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Labyrinth and the Journey of Recovery

Like many fairy tales, beloved fantasy movies often reveal truths about the human experience that are easier to understand metaphorically. Often when I watch these movies I look for themes and archetypes that resonate with a particular feeling rather than an intellectual symbol. Applying this method to the cult classic movie, Labyrinth, I was struck by how the movie, with its catchy soundtrack and dazzling puppetry, actually reveals so much about addiction and the difficult journey of recovery. This is in no way meant to belittle, diminish, or joke about the very real consequences of drug or alcohol addiction; it is simply meant to distance the experience of addiction to a fantasy realm where it is much easier to look at objectively, and explore conceptually an experience with which every one of us has some personal or tangental relationship. Through this distance, we are able to see the way that addiction moves us, our relationships, and our beliefs about connection and belonging so in turn, we may be able to look creatively at ways in which to fight back against this disease.

The movie begins with our heroine, Sarah, whose infatuation with drama causes her to lose track of time and forget that she is supposed to watch her infant brother, Toby, for the evening while her parents go out. In these opening scenes, Sarah’s fantasy world helps her to escape from the perceived difficulties of her life—the new stepmother, and baby brother. Like many addicts, she becomes slightly hysterical at having her fantasy world interrupted (screaming “It’s not fair!”), deflecting her parents' disappointment in her as evidence that they are controlling or meddlesome. She rebuffs the intrusion of responsibility on her fantasy world and becomes angry that her family expresses concern for her well being. Also like one struggling with addiction, despite having slammed the door on her parents, she becomes sullen that they are not more concerned for her (a reaction that perpetuates a victim’s mentality).

Even with her erratic behavior, Sarah’s parents leave for the evening entrusting Sarah to watch her brother. Sarah becomes agitated because a toy that she loves is missing from her room. She bursts into Toby’s room, causing him to cry. The crying enrages Sarah and she wishes that the Goblin King would take Toby away. The crying stops, and Sarah realizes that her wish has actually come true. Thinking of this scene through the lens of addiction, Toby represents the childlike part of Sarah’s own psyche—the part of her that has been neglected in pursuit of her addiction. Until this point, Sarah has seen this part of herself as unnecessary, needy, and pulling her away from joy. Once it goes missing though, Sarah realizes that this part of her is integral to her identity, and desperately wants it back. Jareth, the Goblin King, appears and tries to coerce Sarah to forget about the baby and go back to her fantasy world.

Jareth represents the phenomenon of addiction itself which is accessed through Sarah’s fantasy world (her addictive behavior). When Sarah forfeits her brother to the Goblin King this act symbolizes the transition from use to addiction. David Schoen (2009) in his seminal work, War of the Gods in Addiction: C.G. Jung, Alcoholics Anonymous and Archetypal Evil, describes addiction as having your psychological kingdom invaded and occupied by a ruling regime—one is no longer capable of making independent choices. Schoen states that addiction “will allow a person to continue to function in seemingly normal ways, in many or even most areas, as long as those decisions and behaviors in no way challenge, threaten, or attempt to thwart the primary agenda of the addiction, which is to continue the person’s participation in the addictive behavior.” When Sarah defies Jareth and says that she would rather have her brother (the child part of her own psyche) back instead of continuing to participate in the addictive behavior (her fantasy world), she is fighting back against the psychological occupation of addiction in her psyche. Addiction/Jareth tries to distract her and convince her that she is not capable of recovery, but when she does not listen, he tells her that she only has 13 hours to solve the labyrinth or lose her baby brother forever (a psychological death).

As Sarah begins the labyrinth, she says, “It doesn’t look that hard,” echoing a common misconception of those in early recovery which is that recovery is simple: you just quit using. However, as Sarah continues she realizes that things are not always what they seem: that the things she thought she knew, like fairies granting wishes, are all wrong. She can not use logic or what she thinks she already knows to survive this journey, she must ask for help from others. As she goes through the labyrinth she is assisted and thwarted by characters that each represent parts of Sarah’s psyche. She is forced to make choices that are difficult to know which way to go, such as when she meets the door riddlers who claim that one door always tells the truth and the other always lies. I am reminded in this scene of how individuals in recovery believe they know the choices that will lead them to relapse; how they imagine themselves continuing forward on the path through recovery without ever looking back. They do not realize that relapse begins far earlier than the appearance of a choice: it begins with discouragement and hopelessness. For Sarah, the doors (choices) do not appear until she realizes that she cannot outsmart the labyrinth with the arrows that she had been drawing to guide her. She becomes frustrated at how difficult it is to just to continue on the journey that she started. Sarah makes a choice, and walks through one of the doors thinking that she is much smarter than the riddle, only to find the ground beneath her fall out.

As she descends down, she is caught by “helping hands” and asked which way she would like to go, up or down. To Sarah, the hands are hurting and she decides that since she is already headed in the direction of down, she may as well continue. I think now of when an individual makes a choice that leads to relapse despite having help, how addiction often convinces them that they should just continue using because it is easier than going back and trying to make a different decision. Sarah’s choice to continue down ends in the oubliette, a dark hole in the ground with no exit—a place described as, “the place you put people to forget about them.” This reminds me of the despair an individual feels when they realize that they have made a choice that compromises their recovery. They believe that they are alone, and that they have to start completely over which seems almost impossible.

Jareth watches Sarah through his crystal ball, down in the oubliette and gloats to his goblins that she will give up when she realizes that she will be led back to the beginning of the labyrinth and forced to start over. However, Sarah runs into Hoggle, the character that showed her how to get into the labyrinth at the beginning of her journey. Hoggle is supposed to lead her to the exit, but Sarah bribes him to help her. This scene reminds us that even after a relapse, one does not have to start completely over. In the Stages of Changes model developed by Prochaska and DiClemete in 1977, an individual goes through six stages (seen below) in trying to make a change in one’s life: 1) precontemplation 2) contemplation 3) preparation 4) action 5) maintenance and 6) relapse.

The belief is that an individual learns from each relapse how change happens, and can therefore make a change easier the next time. With Sarah, she learned that in order to continue on her journey she must accept the help of others. She recognizes that she does not know which parts of herself to trust and which parts will inadvertently lead her back to addiction. So when she realizes that she might have to start over from the beginning she jumps into action, asking Hoggle to help. Hoggle represents the part of Sarah’s psyche that is afraid of fighting addiction and losing. Hoggle is the part of any individual that realizes the true consequences of their struggle: that addiction is powerful and capable of irreparably destroying parts of oneself if not completely annihilating the whole self. Hoggle is the survivor at any cost, the betrayer, the part of the psyche that will lie, cheat, and steal to persevere. While this seems like a terrible ally, Sarah’s offer of friendship to Hoggle is what saves her repeatedly throughout the labyrinth. Hoggle is a complex character because he represents a complex truth: fear acted upon wisely is courage, fear acted upon unwisely is cowardice. Learning to accept this part of Sarah’s psyche, her fear, is difficult because it gives her a profound knowledge of how to walk through recovery with an awareness of pitfalls, but also tricks her because it can also easily lead her to relapse if she trusts it too much (as we see later with the peach).

Another beloved character in the movie is Ludo, the giant beast that Sarah rescues. Ludo represents the part of Sarah’s psyche most tortured by the labyrinth; he is the embodiment of shame that cries out at its own helplessness. When Sarah saves Ludo from the guards with biting sticks, Ludo softens from a terrifying beast to a gentle giant, revealing that when we free our shame, we find our purest form of compassion. Ludo typifies the giant gentleness that can recruit the most solid aspects of our psyche (the rocks!) to help in times of crisis. Ludo appreciates Sarah’s friendship, and serves as a formidable presence both in stature and heart (especially, as they move through the Bog of Eternal Stench).

The most striking scene towards the end of the movie happens when Hoggle betrays Sarah, giving her the peach which has been cursed by Jareth. As Sarah takes a bite, she asks, “Hoggle, what have you done?” before falling into a dream sequence lulled along with the melody of David Bowie singing “As the World Falls Down.” Sarah, we see, trusts her fear (Hoggle) too much and the responsibility of it leads her to relapse. In this dream sequence, Jareth sings the poignant lyrics:

“There's such a fooled heart

Beatin' so fast

In search of new dreams

A love that will last

Within your heart

I'll place the moon

Within your heart

As the pain sweeps through,

Makes no sense for you

Every thrill is gone

Wasn't too much fun at all,

But I'll be there for you

As the world falls down”

Thinking of these lines sung from the perspective of the phenomenon of Addiction, the masquerade where Sarah dances with Jareth/Addiction symbolizes the deceptively romantic and yet hauntingly condemning experience of relapse. As many addicts know too well, addiction is a perverse love that promises to alleviate one’s suffering and be there when the world falls down.

When Sarah awakens from her drug-induced dream she is in a replica of her room. At first she is relieved, thinking that the whole labyrinth experience was a dream, but when she walks out of her room she is horrified to discover that she is actually in a wasteland. She is joined by the Junk Lady, a goblin carrying with her a pile of trash, who tries to soothe Sarah into staying in her room by reminding Sarah that she loves her toys. This character is the part of Sarah’s psyche that tries to deny the wreckage of her situation by isolating her. Furthermore, she can’t quite remember what it was she was searching for. And isn’t that the cruel magic of addiction? It makes you forget what it is that you are actually striving for in your life under the guise of help?

The walls of the room begin to fall down when Sarah remembers that she needs to save Toby (and consequently herself). She is helped out of the trash heap by Ludo and Sir Didymus, an ally met in the Bog of Eternal Stench who is brave but lacking in strategy. Hoggle joins them in the final battle through the Goblin City leading Sarah all the way to the castle. All of these characters (as representative of parts of Sarah’s psyche) have helped her find the strength she needs to confront Jareth, but in the end Sarah tells them that she must confront him alone. They remind her that should she need them, she only needs to call for them and they will be there.

When Sarah confronts Jareth she says to him the thing she has known all along. She says: “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 is as great…” Jareth stops her and says “Sarah look what I am offering, your dreams. I ask for so little, just let me rule you and you can have everything that you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.” I am again brought back to Schoen description of addiction (mentioned above) where he states that addiction is like a benevolent dictator that will allow you to do whatever you want, as long as it does not disrupt addiction’s agenda. Sarah finally remembers the last line and says it with conviction: “you have no power over me.” Sarah realizes in this moment that she has the agency and power to change her story, not Jareth/Addiction, and then the spell is broken.

Afterwards, Sarah is in her room looking in the mirror and seeing the characters that helped her along the way (Hoggle, Ludo, and Sir Didymus). This is interesting, because we see that the characters actually reside within her own image of herself. She says to them that she needs them and that she will always need them in her life, just as someone in recovery will always need the parts of themselves that helped them survive. The characters appear in her room, and a joyous party ensues.

Looking back at this movie, I am reminded how important connection, belonging, and love are to reversing the damning narrative of addiction. The characters in the movie represent parts of Sarah’s psyche that need love and acceptance, but they are also a gentle reminder that one can’t recover alone. It truly takes a village of people that are willing to stand up to addiction non-judgmentally. If you, or someone you love is struggling with addiction, please speak up.

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