In 1890, Daniel Robitaille was the educated son of a slave, who was welcomed by polite society as a talented artist. He falls in love and impregnates the subject of one of his portraits – the daughter of a white aristocrat – and is severely punished for stepping outside society’s boundaries. The punishment? His hand sawn off with a rusty blade, being smeared with honey and stung by bees till his death.
Candyman’s origin comes from a nation’s history of racism and cruelty to African Americans, and the Southern fear of the mixing of races. Slasher films often concern the disobedience or crime of the past, setting up the eventual resurrection of the one who has been wronged.
In present day America, Candyman also depicts visually the effect of forbidding the mixing of races, on an entire population. On Chicago’s north side, existed (it has since been demolished) a notorious housing development that was known as Cabrini-Green. An urban centre which at its height housed some 15,000 people, the majority of which were poor black people living in squalor. Although the original vision for Cabrini-Green was to contribute to urban renewal, “white flight” in the 1970s left it a predominantly black neighbourhood suffering from terrible violence, vandalism and living conditions. An area where the police do not patrol, Cabrini-Green develops its own specific mythology in Candyman, to add to the woes of the already-suffering populace. According to legend, Robitaille’s ashes were scattered across the area where Cabrini-Green now sits, and his spirit haunts the bleak, graffiti-covered home of his descendants.
The legend of Candyman is a warning to black children not to misbehave – what happens to black men when they step outside their boundaries in American society. To white society, the legend of Candyman represents an overwhelming subconscious fear of black culture, and a reminder of how slavery still haunts parts of the country long after its abolishment. Candyman is the ghost of an unjust past resurrected as rumour in the present, given weight by those who believe in him. Candyman is a boogeyman like Freddy Kruger, but he does not exist in the world of nightmares, but rather in the belief of his followers. He refers to them as his “flock” and wants to gain more believers and victims in equal parts. Here, the urban legend becomes real because people believe in the Candyman story. He describes himself as “the writing (graffiti?) on the wall” and “the whisper in the classroom.”
Why We Heart: Candyman
By Andreas Charalambous - 25th January 2015
Putting the “urban” in urban legend, Candyman is a unique film set in a public housing development in Chicago. One of my favourite modern horror actors – Tony Todd – plays the majestic boogeyman of which the film gets its title. Against the backdrop of race issues in 1990s America, this film is an exploration of myth – and the stages of its origin, distribution and interpretation thereof – as it circulates across a variety of boundaries such as class, gender and race in Chicago.
Not your typical horror fare, Candyman straddles the supernatural, the horrors of racism, and poverty and segregation of modern times.
Loosely-based on The Forbidden – a story from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, Candyman concerns in large part the history of African Americans in the United States.
Similar to the “Bloody Mary” urban legend, Candyman can be summoned by calling out his name five times while looking into a mirror.
Whilst investigating the Candyman legend, grad student Helen Lyle – a white American - grows to believe in it, and finds herself being held responsible for his murders. In one particular scene, she quite literally crosses over when she crawls through a tunnel in Cabrini-Green and finds herself in a room full of graffiti – including the artistic portrait of a screaming black man, from whose mouth she literally crawls out of. Symbolically representing his voice and the next stage of his existence.
The murder scenes are fittingly gory – the goriest being when Candyman guts Helen’s therapist using the rusty hook that is in place of his hand that was sawn off in the racially motivated fatal attack.
As would be expected, Candyman does have an Achilles heel, in that his victims must believe in him. His seduction of Helen mirrors the seduction that ultimately proved fatal for him in 1890, but he goes further in that he seduces her to believe in him – thus ensuring he continues to exist in the physical form. Unfortunately for Helen, Candyman requires not only her belief, but also her death so that her belief can be transmitted to others also. He tells her, “Your death will be a tale to frighten children”.
Beautifully shot, Candyman has strangely hypnotic qualities. It also gives the horror genre one of its most sophisticated boogeymen – and one which I personally think is not given the recognition that is deserved. In a time when leading genre boogeymen were the wise-cracking Freddy Kruger and the killer doll Chucky, never before has a boogeyman been created to symbolise so much within culture, be it white or black. He serves as both the symbol of white guilt and a warning to black men.