had rolled around that year, I was just two months out of an intense and abusive relationship. The kind of trauma that is caused by emotional abuse can often make you feel a great loss of your sense of self, and leave you returning to, and reaching out for the comforts of an easier time. In Henson’s puppet world, I found an unlikely ally.
It is very rare for abuse to begin overnight. It is slow, and creeping. This duality of the relationship is key; the intense moments of love overshadowed by the campaign of cruelty are often enough to make someone doubt themselves into staying. Often, I knew I was being manipulated and bullied, but I couldn’t fight back. Many nights, the most I could promise myself was that I would, eventually, be able to get through it all. Time and time again, whilst trying to imitate the bravery that would help me get away, my mind kept returning to that one line that had been imprinted onto my mind since childhood; “you have no power over me!”.
So, I developed an unusual coping mechanism. Whenever I felt truly alone, and like my life was being controlled by someone else, I would sit in bed, usually in tears, reciting Sarah’s incantation to myself, trying to believe.
The parallels that made this film such a surprisingly lifeline for me are more apparent each time you watch it. Jareth tries to woo Sarah with illusions, and manipulation. Literally, he manipulates time. He is charming, and flamboyant, but he constantly belittles Sarah, and all the other characters who try to help her along the way. He drives imaginary wedges in between these new relationships. At the same time, he offers Sarah everything; all with the stipulation that to take it, she must surrender completely to his will.
To me, no scene better represents the chaos and confusion emotional abuse causes that the scene where Jareth convinces Sarah’s guide, Hoggle, to feed her an enchanted peach — so that he can lead her through a hallucinatory, and terrifying ballroom scene with a sexually charged dance in which Jareth is constantly controlling her movements, and then abandoning her into the vicious crowds. One minute he is there, the next he is gone, but he is always watching. As he sings promises to “paint” her “mornings of gold” and “spin” her “valentine’s evenings”, it’s hard to remember that his goal is not to romance Sarah, but disorient and fool her into giving up her life.
It’s a powerful image, because those are the hardest relationships to overcome. The ones in which love is constantly being given, and withdrawn. You are constantly being told to doubt yourself. The relationships where very “I love you” comes with an ultimatum, or a caveat, or a trick. The ones that are filled with “I’m sorry”s and “I care about you”s and “I’m doing this all for you”s. One of the hardest lessons in life is that someone can love you, and hurt you at the same time. That it doesn’t matter what the fairy tales say, because actually, sometimes love isn’t enough, and fighting against unhealthy affection requires its own kind of fairy tale strength.
When I was 16, my dad wrote me a letter. He told me to be patient in love. He said that love was hard to find, that it wouldn’t be waiting around every corner. But I never understood that love could be intertwined with hate. That someone could say they loved you whilst they had their hands round your neck. When Sarah finally begins to see through Jareth’s tricks, he becomes desperate, and enraged; both comparing his life without her as living “without the sunlight”, promising that he believes in her, yet threatening that he can be “so cruel”, and accusing her of turning his world. “I move the stars for no one!”, he cautions, bellowing; because abusers want you to believe that the messed-up love they give you is the only kind of love you deserve.
The power my abuser had didn’t necessarily come from the fear, or the hurt he caused. It came from the love he promised. Like Jareth, abusers want you to believe you should ignore the pain they have provoked, and be grateful for the small snippets of attention and care that they allow you. Just as Sarah spends the film struggling to differentiate between what is real, and what isn’t, at your very lowest moments you don’t want to believe in the reality of the hurt, because you are desperate to buy into the fantasy of the love. It’s a soul-destroying, and confusing cycle that leaves you unable to truly understand what they are doing to you, and feeling incapable of finding the strength to walk away.
But in the end Sarah does find the strength to walk away, say those magic words — “you have no power over me!”. And — just like that — her tormentor is gone. His world falls down. Not her world, his. He disappears; his promises, and his blackmail, and his false romance, and his far-too-tight trousers. His illusions shatter, like glass. When Sarah finally breaks free, just like I was eventually able to, we see that words are powerful, that you can find friends in the most unlikely place, and that sometimes, even the most terrible films can be terribly poignant at the most critical times in your life.