Faerie-fidelity: Cinema's most accurate depiction of the Good Folk
As a 30-year old man with a (mildly embarrassing) obsession with (folklore-accurate depictions of) faeries, you can imagine my excitement when I came across this trailer for The Hallow, a new British horror film. The film, set to drop in November in the UK, doesn't have a US distributor yet, but that will likely be remedied soon. As you can tell from the trailer, it looks like a relatively faithful representation of faeries, at least insofar as it eschews the nursery rhyme sanitization they received in the nineteenth century. The fae of The Hallows appear to be nasty creatures with penchant for baby stealing.
The anticipation this trailer induced gave me pause: what, until now, has been the most accurate depiction of faeries in cinema? Sure, 1985's Legend had its elves, and 2010's remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark repositioned its beasties as faeries, but beyond some superficial window dressing, both films seem to ignore much of the Good Folk's established attributes. After a great deal of contemplation, I finally decided there is one film with the faerie-fidelity I was looking for: Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986). From IMDB:
Fifteen-year-old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) accidentally wishes her baby half-brother, Toby, away to the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) who will keep Toby if Sarah does not complete his labyrinth in thirteen hours.
Faeries are explicitly depicted early in the film, in their kid-friendly guise. Hoggle the dwarf is seen running around the labyrinth exterminating the critters.
SARAH: It bit me! HOGGLE: What did you expect fairies to do? SARAH: I thought they did nice things. Like granting wishes. HOGGLE: Shows what you know, don't it?
I feel like I've had this exact same exchange with folks when discussing faeries—minus the biting, of course.
While not explicitly faeries, the goblins of Labyrinth are clearly one-and-the-same (goblins are, after all, one of the entities housed under the umbrella term "fae"). Let's take a closer look at some of the faerie lore in the film:
I've discussed in interviews the elaborate taxonomy of faeries in folklore, and Labyrinth reflects that. The film's goblins are quite a motley crew of varying sizes, shapes, and descriptions. Some have horns, some have hair, some beaks, others mouths. Even the non-goblin characters seem to riff on faerie lore, such as Hoggle, or Ludo, the large, hairy beast reminiscent of the Celtic woodwose.
Perhaps the most obvious connection to faerie folklore is the manner in which Toby is taken in the beginning of the film. Faeries of old were fond of snatching infants from cribs and leaving sickly changelings behind in their place. Interestingly, Jareth says that Toby will become "one of them, forever"—in a great deal of lore, faeries were once living people.
While varying in height, the goblins are still shorter than their leader. This motif of a single, taller entity serving as a leader to a host of shorter subjects reappears time-and-again in faerie lore. Jareth is a subject of great interest in general, as he seems to have more of an interest in seducing Sarah than keeping her brother captive; in addition to stealing children, the motives behind faerie-human interaction were just as often carnal. And don't even get me started on the depiction of Bowie from the waist-down.
There is a strong temporal component to the film and, as noted by many, distorted time is a common component of the faerie experience. Jareth is shown on numerous occasions manipulating time, and though Sarah's task is supposed to take thirteen hours, she leaves and returns in a single night. Early in the film we see her parents leaving when it is dark outside, telling her they will return by midnight; even if we are generous and declare the hour of their departure 5:00 pm, that still means Sarah's adventures happen twice as fast as they should.
Most germane to my interests is the peach which Hoggle uses to betray Sarah. Given to him by Jareth, the fruit causes her to enter a dream-like trance. To anyone familiar with my work, the connections are clear and consistent, as eating the peach (a fruit, commonly given in such encounters) causes a hallucination-like change in Sarah's consciousness. "As soon as Hoggle gives her my present," Jareth tells Toby, "then she'll forget everything." She awakens in a junkyard (bringing to mind how faeries hide the true nature of things in glamour) where an old goblin crone implores her to stay and forget her old life (a variation on the Food Taboo, wherein those consuming food in faerie land forget past lives and are trapped forever).
If one knows the history of the film, the film's accuracy shouldn't come as a surprise. The genesis of the project lies in an idea shared between Jim Henson and artist Brian Froud, who remained attached to the project as a concept artist (and whose son, Toby, plays the protagonist's eponymously-named little brother). Froud has a longstanding fascination with faeries, appearing in the highly-recommended 2000 documentary The Fairy Faith. In the film, Froud says:
"Traditionally faeries blight things, they blight crops, they blight people. They cause problems… the faeries were blamed for the great potato famine in Ireland… faeries were blamed for misshapened [sic] or sickly children. So man's always had this interesting and difficult relationship with faeries, and I think nowadays people have the modern impression that faeries are all sweetness and light and pretty. But they often are often dark and difficult."
Froud goes on to state that he believes in the reality of the phenomenon, having studied the phenomenon before "becoming more and more enthralled about the idea of real faeries." There's also a pronounced alien abduction connection. All the above points could be tied to the alien abduction experience and, interestingly enough, the film prominently depicts events in the real world that reek of High Strangeness: Sarah notices moved objects in her home, dreams and waking life blur, etc. David Bowie's presence in the film seems somewhat significant, as Bowie's work (both music and film) has countlessly referenced extraterrestrial visitation, causing some to suggest that perhaps he has some first-hand experience of the phenomenon. Of no small significance is the fact that Jareth can change into an owl… anyone familiar with the work of experiencer Mike Clelland will draw immediate parallels to the frequency with which abductees notice owls in their lives. With Labyrinth, what is at first a superficial film for children (albeit a dark one), has revealed itself to have multiple layers of well-researched insight. We don't see much of that nowadays, and I commend both Froud and Henson for the way they fully embraced some of the more esoteric aspects of faerie folklore.