Admit it: The first time you laid eyes on David Bowie, it was on a VHS tape of Labyrinth.
Oh sure, perhaps you became a holistic fan later, first enjoying “All the Young Dudes” on the Clueless soundtrack, then moving onto classic albums like “Ziggy Stardust” and “Diamond Dogs,” and maybe even to deeper cuts like “Aladdin Sane” and “Earthling.” But if you were born between 1975 and 1990, chances are high that the first time you encountered this weird, wonderful creature was when he danced around in spandex and a spiky, white-blond wig in a nightmarish Jim Henson film about baby-snatching. If you ask older Bowie fans, the 1986 box office bomb was a footnote in his career. If you ask people my age, it was everything.
When I first heard that David Bowie had died, I immediately thought of the first time I watched Labyrinth at eight years old. I couldn’t keep my eyes off Jareth, the lonely and terrifying goblin king. Even as a prepubescent 3rd grader, I knew the movie was all about sex, and not just because of Bowie’s prominent bulge and piercing stare. Most kids’ movies pretended sexuality didn’t exist—romance was about surface beauty and hearts of gold. Labyrinth made it clear that love and lust were intertwined, that it can turn into obsession, even as both people revel in it.
David Bowie was almost 40 by then, but to me, Jareth was ageless, genderless, species-less; he was free from real-world dynamics that may have made his toxic love for 15-year-old Sarah creepy or abusive. He was sex and power distilled to its purest form, and not in a macho, Prince Charming sort of way. His third-act plea to Sarah—“Fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave!”—was 50 times hotter than 50 Shades of Grey, yet somehow more kid-appropriate. Labyrinth and Bowie achieved something unusual: They respected the existence of children’s sexuality if not on a conscious then on an elemental level.
In the 24 hours after Bowie’s death, I saw this sentiment about Labyrinth echoed all over my social media feeds, especially by women: I didn’t know what it was, but I liked it. “I felt so strange — repulsed, entranced,” wrote Anne Helen Petersen on Facebook as she recalled her first viewing of Labyrinth during a 5th grade sleepover. “In hindsight, it had everything to do with Bowie's transcendent, peculiar, incredibly potent sex appeal, but at the time, I just watched as he danced around in tights, a river of unidentifiable things running through me.” Sarah Marshall at Bitch magazine had a similar reaction: “I couldn’t articulate why I found the film so compelling, so mysterious, and so—well—tingle-inducing. I just knew I wanted to watch it until the VCR’s tape heads wore the picture down to fuzz.”
The appeal transcended sexuality and gender, “from bisexual women like myself, to gay men, transwomen, lesbian, straight, pansexual; you name it,” said 36-year-old Elana Levin, who confesses to marveling at an ancient website called David Bowie's Area. “Some of us wanted to be him. Some of us wanted to be with him. Some of us wanted both. All of us knew that sparkly eye-shadow was involved.”
Little girls worshipped Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah, of course, but we couldn’t fathom why she’d want to go home to her miserable, earthly life and leave a glittery sex god behind. Thirty-three-year-old Meredith Clark wrote in an email that the fact that Sarah didn't want to stay with the goblin king “made me angry, actually angry!” We identified with Sarah, but we felt deeply for Jareth. “Even as a kidnapping madman, he oozed empathy,” said Pixie Casey, who tweeted this appreciation:
It wasn’t about sex for all of us; some just appreciated Jareth's unabashed boldness. Lainna Fader, 27, told me she was drawn to his “raw confidence despite being so…unapologetically weird.” Hanif Willis Abdurraqif saw him as a “hero, someone who led me through the dark kingdom of an outsider’s youth and promised something brighter on the other side.” My friend Sam Pitt-Stoller, who is not a pious man, simply texted me: “Bowie in Labyrinth was my image of God.”
A couple of years ago, I made my way through a gorgeous, highbrow Bowie retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. There were entire rooms devoted to his live shows and album covers and personal ephemera, but secretly I looked forward to the moment where I’d see a shrine to Labyrinth. That moment never came; instead, I got a measly movie poster and a three-sentence title card, and I felt like an idiot. Now I’m sure there were other twentysomethings roaming the museum feeling equally let down. In death, essential but tiny corners of a celebrity’s life often become bathed in a spotlight they’ve never known before. To us, that corner is the goblin king’s castle.