Goblins’ eyes snap open in the audience’s first glimpse of them, a dimly lit shot crowded with teeth, white-rolling eyes, green flesh, and horns. It’s a strange moment, juxtaposed with Sarah in her baby brother’s bedroom, trying to get the screaming toddler to sleep. Then the wall-to-wall goblins come out of nowhere. Are they in Sarah’s head? the audience wonders. Have goblins always been there, waiting in the corners, holding their breath, or sleeping until we say the magic words?
To access art is to access darkness, and to dwell in childhood is to dwell in a place of death, the potential deepest darkness. For those who are parents, the shadow of death is always with us. When my son was born after 24 hours of labor, the midwives informed us that I had suffered a partial placental abruption. Had the placenta fully detached too soon, my baby likely would have suffered brain damage, and I could have bled to death. Consider the terror new parents are meant to feel abut SIDS, and the alarming and ever-changing information of how parents should do the most basic of tasks: put their baby to sleep.
It’s significant that Henson’s goblins arrive in Labyrinth exactly when Sarah is attempting to do just that: put the baby to bed. When she flicks off the light and the baby goes silent, she knows instantly, instinctively, that something is wrong. Jareth enters Sarah’s brother’s bedroom in a flurry of boots and cape, snowy owl wings bating, and French doors thrown open wide. He’s stolen her brother (didn’t Sarah ask him to take the baby, pleading and desperate, not realizing he was listening?), but if Sarah can find her brother in the labyrinth before 13 hours are up, she can have him back. Under a blood-red sky, Jareth shows Sarah his maze, goblin castle at the center. Her backyard has seemingly peeled away to reveal the goblin kingdom.
Jareth’s land, an eerie expanse of bullies, traps, and two-faced allies, is pretty much an exaggerated blueprint of childhood. In Labyrinth, as in childhood, everything is magnified and inexplicable. Things are kept from children in the interest of protecting them, but in the absence of knowing, kids supply their own answers, which are usually awful. Much of what I remember about my youth involves worrying: that there was a man staring at me from the air-conditioner vents above my bed, that a tornado would come in the night, that robbers would come in the night, that wolves would come in the night. Childhood is full of such demons. Or goblins.
With Labyrinth, Henson sought to illuminate an old notion: Childhood is notoriously dark in the traditional fairy tales of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. The little mermaid basically commits suicide and turns into sea foam. A rich man promises he will only remarry someone whose beauty rivals his dead wife, so he pursues his own daughter. A young girl’s husband turns daily into a hedgehog. (Henson would later mine some of this classic fairy-tale territory in his acclaimed but low-rated 1988 TV series The Storyteller, including the episodes “Sapsorrow” and “Hans, My Hedgehog”). Not only were these stories read to children, but they also feature children—getting eaten or starving to death, or being married off far too young to monsters.