Sweet & Sour Nightmares: Race and Exploitation in the Original ‘Candyman’

Horror stories began as fables meant to warn us of life’s dangers, or a means to confront that which scares us most. As a modern fable, 1992’s Candyman is among the most effective. What at first seems to be a straightforward supernatural slasher film instead manages to weave its thrills with a powerful dose of social commentary dealing with themes of poverty, classism and racism to make it just as, if not more relevant than when it first came out.

The Legend’s Origins

Candyman was a creation of horror heavyweight Clive Barker, best known for the Hellraiser series. The titular Candyman first appeared in Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden, which was heavily influenced by the urban folklore that Barker heard as a child. The original story was set in Liverpool, England around where Barker grew up. For the adaptation, writer/director Bernard Rose sought to transfer the story to the urban landscape of Chicago, with the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects as ground zero. It was this decision that added extra dimensions of poverty, racism, and how the two perpetuate themselves to victimize some of America’s most vulnerable citizens.

Though often bundled with the genre, the final film really isn’t a slasher. Instead, Candyman falls into the classic Hitchcockian archetype of the wrongly accused. In the film, Virginia Madsen (best known for David Lynch’s ill-fated Dune adaptation) plays Helen Lyle, an ambitious college graduate using the Candyman legend as the basis for her college thesis. Her topic? How people use folklore to process the horrors of the real world. After delving into the poverty-ridden housing projects Cabrini-Green, she encounters the ghostly specter of Candyman (Tony Todd) who frames her for a series of grisly crimes, intent on turning her into his next victim.

A World of Mirrors

Helen and Bernadette explore Cabrini-Green. [Copyright: TriStar]

Everyone knows the basic myth of Candyman. If you say his name five times before a mirror, he will appear and kill you. The motif of mirrors and reflections is recurring throughout the film, not just in the literal sense, but also with Helen’s life and the legend of the Candyman itself. One such moment occurs early in the film. While investigating one of the murders at Cabrini-Green, Helen discovers that her own apartment building is made from an identical floor plan to the housing project. She learns it was originally intended as a project, but was updated to a luxury apartment when developers felt it was in too nice of an area. She uses this to learn the layout of Cabrini Green, which when she enters it, is only different on a surface level from her own world.

The opening scene of the film is a retelling of the urban legend, where an upper-class high school student was supposedly killed in the suburbs after summoning the Candyman. The scene, most likely untrue, is relatively low on atmosphere and does little to set the tone of the film. Once Helen enters Cabrini-Green, the legend of Candyman becomes far more sinister. While here, Helen hears the horrific stories of a woman who was butchered in her bathroom in spite of multiple calls to the police, and worse, the horrific castration/murder of a child with down syndrome. These truly gut-wrenching tales are in sharp contrast to the comfortable, even charming little horror story that opens the film, and are further examples of the mirror world Helen has entered. The real stories of Candyman are not fun.

Helen is attacked by the false Candyman. [Copyright: Tristar. ]

One of the most significant mirror images in the film is the false Candyman which closes out the first third of the film. While at Cabrini-Green, Helen is attacked by a gang leader who had been using the legend of Candyman to bolster his reputation. She survives the attack and the gang leader is apprehended. Helen assures a young boy who believed the legend that Candyman was nothing more than a legend this gang had started to frighten Cabrini-Green’s residents. It is this act of diminishing the legend that ends up summoning Candyman for real, setting the stage for the rest of the film.

Who, or What, is Candyman?

In the original series, Candyman is apparently the ghost of a man named Daniel Robitaille, a freed black man and artist living in the 19th century. Robitaille, highly sought after for his talents, was hired to paint a portrait of a wealthy white landowner’s daughter. When the daughter fell in love with Robitaille and became pregnant with his child, her father orchestrated the artist’s brutal lynching. An angry mob sawed off Robitaille’s hand before covering him in honey, which enticed a swarm of bees to sting him to death.

Now, consider the circumstances of Robitaille’s death. If he were simply the ghost of Robitaille, as the first sequels present him, wouldn’t it make more sense for him to protect the people of Cabrini-Green from the suffering he endured? Yet this is not the case. For his victims, Candyman primarily targets poor black families, dealing out violence just as horrific as that suffered by Robitaille. This only makes sense if Candyman is not a ghost, but rather the story of Candyman itself taking on a life of its own.

Candyman confronts Helen in the parking garage. [Copyright: TriStar]

Similar to Freddy Krueger or Pennywise, Candyman requires the fear of what he calls his ‘congregation’ to sustain himself. When Helen and friend Bernadette first try to summon Candyman, he does not appear. It’s only after the gang leader is arrested and Helen dispels the stories that Candyman finally appears, intent on using Helen to bolster his legend. Candyman repeatedly states that he is a story, and that to live as a story to frighten children is ‘a blessed condition.’ But on top of being a story, Candyman may also be something far worse. He may not just be a story trying to keep itself alive, but the actual spirit of Robitaille’s murder, and all the hate that came with it.

If Candyman is not the spirit of Robitaille but a strange manifestation of his lynching, then his actions make a lot more sense. He remains passive for the early parts of the film, heard about only through innuendo. Here, the world is how he wants it. Cabrini-Green’s residents are stuck in the housing project, leaving him free to subject them to violence so he may feed on their fear and suffering. This only changes when the gang leader is removed from the neighborhood. Not only is Candyman’s legend discredited, but an agent of oppression is now gone, leaving the residents free of Candyman. Now with the gang out of Cabrini-Green, Candyman takes it upon himself to act as an oppressor.

Candyman vomits bees on Helen, an example of the violence suffered by Robitaille made physical. [Copyright: TriStar]

Much of his violence after this point is directed at African Americans who either show promise, or have already found success. There is of course Helen’s friend Bernadette, an intelligent college graduate at the start of a promising career. More significant is Candyman’s targeting of the McCoy family. Candyman abducts the infant Anthony McCoy, whose mother was adamant that he wouldn’t fall in with drugs and violence. Anthony is someone with a real chance to escape from Cabrini-Green, and Candyman is making sure he dies there. Rather than the spirit of an unjustly murdered man, Candyman instead perpetuates the violence of Robitaille’s murder, passing it on from one generation to the next as a means to keep Cabrini-Green’s residents right where he wants them.

Helen Lyle: Redeemed Exploiter

Helen Lyle listens to the story of Candyman. [Copyright: TriStar]

The main character of Helen Lyle is one of the more interesting aspects of the film as she is one of the less sympathetic leads in horror cinema. While researching her thesis, she shows no real compassion for the victims at Cabrini-Green, having no more connection with them than to the stories she’d already heard. Bernadette repeatedly criticizes her for her lack of caring during their initial visit to the project. The uncomfortable truth is Helen and Candyman are both using Cabrini-Green’s people for similar purposes, Candyman to bolster his legend, and Helen to bolster her academic reputation. In this world of mirrors, Helen is a reflection of the monster. In confronting Candyman, Helen is forced to truly enter Cabrini-Green not as an outside observer but as a participant.

Candyman’s first attack on Helen is not a physical one. Rather, he strips her of her status. Candyman doesn’t just kidnap Anthony and murder Bernadette, but he also frames Helen for the crimes. Suddenly, the people that someone of Helen’s status would have considered allies, like the police, for instance, become enemies and oppressors, with each murder leaving Helen more oppressed and isolated. The end result is Helen becomes completely cut off from her remaining family and friends, leaving her just as isolated as the community she sought t exploit. Candyman doesn’t just drive Helen nearly out of her mind, but immerses her in his world that he’s made for his victims, trapping her in the maze of Cabrini-Green.

Candyman holds Helen captive in the bonfire. [Credit: TriStar]

Helen has two goals from this point on. One is to clear her name and regain her status, and the other is to save Anthony McCoy. As the film progresses, it soon becomes clear that Helen must choose. Anthony isn’t just a kidnapped child, but a symbol of Cabrini-Green’s potential for greatness. Candyman, as a manifestation of the cycle of violence and oppression suffered by many people of color, seeks to destroy that promise. Helen, as a person of status and privilege, has the power to break that cycle, but in doing so must sacrifice her status, and her life. In the film’s finale, Candyman attempts to stage the deaths of both Helen and Anthony, trapping them in a bonfire intent on burning both of them to death. Instead, Helen struggles through the flames, burning to death, but saving Anthony’s life and breaking the cycle of violence.

Helen rescues Anthony McCoy from the flames. [Copyright: TriStar]

By the film’s end, only Cabrini-Green’s residents see Helen as vindicated, with only them witnessing her rescue of Anthony McCoy and the specter of the Candyman in the flames. They end up attending her funeral, laying on her casket the only proof of her innocence; the Candyman’s blood-soaked hook. In the eyes of her friends and family, Helen is exiled. They believe her a monster, banishing her from her white world of status and privilege even in death. Their final insult is the worst of all, with their beliefs of her guilt ultimately causing her to become the new face of the Candyman. Helen’s unfaithful husband, perhaps the most convinced of her guilt, becomes the first to summon this new Candyman, and the first victim in a new cycle of murders.

Sweet and Sour

The greater nuances of the original Candyman were lost in its first two sequels, but later recaptured in Nia DaCosta’s latest entry, which expands on the idea of Candyman as an entity with multiple faces symbolizing the despair of the impoverished and oppressed. Horror as a genre has the power to examine many issues in contemporary society far more creatively than simple straightforward examination. Be it corporate greed in Alien, societal breakdown in The Thing, or folklore and racism in Candyman, sometimes the easiest way to look at life’s real horrors is through the lens of imagination.

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