On October 27 2019, Facebook user Micah Daigle shared what appeared on first glance to be a secondhand anecdote about a friend’s touching introduction to David Bowie at a premiere of the film Labyrinth in 1986.
A photograph of David Bowie holding a mask accompanied the lengthy written post:
“My friend told me a story he hadn’t told anyone for years. When he used to tell it years ago people would laugh and say, ‘Who’d believe that? How can that be true? That’s daft.’ So he didn’t tell it again for ages. But for some reason, last night, he knew it would be just the kind of story I would love.
When he was a kid, he said, they didn’t use the word autism, they just said ‘shy’, or ‘isn’t very good at being around strangers or lots of people.’ But that’s what he was, and is, and he doesn’t mind telling anyone. It’s just a matter of fact with him, and sometimes it makes him sound a little and act different, but that’s okay.
Anyway, when he was a kid it was the middle of the 1980s and they were still saying ‘shy’ or ‘withdrawn’ rather than ‘autistic’. He went to London with his mother to see a special screening of a new film he really loved. He must have won a competition or something, I think. Some of the details he can’t quite remember, but he thinks it must have been London they went to, and the film…! Well, the film is one of my all-time favourites, too. It’s a dark, mysterious fantasy movie. Every single frame is crammed with puppets and goblins. There are silly songs and a goblin king who wears clingy silver tights and who kidnaps a baby and this is what kickstarts the whole adventure.
It was ‘Labyrinth’, of course, and the star was David Bowie, and he was there to meet the children who had come to see this special screening.
‘I met David Bowie once,’ was the thing that my friend said, that caught my attention.
‘You did? When was this?’ I was amazed, and surprised, too, at the casual way he brought this revelation out. Almost anyone else I know would have told the tale a million times already.
He seemed surprised I would want to know, and he told me the whole thing, all out of order, and I eked the details out of him.
He told the story as if it was he’d been on an adventure back then, and he wasn’t quite allowed to tell the story. Like there was a pact, or a magic spell surrounding it. As if something profound and peculiar would occur if he broke the confidence.
It was thirty years ago and all us kids who’d loved Labyrinth then, and who still love it now, are all middle-aged. Saddest of all, the Goblin King is dead. Does the magic still exist?
I asked him what happened on his adventure.
‘I was withdrawn, more withdrawn than the other kids. We all got a signed poster. Because I was so shy, they put me in a separate room, to one side, and so I got to meet him alone. He’d heard I was shy and it was his idea. He spent thirty minutes with me.
‘He gave me this mask. This one. Look.
‘He said: ‘This is an invisible mask, you see?
‘He took it off his own face and looked around like he was scared and uncomfortable all of a sudden. He passed me his invisible mask. ‘Put it on,’ he told me. ‘It’s magic.’
‘And so I did.
‘Then he told me, ‘I always feel afraid, just the same as you. But I wear this mask every single day. And it doesn’t take the fear away, but it makes it feel a bit better. I feel brave enough then to face the whole world and all the people. And now you will, too.
‘I sat there in his magic mask, looking through the eyes at David Bowie and it was true, I did feel better.
‘Then I watched as he made another magic mask. He spun it out of thin air, out of nothing at all. He finished it and smiled and then he put it on. And he looked so relieved and pleased. He smiled at me.
‘’Now we’ve both got invisible masks. We can both see through them perfectly well and no one would know we’re even wearing them,’ he said.
‘So, I felt incredibly comfortable. It was the first time I felt safe in my whole life.
‘It was magic. He was a wizard. He was a goblin king, grinning at me.
‘I still keep the mask, of course. This is it, now. Look.’
I kept asking my friend questions, amazed by his story. I loved it and wanted all the details. How many other kids? Did they have puppets from the film there, as well? What was David Bowie wearing? I imagined him in his lilac suit from Live Aid. Or maybe he was dressed as the Goblin King in lacy ruffles and cobwebs and glitter.
What was the last thing he said to you, when you had to say goodbye?
‘David Bowie said, ‘I’m always afraid as well. But this is how you can feel brave in the world.’ And then it was over. I’ve never forgotten it. And years later I cried when I heard he had passed.’
My friend was surprised I was delighted by this tale.
‘The normal reaction is: that’s just a stupid story. Fancy believing in an invisible mask.’
But I do. I really believe in it.
And it’s the best story I’ve heard all year.”
Less than a week later, the story was shared to Tor.com, titled “At Labyrinth Screening 30 Years Ago, David Bowie Helps a Little Boy With His ‘Invisible Mask.'” It began by once again crediting the tale to Magrs:
When people who portray or embody beloved characters show themselves to be heroic in everyday ways, it’s always inspiring. But sometimes the ways in which they’re heroic are particularly moving — like they were to the person who told this story about David Bowie at a Labyrinth screening 30 years back …
The story going around Tumblr was told by novelist Paul Magrs, who is relating an encounter told by his friend, an autistic man. Magrs begins by explaining that three decades ago, it was rare to find people who would freely use the term “autistic” (which his friend does), that growing up his friend was often simply called “shy” or “withdrawn.” He then puts forward the story that his friend told him of attending a Labyrinth screening where children got to meet the Goblin King himself[.]
A link to Magrs’ original version of the story was included. That link was since redirected, but a version of it published and archived on October 3 2017 is available here. The post itself appeared to have been reproduced in full in those subsequent iterations, beginning with ” … My friend told me a story he hadn’t told anyone for years.”
At some point in October 2019, Magrs replaced the content on the page with an update explaining that his original anecdote had gone viral and explaining that he’d written an “expanded version” of the story as a book after obtaining additional details from his unnamed friend:
Two winters ago I was told a story by a friend of mine. A true story, about an episode from his childhood he’d never mentioned before … It was story I knew that people would love: the tale of the shy, clever, autistic boy and how he met David Bowie, who was kind to him, and as magical as anyone could hope for. And who told him about the wearing of invisible masks…
I wrote a short piece about it and, within twenty minutes of posting it on my blog, it had gone viral. Somehow it had been noticed by people. David Bowie’s widow retweeted it with hearts, and so did his son. And then, suddenly, thousands and tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of fans were retweeting it. It made them remember how wonderful Bowie was: and they were pleased to hear that he was magical in real life, when you got as close to him as the character in my true-life story.
By the end of that day a huge number of people had read and shared that blog piece. Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman tweeted it at each other, almost simultaneously, and all their followers went on to read it … I had to write an expanded version because my friend – delighted and mystified by all the attention his memory was getting – had carried on talking to me, and he gave me further details … When I had my story finished ‘Stardust and Snow’ slotted perfectly into place as my title.
A separate blog reported that the book was due to be released some time in late 2019. On his blog post, Magrs said of Bowie as inspiration:
David Bowie is more than just a rock star – he’s a mythic figure. He’s a pagan spirit of midwinter in this story. He’s Jack Frost. He’s a beguiling Christmas Elf. He’s here and gone in a twinkling of a green wizard’s eye.
Magrs also tweeted about the book’s release in October 2017:
Two years ago i wrote this piece about Bowie, his invisible mask and an autistic boy. I so wanted to bring out a longer version as a Christmas book.This piece has been read and shared a lot – notably by @neilhimself https://t.co/hzxumrWJvf
— Paul Magrs (@paulmagrs) October 7, 2019
Another notable share of the Bowie story in October 2017 was a post to the forum MetaFilter. Some commenters relayed stories of similar encounters and experiences:
I saw a film of an exhibition of Bowie’s things, and one of the anecdotes was of Bowie walking through New York, no hat, no glasses. Asked by his companion why apparently no one was recognizing him, he said “Oh, I don’t have it turned on”. By way of proving a point, he turned it on, and was almost immediately recognized by groups of people. He was clearly a man of many different invisible masks.
A few participants were a little skeptical of the tale’s veracity:
Nice pat story. Nobody’s even a little suspicious?
Others suggested authenticity wasn’t the point of the story, positing it was “essentially true” by being in line with Bowie’s persona. However, the user allowed for the possibility the tale was “consciously made up”:
The things that you’re liable to read in the bible — they ain’t necessarily so.
People are stories just as much as they’re flesh, bone and blood. Bowie was a thousand stories. Sometimes it matters that the stories reflect a physical actuality as closely as possible — when I go to the doctor, I want the story she tells me to match my actual biology, and the things she makes happen should be on the basis of as much informed objectivity as we can muster. When I read Alice in Wonderland to my six year old son at bedtime, not so much. Stories we tell each other can be profoundly affecting and change our lives, and have not an ounce of ‘objective truth’ in them, and they can be extremely important nonetheless.
Realising this, when one is very invested in finding and telling the truth, can be very disconcerting. It’s certainly very important to know which sort of story you’re telling — or hearing — otherwise how can you tell the difference between a religion and a pack of lies?
In this case, whether Bowie was in that room with that kid, and whether the memory is ‘true’ or whether the story is consciously made up, who can tell? I believe it’s substantially true, because it’s so in keeping with much of Bowie’s life and behaviour, and if you don’t believe in the real effects of practical magic on real people you’ve no business reading books or watching movies. You certainly have no business with David Bowie, who was an intensely accomplished practical magician.
The air of the noosphere may not be made of oxygen and nitrogen, but it’s still safe to [breathe].
Another chimed in:
I heard a sermon by a rabbi once, about the story of the exodus from Egypt. His point was that it’s not as important whether the story is true. Rather, it’s more important what the story says about you.
Our search for information about the story traced immediately back to Magrs, who announced in 2019 that he had written an “expanded” novel about his friend’s experience. But we didn’t find any information about whether the friend in the viral anecdote had ever stepped forward after it became so popular (even, Magrs said, reaching and affecting Bowie’s widow Iman.)
It could be that the referenced friend was shy or disinterested in internet fame, but the possibility remained the friend didn’t exist as anything other than Magrs’ narrative device. As we have noted many times previously, a “friend of a friend” and ensuing proximity in stories is often a feature of urban legends and modern folklore:
[Urban legends typically] are too odd, too coincidental, and too neatly plotted to be accepted as literal truth in every place where they are told and localized. Such stories deal with familiar everyday matters like travel, shopping, pets, babysitting, crime, accidents, sex, business, government, and so forth. Although the stories are phrased as if factual and are often attached to a particular locality, urban legends are actually migratory, and, like all folklore, they exist in variant versions. Typically, urban legends are attributed to a friend-of-a-friend, and often their narrative structure sets up some kind of puzzling situation that is resolved by a sudden plot twist, at which point the story ends abruptly. I emphasize story throughout this informal definition; I am not including plotless rumors, gossip, bits of misinformation, etc. Although these materials share some of the same features as urban legends, they are not technically the same genre, even though a few such borderline cases do merit mention in some of my entries.
In October 2019, a Facebook user shared a story about David Bowie purportedly meeting a young autistic boy at a Labyrinth premiere in the 1980s. An individual named Paul Magrs originally told the story in early October 2017, and iterations were intermittently viral since; Neil Gaiman drew attention to the story on Tumblr that same month. Magrs claimed to have obtained additional information from his unnamed friend to turn the popular story into a December 2019 book.
However, whether the story is literally true or simply a creative ode to the popular conception of David Bowie remains unknown.