by Evan J Peterson
Tuesday will be our fifth night of SHRIEK: A Women of Horror Film and Discussion Class, located in the Scarecrow Video screening room. Last week, we filled nearly all seats for Alien. This week, we’ll watch Candyman, a gothic ghost story that moves the terror from a haunted castle to the place audiences dare not go: Cabrini Green, part of Chicago’s primarily black housing projects.
Stats on Candyman (1992)
Body count: Five people (perhaps two more in legend/flashback) plus one dog
Nudity: only female, and not played for sexiness
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Yes.
Major protagonist: female
Villains/Antagonists: several men
Major actors: Virginia Madsen, Kasi Lemmons, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley
Director: Bernard Rose
Writers: Bernard Rose (screenplay), Clive Barker (story)
Does it stick to the short story: It goes way beyond the story.
When I crowdsourced Facebook to pare my top ten list of potential films for SHRIEK down to eight, I was surprised at how many people would rather watch Candyman than Hellraiser (both based on Clive Barker’s work). I was leaning more toward Hellraiser due to protagonist Kirsty Cotton’s unflappable badassery over that of Candyman’s Helen Lyle, but Candyman offers us a whole different conversation than Hellraiser would.
Candyman is a curious artifact from the ‘90s. Adapted from Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” from his Books of Blood, the film similarly explores the urban legend come to life. It then goes way beyond the ending of the short story and takes us into largely unexplored territory, i.e., that of a strong Caucasian woman protagonist who is both menaced and romanced by an African-American killer/monster. Instead of exploiting and furthering the old ultra-racist and sexist media trope of the helpless white women being raped by wild black men, Candyman himself comes across as regal, restrained, and oddly likable. He is clearly coercive and emotionally abusive towards Helen, but actor Tony Todd brings the character an air of refinement and intellect that we rarely see among villains of the slasher genre. It’s a complicated interplay of race, class, and gender, and I do not propose that I have the definitive answers to the questions around how racism is disrupted and/or reinforced by the film. I’ll try my best to unpack it. I do know that the film is chock full of both social forethought and bloody gore, and it has lasted over twenty years as a story enjoyed by both white and black audiences.
Though made with a white gaze, the film doesn’t shy away from tackling the double-smack of racism and classism that Cabrini Green’s residents deal with. More importantly, it doesn’t throw a self-righteous pity party in which middle class white audiences get to feel badly about black poverty and then do nothing but go grab a latte and talk about how unfortunate it all is. The social messages are clearly there among the horror, but social justice isn’t the goal of the film.
One of the most interesting legacies of this film is the accusation that Barker and Rose coopted African American folklore and effectively stole the legend of the Candyman. In fact, the Candyman is a mostly-original character informed by the primarily white urban myths of Bloody Mary and Hook Hand. The film was so popular with black and white audiences that the Candyman has become American folklore, much as we’re seeing with the new legend of Slender Man.
Barker grew up in industrial working class Liverpool, where his original story is set. The Candyman film similarly takes Gothic storytelling out of the castle, the old dark house, and the decaying church and puts it where modern middle class audiences really fear to tread: the “bad” neighborhood, in this case black housing projects. In doing so, it expands the trope of the Gothic story and flips the classist nature of the old trope. The ghost/monster/murderer is not a resident of the Cabrini Green apartment buildings, but rather a phantom that feeds on that community’s collective suffering. The Candyman is the vengeful ghost of a lynched painter, an upper-class free black man whose enslaved father invented a shoemaking machine and who was murdered for falling in love with (and impregnating) a white woman. The Candyman, unlike Count Dracula, isn’t so much a reflection of the Gothic space itself but of the isolation and poverty experienced by the ordinary people who are the reflection of their Gothic space. He isn’t a personification of aristocratic decadence; he’s the personification of the fears of those decadent aristocrats as well as the working class they exploit. Nor is he stuck in Cabrini Green, unlike most haunted house phantoms. He follows you out into your own space.
Into this Gothic space march Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), the film’s primary (white) protagonist, and her fellow grad student and research partner Bernadette Walsh, who is black and appears similarly affluent. Interestingly, Bernadette vocalizes many of the middle-class fears of the housing project. The two of them seek academic respect and career-building opportunities as they investigate urban legends, those contemporary fairy tales that reflect fears of the cities and suburbs as opposed to the folk tales of rural communities. Candyman himself doesn’t actually appear until after Helen has exposed the youth gang using his legend to terrorize their neighbors. The sudden absence of the myth-at-work seems to create a psychological vacuum at Cabrini Green, and the ghost of the Candyman comes to fill that void and replace the fear.
From there, this black monster terrorizes the white protagonist as well as white and black minor characters. In my opinion, this film directly addresses and repurposes the nasty old trope of the white-woman-ravaging, beastly black man, making him someone both regal and very human, even in his undead state. The Candyman doesn’t seem to want to rape Helen; instead, he admires her, albeit in a fucked up way that includes trying to kill her so they can be united in death.
Tony Todd’s Candyman lingers as one of remarkably few African American monsters on film (not just the actors, but the characters played). Seventies Blaxploitation gives us a few, such as Blacula. A few ghost stories made primarily for black audiences, such as Bones and Beloved, give us others. Who else is there other than Wesley Snipes’ Blade, the vampire hunter, and Aaliyah as Akasha, the titular Queen of the Damned? Instead, what we have in cinema history are a long list of inhuman or semi-human monsters who are literally black in color (Darth Vader and the xenomorph of Alien, both of whom were played in body or voice by black actors), monsters who mimic black stereotypes (the dreadlocked and spear-carrying Predator, also played by a black actor, and the Uruk-Hai of Lord of the Rings), and African beasts like King Kong, who is nothing if not a metaphor for white anxiety over American slavery. The Candyman reigns as the most recognizable African-American monster played by a black actor, at least among the villains.
Helen Lyle, by contrast, is the Well-Meaning Academic White Lady trope. In another movie, she’d inspire and educate a group of inner city kids. But that’s not this movie. Helen deals with physical, psychological, and emotional battles throughout the film. As if having the undead and murderous Candyman after her and her friends wasn’t enough, she’s also married to a college professor who undermines her research and cheats on her with his student (sorry for the spoilers). This undermining of her research process comes quite early in the film, showing us that as a grad student and woman, she comes in second to her husband’s career. Shortly afterward, one of her husband’s male colleagues laughs in her face when she challenges the man’s academic authority over a niche topic. Bit by bit, the things important to Helen erode, leaving room for the ghost of Candyman to try convincing her to join him as an undead legend instead. Is this a sadomasochistic interracial supernatural romance?
On the subject of female agency (i.e., the power to act and create change in her own life as well as the world around her), the film is tricky. When we look at all the characters with essential speaking parts, we find that the men in the film are overwhelmingly arrogant and antagonistic, while the women are continually portrayed as either helpful, heroic, or at least neutral. Helen and Bernadette take the black female custodial staff of the college seriously as authorities on their neighborhood and its rumors. The two grad students are smart and empowered, yet at the mercy of the male characters. Things are usually happening to and at Helen and Bernadette, rather than their choices and actions leading to new opportunities. Then again, it’s not clear until the end whether the Candyman is indeed a murderous ghost or if he’s all in Helen’s head, making her the actual killer. How does her level of agency change when we see her as victim versus delusional killer? That’s not a spoiler, by the way—you’ll have to watch the film to see which she truly is, if either.
Virginia Madsen, who has a bee allergy, goes through extremes in her portrayal of Helen. She literally crawls through fire and gets covered in bees during the course of the film. While not an action hero, she’s certainly a tough heroine as Helen Lyle, and we’re going to spend some time with her this week.
Join us this Tuesday for SHRIEK: Candyman!
You can reserve your space in the class here.
Stay tuned for the November 17 session on David Cronenberg’s radical reinvention of The Fly!
The SHRIEK community film class is designed to offer everybody an affordable, accessible way to learn about film and women’s studies while enjoying kick-ass heroines in some of the best horror films ever made. We hope to inspire more women to get involved in film making, especially in the horror genre, where women are severely underrepresented behind the camera.
Check the Scarecrow calendars for the Tuesday night horror flicks during October and November.
Evan J Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.