‘Candyman’ and the genesis of a haunting
‘Be my victim’ in 1992 becomes ‘Tell everyone’ in 2021 — the creation of a vengeful, American spirit
The 1992 movie Candyman is arguably one of Hollywood’s scariest films. I’m one of the untold numbers of fans who have been afraid to say his name in a mirror five times – or even if there isn’t a mirror, just in case. If you saw the original film, that’s just plain common sense.
Nia DaCosta’s sequel, which reclaims the Candyman myth from monster to avenging angel, had an unlikely journey from its source material. And its reclamation is a valuable lesson to other creators on how to address Black trauma.
Adapted from the short story The Forbidden by Clive Barker, 1992’s Candyman is about a white graduate student (Virginia Madsen) named Helen who is investigating urban legends when she becomes the object of obsession of a Black monster haunting former Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green, summoned by saying his name five times in a mirror. (The original film, directed by Bernard Rose in a script co-credited with Barker, also spawned two sequels, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh in 1995 and Candyman 3: Day of the Dead in 1999.)
“Candyman was real,” Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Watchmen), the lead of 2021’s updated Candyman, told me in an interview for Fangoria in 2020. “That’s how it was to me. I grew up in the projects, so Candyman was the monster that was in the projects, in terms of Jason and Freddy Krueger, who would come in your dreams.”
Tony Todd, who held the title role in the original film, known for his gravel-voiced line “Be my victim,” says he has been told by fans of all races how much he scared them, but Black fans particularly appreciated his power.
“Young Black people … feel that Candyman is someone cinematically who triumphs. I always get the ‘Right on!’ ” Todd told me in a 2018 interview for my online Black horror course, The Sunken Place. “Aside from the horror, aside from the slashing, aside from the interracial love story, Candyman was a man with his own purposes, his own identity. … He was fine until he fell in love with someone of the opposite race. And that’s the genesis of our film.”
But the Candyman franchise has a mixed legacy, and the original film’s deeply stereotypical depiction of Black inner-city life has not aged well — especially with Candyman in pursuit of a blond white woman. Visually, it’s nearly impossible to separate fear of Candyman from fear of Blackness itself.
This week, Monkeypaw Productions/Universal Pictures releases a new Candyman, a “spiritual sequel,” it’s being called, in which DaCosta brings her sharp sensibility to a script she co-wrote with Oscar winner Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld.
The new Candyman retains the scares of the 1992 film while offering a radical reimagining that is part love letter, part rebuke. DaCosta eschews the focus on Helen and reclaims Candyman’s Blackness — as well as the ghost of a now-gentrified Cabrini-Green area — as more than a backdrop meant to inspire white terror. The original Candyman, with its emphasis on Black criminality, feels branded by the tough-on-crime era of the ’90s. It was released just two years before the controversial 1994 Clinton Crime Bill and its punitive mindset.
DaCosta’s sequel, by contrast, feels shaped by 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. A major character is even named Brianna, mirroring Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot and killed by Louisville, Kentucky, police executing a no-knock warrant. Delayed by the pandemic, the new Candyman originally was set to premiere in June 2020, which would have meant a release in the thick of national uprisings against police violence.
In the new Candyman, sometimes a scream isn’t a scream of fright — it’s a scream of power.
Kinitra Brooks, co-editor of the Black horror anthology Sycorax’s Daughters, says that she was so frightened by the original film that it “scarred” her. “I found it unsettling, the act of conjuring up such a dangerous and deadly spirit. Also how working-class Black folks were continuously not believed throughout the whole film,” said Brooks, a professor at Michigan State University. “We have our own stories and our own legends for a reason … and they have power. That power should never be ignored or disrespected – and those ideas went beyond the literal film itself for me: the power of Black folks’ lore. And the conjuring power of Black words.”
Like Monkeypaw’s previous horror films Get Out and Us (both directed by Peele), the new Candyman is Black horror – storytelling through a Black lens. For this alone, the new Candyman could hardly be more different from its predecessor.
“Horror is the purposeful, controlled trafficking in trauma, often with the goal of catharsis or a purging of the most harmful effects of that trauma,” said Brooks. “DaCosta is willfully and cleverly pushing back against the false narrative that Black horror is Black trauma porn.”
In many ways, the original Candyman is a faithful adaptation of Barker’s The Forbidden, which was about a researcher, Helen, who is exploring a Liverpool, England, housing project when she rouses the spirit of a monster named Candyman. Rose’s film adaptation with Barker retains Helen’s entitlement as she investigates the projects like an “anthropologist” only a few years after Liverpool’s 1981 Toxteth riots (which, ironically, reflected tensions between police and Black residents, sparked by a Black man’s arrest).
The 1992 film also captures striking visuals from the short story, including the iconic image of a terrifying open mouth painted on the wall and the phrase “Sweets to the Sweet.”
But 1992’s Candyman did something the short story did not — it inserted Blackness. Despite the Toxteth riots, The Forbidden doesn’t emphasize racial differences. The mural of Candyman depicts “skin the color of buttermilk” and the monster himself is described as having “flesh a waxy yellow, his thin lips pale blue.”
In adapting Barker’s story for Hollywood, Rose transplanted Candyman to the United States and infused his monster’s origin story with U.S. racial history: Candyman became a Black artist, Daniel Robitaille, who was a victim of lynching after he fell in love with a white woman. And the cinematic Candyman haunts an all-Black housing project: Chicago’s Cabrini-Green.
Rose additionally modifies urban legends such as “Bloody Mary” and references a true-life 1980s killing in another Chicago housing project: a woman named Ruthie Mae McCoy was slain by a killer who entered her apartment by removing her bathroom mirror.
The film adaptation preserves the story as Helen’s, so although Candyman is rife with images of Black trauma – from violence to poverty to Helen’s insights into housing discrimination – it’s Black trauma told from a casually curious distance, seen through, and intended for, a white gaze.
In her book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, Robin R. Means Coleman argues that the original Candyman is not Black horror, but a subgenre she describes as “Blacks in horror” – Black faces in storytelling that does not center them.
DaCosta’s Candyman is unapologetic Black horror. Not only are the protagonists Black, but the film’s scares are rooted in the true-life horrors that African Americans have suffered either personally or generationally, or often both.
Displacement. Police violence. Loss of agency. Erasure.
“What we do in our film is talk about the ghosts that are left behind because of gentrification, in particular at Cabrini-Green,” DaCosta said at a news conference in February 2020. “And that’s how we find our way into our reimagining of Candyman.” (DaCosta, who is now directing The Marvels – she is the first Black woman to direct a Marvel movie – was previously known for writing and directing a crime thriller, Little Woods, starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James.)
Her new Candyman’s emphasis on gentrification, memory, history, mental health, the role of the Black artist in white spaces, and historical police violence digs much more deeply into the ramifications of the backstory that birthed Candyman.
In the new Candyman, a burgeoning Black artist, Anthony, tries to find inspiration for his work in the largely vanished Cabrini-Green. He grows obsessed with griot William’s story of a police killing William witnessed in childhood and the legend of Candyman, growing more unstable as Candyman is resurrected and resumes a killing spree … as if Anthony’s art became Candyman’s portal to stalk again.
But that’s only where this story begins. Rather than the warning never to say Candyman’s name, one of the most enduring aspects of the original, audience members are now encouraged to “Say it” and “Tell everyone.”
Although many Black fans, including me, loved the original Candyman, it doesn’t feel intended for us. Rose’s film created a Black best friend, Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), to help mitigate the more awkward aspects of Helen’s explorations of Cabrini-Green. But Bernadette’s dialogue at times sounds like a mouthpiece for white viewers encountering the Other (“Jesus, it stinks!”), and she is ultimately a sacrifice to ratchet up the stakes for Helen.
Helen is attacked by Black male thugs in a public restroom with “Sweets to the Sweet” written in what looks like feces on the wall. It’s a one-dimensional portrait of Black life that creates a second “monster” that DaCosta’s sequel goes to pains to redress – Cabrini-Green itself.
In DaCosta’s Candyman, Anthony and his curator girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), have moved into a newly gentrified neighborhood in Chicago while he struggles to appeal to the sensibilities of a white gallery owner who wants to showcase “The Great Black Hope of the Chicago art scene.”
“Anthony is a gentrifier,” said star Abdul-Mateen, who also appeared in Peele’s Us. “This story is about identity, because it’s a story about who belongs and who doesn’t belong. As an outsider, when we come into those communities, there are repercussions to how we interact with those spaces and how we impose ourselves upon those spaces.”
In the new film, the legend of Candyman has been largely forgotten, and so has the community built almost literally from Cabrini-Green’s bones. The character of William (Colman Domingo) is a self-designated keeper of the stories who becomes consumed by his role as a griot.
And the true-life Cabrini-Green had many stories to tell.
“Cabrini-Green, despite its challenges, was a community. Networks of relationships saved many lives,” said Ytasha Womack, a Chicago-based artist and scholar who covered public housing as a journalist. She’s also the author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.
Womack points out that Cabrini-Green was fabled long before Candyman: It was the setting for Norman Lear’s 1970s sitcom Good Times, starring John Amos and Esther Rolle (and a young Janet Jackson), and the film Cooley High (1975). Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens were more sprawling and troubled, Womack says, but Cabrini-Green was more visible to tourists and adjacent to wealth.
“One could literally stroll from one world of old money wealth to another of urban poverty within a two-minute walk,” said Womack.
And its residents, Womack said, were “wholeheartedly abandoned.”
“Cabrini, like most projects, was filled with working people whose ambitions weren’t supported,” Womack said. “They were guilted for where they lived and underserviced as if they didn’t deserve basic treatment because of their color and income. The buildings were not maintained. They had serious electrical issues. Elevators rarely worked. The place was a heat trap. Holes could easily be created in the walls and there just wasn’t the staff to do repairs. Residents wound up doing ad hoc repairs themselves and did their best to turn their home into an oasis.”
Womack said that when its buildings were about to be torn down in the early 2000s, “many Cabrini-Green residents aligned with organizations and fought valiantly to be able to stay in the neighborhood. They saw new development happening around them and they wanted to be a part of it. There was a great deal of activism there. Some of the mixed-income housing that was created after the projects were torn down are a testament to their fight.”
But scores of residents, some of whom had lived there for generations and felt pride in “The Greens,” were scattered to other substandard housing far from the community they had known.
The updated Candyman resides in the hole left by this mass relocation.
Forgotten families. Forgotten stories. Forgotten injustices.
A forgotten monster.
And something new rising in his place.
DaCosta’s Candyman is set in the world of Black art, often posing questions about the role of the artist in community, in white spaces or in our own imaginations. Discussions about the power and limitations of Black artists feel especially relevant to the moment in history that has created the new Candyman.
With this third horror film from the company Peele founded, a Monkeypaw methodology seems more apparent in its approach to horror: centering Black characters and experiences (even when, like Us, the story is not overtly about race), considering big questions sewn in beneath the entertainment, and avoiding images of bloody violence against Black people.
Which isn’t to say that Candyman isn’t violent. Of course it is – it’s Candyman. And DaCosta isn’t shy about leaning into body horror reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
But DaCosta’s direction, like Peele’s, avoids the casual violence inflicted on Black characters that might usually be found in a slasher film, particularly violence by racists. Instead, DaCosta uses elegant shadow puppetry, closed doors, reflections and oblique angles to spare audiences of images that might feel too close to daily headlines, or daily life.
“Her use of shadow puppets, reflections and mirrors to provide emotional removal for the viewer impacted me greatly,” said Brooks. “I also loved the pointed removal of Candyman’s unnatural obsession with white womanhood while still remaining true to the legend of Helen and her place in the Candyman lore. The story became about Candyman himself.”
And, of course, there’s the meaning behind the mirror.
To artist and scholar John Jennings, who teaches Black horror at the University of California at Riverside, the mirrors in the new Candyman bring to mind Perseus, the character from Greek mythology who kills Medusa by using a mirrored shield.
“DaCosta uses this idea of looking out the corner of our eyes at racism and trauma,” Jennings said. “She uses reflections, shadows, nuance, dread and the power of atmosphere to talk about trauma without truly showing too much. Why? Because too much overtakes the audience and gives us a gory opulent thing to see that disengages us from the content and context – and that’s where meaning truly lies.”