Inside the Labyrinth

In his novel House of Leaves (2000), Mark Z. Danielewski alludes to the myth of the Cretan Minotaur as a tactic to emphasize Johnny Truant’s entrapment by his past. Through the process of compiling Zampano’s fragmented manuscript of The Navidson Record, a documentary film that discloses the Navidson family’s encounter of a horrifying maze, repressed memories of Johnny’s past begin to surface. While the Minotaur, a deformed child, is sentenced to walk a physical maze, Johnny is forced to navigate the hidden secrets residing within the labyrinth of his own mind. While Katharine Cox’s article, “What Has Made Me? Locating Mother in the Textual Labyrinth of Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves,’” argues that Johnny’s character parallels the Minotaur through his psychological imprisonment by the concealed memory of his mother’s abandonment, Cox’s analysis can be extended to include additional circumstances of abandonment, parental neglect, physical deformity, and isolation conveyed through Johnny’s assessment of his life by memories, his present condition, and a dream that further exemplify Johnny as the Minotaur and emphasize his inability to escape.

In the process of transcribing The Navidson Record, Johnny recollects repressed memories of his past that indicate experiences of abandonment analogous to that of the Cretan Minotaur. Triggered by the film, Johnny embarks on a “journey of remembrance” and reveals that, like the Minotaur, he was left alone in his adolescence (Cox 4). However, his encounter with familial dissonance and the uncertainty of what lurks within the Navidson’s house prompts the emergence of violent hallucinations of asphyxiation as well as apparitions of an unidentifiable being, often referred to as a “her” and depicted as “disturbingly familiar” (Danielewski 28). These episodes of stifled breathing from sensations of piercing “[finger]nails” indicate that Johnny’s life of desertion stems from more than simply the incarceration of his mother and the early death of his father (Danielewski 27). Through a reflection of his mother’s written confession, sent from The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute, Johnny slowly uncovers that, like the Minotaur, he was abandoned through “the destructive bond between [parent]…and child;” ultimately fated to suffer the consequences precipitated by a mother’s “monstrous desire[s]” (Cox 12). The Minotaur, bearing the hideous appearance of a beast, exhibits the head of a bull and the body of a man as a product of its mother’s sinful act of infidelity. Afraid to taint his reputation, King Minos, the Minotaur’s father, proves unwilling to “accept” that the “heir to…[his] throne” will be of illegitimate birth and that the future face of Crete will be one of terrifying deformity (Danielewski 110). As a result, King Minos forcibly hides the Minotaur from society inside a labyrinth, exemplifying an act of rejection that leaves the Minotaur to grow up without a parental figure. Similarly, to safeguard Johnny from the hardships and misery of everyday life, Johnny’s mother attempts to strangle him. Although Johnny’s mother perceives death as a “gift,” a freedom from the “pain of living,” and considers her deed an act of love, her murderous desires and violence warrant incarceration by Johnny’s father (Danieleswki 629, 630). Consequently, with an absent mother living in an asylum, Johnny is completely alone when a car accident suddenly takes his father. While the underlying cause resides with the mother, in each story it is the reactive decision of the father that proves the catalyst for abandonment. As a result, Johnny’s childhood is marked by years of abandonment and an inability to develop familial relations as he transfers time and again among foster families. With each new home Johnny maintains the status of a “guest[,]…living with” yet never becoming part of the family (Danieleswki 92). Through tantrums of “throwing things,” runaways, and school expulsions, Johnny is perceived as a beast for causing trouble (Danielewski 587). Just as the Minotaur was spurned for its abnormal appearance, Johnny is rejected for his abnormal behavior. Both Johnny and the Minotaur exist as black sheep, unable to fit within the mold of societal norms.

After uncovering the hidden truth of his childhood abandonment, Johnny reveals physical scars of parental neglect and consequently, further epitomizes the Cretan Minotaur through his beastly appearance. Johnny is finally able to “retrace [the] history” of his deformity to his “familial ties” with a derelict mother and an abusive foster father (Cox 7). Although both Johnny and the Minotaur were disfigured involuntarily by the choices of another, the Minotaur was born malformed whereas Johnny acquired marks of trauma. In addition to the “half-moon” scars on the back of his neck from his near death experience, Johnny wears sleeves of “horror [that] swee[p]” the length of his arms from a childhood accident involving spilled oil by the hands of his mother (Danielewski 20). Displaying scars from a foster father that span beyond a “broken…and discolored front tooth,” white marks on his legs, and a discolored line “intersecting [his] eyebrow,” Johnny parallels the Minotaur’s freakish and monstrous appearance (Danielewski 130). Although Johnny subconsciously attempts to lock away the memories of his traumas as a mechanism of self-protection, his physical disfigurements, like the walls of the Minotaur’s maze, act as a constant reminder of the horrors of his past.

As his attachment to The Navidson Record grows, Johnny further exemplifies the Cretan Minotaur not only by his daily routine that shapes his present state of isolation and physical deterioration, but also through his entrapment generated by paranoia. Johnny possessed a nearly unvarying daily schedule that consisted of clubs and one-night stands prior to his discovery of The Navidson Record. However, it is not until the “transformative effects of…Zampano’s writing” both impact Johnny’s cognitive stability and alter his way of life that he acknowledges a sense of imprisonment (Cox 5). Although his interest in the documentary initially proves to be mere “curiosity,” reading inconsistently, Johnny reveals that now, due to a growing obsession, both hours and days disappear in the “twist” of sentences, scenes, and patterns of the fragmented “scrap[s]” (Danielewski xviii). As a result, Johnny, in response to the fear that suddenly appears tugging at the back of his mind, becomes increasingly closed off from and unaware of the existence of the outside world; ultimately paralleling the incarcerated state of the Minotaur. While the Minotaur is secluded from society by the inescapable pattern of a physical maze, a sentence resulting from the trepidation of others, Johnny is isolated by his own terror, escalating confusion, and apprehension that accompany the arrival of unexplained memories of which he has no recollection. In his anxiety regarding the condition of his social standing, King Minos fabricates accounts of Athenian deaths and “publicly” frames the Minotaur as the bloodthirsty monster culpable (Danielewski 110). With walls meant to “conceal” and the “residents” of Crete “never get[ting] too close to the labyrinth,” it becomes clear that societal paranoia and fear for individual security are what confines the faultless Minotaur to its prison (Danielewski 110). Through a display of claustrophobia, impaired breathing, and hallucinations of “a stalking [and approaching] monster” that threatens to cut his throat, Johnny is similarly overwhelmed with paranoia (Cox 13). With the former routine of his life incapable of providing comfort, clarity, or an escape from the memory of a near-death experience that haunts his present, Johnny reverts solely to Zampano’s manuscript for answers. Johnny turns away from his personal relationships by missing calls, trashing phone numbers, and forgoing social outings. As Johnny further detaches himself out of fear from the outside world, he exemplifies a state of entrapment both within his home and in a lifestyle of deleterious behaviors as he traverses the maze of his mind. In “nai[ling] his windows shut” and layering his doors with locks, “chains,” and “storm proof” precautions, Johnny rarely leaves his apartment (Danielewski xviii). Unable to sleep or keep up with the demands of daily living, he appears “pale and weak” (Danielewski 404). Along with the deformities induced by his childhood, Johnny’s protruding bones and sickly demeanor highlight a bodily deterioration that mirrors the monstrous appearance of the Minotaur.

Although Johnny embodies the animalistic features and seemingly violent nature of the Cretan Minotaur in a dream, the account demonstrates a compassionate portrayal of his character, for like the Minotaur, his perceived savagery proves misunderstood. As Johnny dreams, he “wander[s] lost” (Cox 4) among the seemingly familiar “dead ends” (Danielewski 403). While Johnny expresses the belief that he has been searching the corridors for years, it is not until he undergoes a bodily change that this frequent dream exemplifies a “nightmare of self-evaluation” (Cox 6). As the threat of death from a drunken frat boy’s swinging ax prompts Johnny to physically transform into the figure of a Minotaur, “sprout[ing]” course hair, “long, yellow fingernails,” and an “enormous bulge” on his forehead, it becomes apparent that, like the Minotaur, Johnny takes the form of a monster as a result of external forces (Danielewski 404). Despite the creature’s “gentle” nature, only consuming Athenians who died of starvation lost in the maze, the Minotaur is cast as a villain through King Minos’ “secre[t] execut[ions]” and fallacious claims of his child’s barbarous acts (Danielewski 110). Although the Minotaur is “nearly murdered” by a criminal, it is unable to muster enough brutality to survive (Danieleswki 111). The Minotaur’s inhuman countenance that resulted from its mother’s indiscretion along with a cruel identity determined by its father supersede its benevolence, forcing the it into the role of a feared beast. Although Johnny typifies the mentality and appearance of a monster, expressing a decision to “carve out” the frat boy’s innards, he reveals that true savagery is also not of his innate nature (Danielewski 405). Johnny’s reaction represents one of defense, generated by a situation of survival. Through an acknowledgment of the “melted” appearance of his hands in the moment prior to his transformation, it is apparent that Johnny’s “appall[ing]” marks of disfigurement, resulting from his relationship with his mother, exemplify external factors that begin to change how he is perceived in the eyes of others (Danielewski 403, 404). As people turn their gaze from Johnny’s scars and his emaciated state, “stunned” and “incredibly uncomfortable” at his unsightly appearance, it is revealed that Johnny is perceived as abnormal (Danielewski 296). However, it is not until Johnny becomes consumed with the external force of a growing paranoia that he is viewed as both lesser than human and frightening. Afraid of losing Zampano’s manuscript, a potential key to his confusion, Johnny primitively and aggressively “spr[i]ng[s] forward…[as if] by instinct to fend off his best friend (Danielewski 324). In fear of an approaching attack, Johnny becomes disassociated with society and secures himself within his apartment, epitomizing a beast hiding among the darkness. Although Johnny buys a gun for protection, the degree of his terror proves both disorienting and dehumanizing. With desires to implement pain by hand and “rip open” flesh by his teeth in a fight, Johnny further exemplifies the characteristics of an animal (Danielewski 296). However, along with an initial claim that blood and brutality “disturb” him, Johnny condemns his thoughts of violence as atrocious and “unspeakable” (Danielewski 249, 497). Johnny, innately benevolent, identifies with the Minotaur for his misunderstood character. As a result of the past, the present environment, and how others choose to see them, both the Minotaur and Johnny are mistakenly distinguished as monsters.

In House of Leaves, Mark Z. Dainelewski highlights that Johnny Truant parallels the mythological Cretan Minotaur. Johnny, suffering from a past that haunts his present, is condemned to a life of entrapment. While the Minotaur is physically bound to its prison, unable to break free, Johnny wanders the corridors of his subconscious, lost among the hidden truths.

Works Cited

Cox, Katharine. “What Has Made Me? Locating Mother in the Textual Labyrinth of Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves”” Critical Survey. Vol. 18. N.p.: Berghahn, 2006. 4-15. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.

Danielewski, Mark Z. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. 2nd ed. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.


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