“What was I doing?”
“Why don’t you look where you’re going young woman?”
“I was looking.”
“And where were you going.”
“I don’t remember.”
As a child, the rubbish scene in the film Labyrinth unsettled me. It also really spoke to me. It still does today. Like all good fiction, it’s in some ways truer than the truths we’re told in real life, albeit stranger on first inspection. In the words of Albert Camus, “fiction it is a lie through which we tell the truth.”
For those unfamiliar with the film (do you even exist?), the protagonist, Sarah, is on a quest to rescue her brother Toby from Jareth—the goblin king (David Bowie)—who lives in the centre of the Labyrinth. “He’s the dark fairy in folklore—[who is] meant to be tempting,” said grown up Toby Froud, who played his baby namesake in the film. Jareth tries to distract Sarah from her purpose. He is a master of disguise and mind control—he can create illusions and dreams which make Sarah forget.
In the scene in question, Sarah is under Jareth’s spell after biting into an apple. She temporarily forgets her quest and appears in the midst of a rubbish dump. Lost and confused, she is lured into her bedroom—re-created in said rubbish dump—by a goblin. The goblin attempts to keep Sarah distracted, comforting her with things that are familiar but inanimate. But Sarah is conscious there is something she is forgetting. She just can’t find the words. All the while, the goblin intensifies her mission to distract Sarah, to maintain her ignorance. The goblin does so by piling on top of her toys from her childhood—things she once associated with security.
“There was something I was looking for.”
“Don’t talk nonsense. It’s all here. Everything you’ve ever cared about in the world is right here.”
Sarah remembers the words of a story she read at the beginning of her journey, and begins to recite it like a spell:
“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I fought my way here to the castle, beyond the goblin city, to take back the child that you have stolen.”
“What’s the matter my dear. Don’t you like your toys?”
“It’s all junk!”
She throws the carousel music box across the room. It breaks down the walls of this hypernormal reality and reveals it for what it really is: a fiction reminiscent of a Hollywood studio. Useless rubbish, attractive but overall hollow and unsatisfying, much like the things we hoard to remind ourselves we exist in a capitalist society. “I have to save Toby” she remembers, re-connecting with her true will.
This scene is the perfect allegory of the way we've built up a world full of material distractions—and social constructs—that keep us from the things that really matter—and from truly connecting with our will. We’re born into this reality and have little opportunity to carve our way out of it.
But which reality are we living in? Our reality is what we have built around us, physically, socially and culturally. We're conditioned to think that normality or reality is the cultural context in which we find ourselves, but that reality can seem quite absurd if you take a step back and dismantle it. Men in suits shaking hands and saying “how do you do?”, filing your tax return, board meetings, convoluted mating rituals dressed as something else, bullshit jobs. It’s the kind of absurd realism the writer Richard Yates depicted so well in novels like Revolutionary Road.
I think it's this baseline state of mind (thinking that reality is absurd) that makes me unfazed by things others might think weirder, and thus open to imagining different realities. Is anything weirder than what is deemed normal, though?
When I see people convinced we all share a static, absolute reality, the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House come to mind: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” Then I imagine going into the houses of those who do attempt to survive under conditions of absolute reality and seeing framed inspirational posters that say things like: "live, laugh, love.”
@doththedoth articulated it nicely on Twitter:
“If you know someone who has ‘live, laugh, love’ quoted anywhere in their house, that’s a demon. You’re in the home of a demon.”
Adam Curtis expressed it well too, in his BBC documentary HyperNormalisation. Focusing on the political, he considers how we have come to live in a strange, constructed “fake world”; this fake world, he asserts, is a simpler version of the real world—it sustains itself because people find simplicity reassuring. “This retreat into a dream world allowed dark and destructive forces to fester outside,” he says, mentioning some of the issues with which we’re confronted in modern times, including the waves of refugees, Brexit, and Donald Trump.
Losing ourselves in a simulation—aka the simulation hypothesis—is a recurring motif in cinema and literature, The Matrix and The Truman Show being two of the more recent portrayals of this fear. But it is nothing new. One of numerous ancient examples can be found in Ancient Chinese literature, in the "Butterfly dream” of Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi dreams he was a butterfly, wakes up and cannot be certain whether he is a butterfly dreaming of being a man, or a man who dreamed of being a butterfly. We fear mistaking dreams for reality or reality for dreams, perhaps because we want to be assured we are investing in the right reality. This fear has become more prominent again in science fiction as developments in technology and artificial intelligence allow us to immerse ourselves in more convincing simulations—but through immersion could we lose ourselves?
Needless to say, humankind has never been wholly convinced of the stability of reality or our place in it; as a consequence there’s reassurance in the trickery inherent in hypernormality. It’s why the Dursleys in Harry Potter, who so passionately rallied against magic and clung to hypernormality, were such convincing characters. Most of us know people like that. But awareness of the social constructs that restrain us also means we can dismantle the mythos that sustains them. It also leaves a lot of space for creative world-building, where we can imagine and build new and better worlds. Speaking with Pam Grossman recently, she said something that really struck a chord: “I do believe that magic is a really great alternative for world-building.”
Those who practise magic, a spiritual path or occultism, are often dismissed as “people who have taken fandom too far.” But tell me, which reality would you live in if you had a choice? A world you’ve read about or dreamed about that inspires you, or the hypernormal world we’ve created and collectively reside in currently? And what of your reality are you really certain of beyond the language and customs and virtues we have inherited, beyond arbitrary borders and the walls that contain us?
In the climatic final scene in Labyrinth, it’s the words of a story—and the suspended sense of disbelief it provokes—that allow Sarah to ultimately imagine and manifest a new reality of her own making, at the same time shattering the oppressive one in which she is entrapped:
“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. You have no power over me.”
*How to contribute to the Often On My Mind column: we encounter many things in life that amuse us, inspire us, scare us, make us think, cause us to change our minds, or articulate something that we’ve thought for a long time but have previously been unable to express. These include, but are not limited to: scenes in films, books, memes, reality television, video games, and news stories. In this new web column, we invite writers to tell us about something that their minds return to again and again. Cunning Folk is a magazine about magic, mythology, folklore and the occult, so we’d only ask you keep it on topic; arguably everything that makes us think deeply is inseparable from all that, anyway.*