Racists of every stripe have been telling Americans that they should be afraid of black men for as long as there’s been an America. It took a 1992 horror movie, however, to the turn the embodiment of that fear-mongering into a literal bogeyman that appears out of nowhere to violently murder people. Candyman — written and directed by Bernard Rose, adapted from Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” (and coming out in a new Blu-Ray edition on November 20th) — sics an undead son of a former slave on a white woman, who finds herself fascinated by what she’s supposed to be afraid of. And their relationship gives viewers a bizarre tour of the harsh reality that results when stereotypes applied to black people are believed en masse.
We hear the title character’s voice long before we ever see him on screen, but the film’s real focus is on University of Illinois graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen). Helen and her best friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are conducting research into urban legends, which leads her to stories of a mythical serial killer named Candyman. Her pursuit of the phenomena takes her into Chicago’s infamous crime-ridden Cabrini-Green housing projects, where she’s met with hostility and distrust by the residents who tell her more stories about the hook-handed killer. Scoffing at first, she investigates the legend and the killings — and she learns that Candyman is indeed real. Worse, he stalks her to the brink of madness and commits more murders that she gets arrested and institutionalized for.
Early on, the movie seeds the idea of deep, hidden connections between America’s ugly racist history and contemporary urban blight and crime. Candyman’s origin story begins when he was still alive, the son of a slave who got rich in industry. He was well-educated, came up in polite society and eventually became a talented artist who did portraits of fellow elites. But when he fell in love with the daughter of a well-off landowner who became pregnant, her father hired hooligans to cut off his hand. After smearing his body with honey so he was stung to death by bees, the hired brutes burned Candyman on a pyre and scattered his ashes all over Cabrini-Green. The fantastical gore differentiates it from the kind of extra-judicial killings that we’re used to hearing about. But it’s a lynching nonetheless.
Yet, despite his tragic death, the audience is not directed to be sympathetic towards this character. We never learn his real name in the movie. He’s only concerned with perpetuating his own undead existence through horrifying means. He’s more useful as a monster than as a human, a political calculus that’s infected America from the start. This callousness is just one of many dissonant elements throbbing under Candyman’s exposed ribcage, spotlighting how folklore by black people — and folklore about black people — have often been at odds. White hegemony has made it so that the morbid whispers of the latter category can multiply in force until commonly accepted, ultimately becoming powerful enough to permanently imprint on a nation’s psyche.
Helen’s symbiotic relationship with the killer knowingly draws on the way that white women in peril have been used to demonize black men in America, a tradition stretching all the way back to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Candyman tells the tragic tale of the unjust death of an 19th-century black man … and then presents that same black man as a supernatural monster. No one helped Candyman when he was being chased through Cabrini-Green after daring to impregnate a white woman. A century later, he’s getting revenge for his own murder at the hands of the white ruling class, shaping this grad student in his own image and making it so no one will want to help her.
Rose’s screenplay acknowledges that, too, since Candyman’s sole motivation for killing is his continued existence as an immortal bogeyman. “I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom,” he says to Helen. “Without these things, I am nothing. So now I must shed innocent blood. Come with me.” Later, he drives the point home again: “I am rumor. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people’s dreams but not to have to be.”
I first saw Candyman in the theater during college, with a group of friends. I’d read some Stephen King in high school but I didn’t identify as a big horror fan. And, though the group of friends I went with was almost entirely black, the reason we went to see movie wasn’t because it was built around a black occult figure. As best as I can recall, the reason we wanted to see the movie was to see if it could summon superstitious dread en masse. We all remembered from hearing about “Bloody Mary” during our elementary school days and wanted to see if we’d grown past it. Or, if we all got scared shitless in a movie theater along with a bunch of strangers, there had to be something to the primal conceit of this boogeyman story, right?
That was then. It’s weird to watch Candyman in 2018, when Chicago gets trotted out as a charnel-house cautionary tale that’s the exemplar of everything that’s wrong about black inner cities in America. The racism that got this character killed in 1890 is the same one that powered chattel slavery, as well as the prejudices and stereotypes that led 20th-century political scholars to cook up the term “superpredator.” The most discomfiting thing about the film is how its title character relishes his role as a malevolent immortal. We don’t know if he was a decent man in his past life and are left to wonder if it was the circumstances of his death that turned him evil.
At the beginning of the movie, Helen’s self-satisfied professor husband Trevor ends a lecture by saying that stories about giant albino sewer alligators are “modern oral folklore … the unselfconscious reflection of the fears of urban society.” After she dies and comes back as a bogeywoman, Helen exists as manifestations of those fears: A white woman going where she shouldn’t, haunted by a black man who died for doing the same thing. Helen and Candyman are the demonic answers to the unspoken question rumbling inside the movie: What happens when people only want to believe the worst about you? He tells Helen “our names will be written on a thousand walls, our crimes told and retold by our faithful believers.” In a political climate where fear and stereotypes are tearing America’s psyche to shreds, Candyman is scarier than ever because it reveals how deftly we can damn each other. That’s genuinely terrifying no matter how many times you say it into a mirror.