Vengeful Binge

‘Candyman’ and the genesis of a haunting


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.

Tony Todd (left) holds onto Virginia Madsen (right) in a scene from the film Candyman in 1992.

TriStar/Getty Images

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.”

Visually, it’s nearly impossible to separate fear of Candyman from fear of Blackness itself.

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.

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…


Read More:‘Candyman’ and the genesis of a haunting