The Legacy of Urban Myth and Dismantling White Privilege in 1992’s ‘Candyman’

Although he had been a highly promoted name in Fangoria from the debut of The Books of Blood, Clive Barker found true cinematic success with his directorial debut, Hellraiser. That film helped to launch him as a burgeoning horror icon, along with the career-making Stephen King quote, “I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker.” That led to bigger and bigger movies. Nightbreed was a massive production compared to Hellraiser, even though it was largely unsuccessful at the time. Only a few years into his career, Barker found himself taking a producer role more and more frequently when it came to adaptations of his stories. Because he wanted to do something different with Nightbreed, he elected to produce instead of direct Hellraiser II. But the first time he produced an adaptation from one of his own stories turned out to be one of the best—if not the very best—horror films of the 1990s, with Candyman.

The now iconic film is based on Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” which appeared in In the Flesh, as it was titled in the US. The original story isn’t unrecognizable from the adaptation, though there are major differences. It’s still about a woman exploring a low income community, finding the story behind the decay, it’s a story that plays with urban myth and the nature of oral storytelling in general, and the concept of stories not only coming to life but also being their own form of immortality. Essentially, the story is the same. But this is what makes Candyman such a perfect adaptation and truly what cemented Barker as an exceptional producer. He felt no ownership of it because he trusted Bernard Rose to have a brilliant take, and he did. None of Barker’s story is really sacrificed, but it’s reinterpreted in such a powerfully impressive way.

First and foremost there is, obviously, the change in setting. Changing the setting of a story seems small, but it can be drastic. A new setting can cause a story to take on an entirely different meaning and that’s exactly what it does. “The Forbidden” is set in the British slums, mostly navigating graffiti. It’s still somewhat of a fish out of water story of Helen stepping into an area where she is clearly out of place, but that’s mostly tied to wealth and particularly education. She’s a college woman in an area where everyone is naturally suspicious of her.

Candyman, the film, changes that setting to the Chicago ghetto. Particularly, Cabrini Green. With that one change, the story becomes racial no matter how you slice it. It was smart of Bernard Rose, with Clive Barker’s complete support, to lean into that and let that story shift into the story of an upper class, educated, privileged white woman who walks into a Black neighborhood with zero understanding of that neighborhood’s experience. She’s a white grad student married to a white professor, she lives in a great apartment, she goes out to fancy dinners, she has a Black best friend, but that’s not nearly the same thing as understanding the experience.

At the same time, there is an issue of perspective that should be addressed. For one thing, no matter the intent, which I think is important to stress, Candyman still embodies the very old trope of a Black man as the monster preying on a white woman. There is also the fact that Candyman is telling a story about a neighborhood without telling a story about the people in that neighborhood. They are peripheral to the central white woman’s journey. These things are there. These are inherent flaws in the film’s perspective that cannot and should not be overlooked and I think it is important to recognize them. Everything the film does well, it does incredibly well, but the perspective is still flawed, even when it’s executed as strongly as can be. I think it’s an important and refreshing reminder to acknowledge that a movie can not only be good, but be one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and still grapple with that problematic POV.

In the film, instead of studying graffiti as she does in the story, Helen is studying urban legends. Which in their own way are a kind of regional folklore. Urban legends are as crucial to the backbone of Candyman as anything else in the narrative. They’re not simply a backdrop. The Candyman is himself an obvious reimagining of Bloody Mary, as well as the classic myth of “The Hook.” The movie is also about the way legends spread, about the way people believe them, about why we tell these kinds of stories. And it is integral to Helen’s journey, there’s no split between the two, which is obvious by the movie’s end. She doesn’t, herself, understand the nature of urban mythology. She doesn’t get it. And the process for her to reach that understanding is not only by encountering one of these legends in the flesh, but by ultimately becoming one herself. Helen is going into these neighborhoods with nothing but skepticism. In fact, it’s her staunch refusal to believe that brings Candyman to single her out in the first place. She is a great heroine, but she does look down on these people, even if it’s in an unintentional way. More than that, though, maybe the defining point of her character in the first act is that she just cannot believe the actual danger that she’s in. It’s like it’s not real to her, because she has no frame of reference to understand it. And that speaks to both her inability to understand the legends and her inability to understand Cabrini Green and the people within it. That’s so clearly not the world that Helen comes from. Even the idea of going to Cabrini Green, dangerous as she knows it is in theory, appears to be an adventure for her.

And it’s not that Helen’s simply naïve. She’s incredibly ambitious and not without her own struggles. The amount of work she has to put in to gain the slightest recognition from her male peers—even her husband—is made very clear, especially during the dinner scene in which “expert” Purcell pretty much berates her for her lack of knowledge on the Candyman. That’s kind of a nice reminder that many academic types are still just a keyboard away from Twitter trolls huffing “Debate me” at any woman who seems to show a passion for something.

But that still doesn’t mean that Helen has the slightest clue what she’s actually getting into when she goes to investigate Cabrini Green, opening herself up to the Candyman, however inadvertently. And what the Candyman does, rather than simply kill or torment her, is to essentially teach her that. That’s ultimately what Candyman is about. Helen is a woman who, for all her great intentions, is kind of defined by privilege until her first encounter with the Candyman. And immediately after that, everything changes. Immediately.

Helen is charged with murder just for being found at the scene, the police arrest her on sight, nobody believes her innocence, she loses her great apartment, her credibility, her place within the university, she loses all of the prestige of her life and is just seen as a vicious criminal. The police and her psychiatrist are completely condescending toward her, nobody entertains the idea of her innocence. These are things Helen is dealing with for the very first time in her life and it’s harrowing, but most of these things are things that the people of Cabrini Green deal with every single day.

There’s no race swapping with all the subtlety of Twilight Zone: The Movie. The point is made completely clear by the fact that Helen is being forced to recognize her privilege by having it totally stripped away from her. It’s not all at once, either. It’s like pulling wings off a fly. She’s losing one thing at a time, be it her academia, her friend, her husband or her freedom, until she has absolutely nothing left. On another level, within the twisted romance at the heart of the narrative, that’s simply to drive Helen into the Candyman’s arms. He wants to kill her, after all, but he doesn’t want to do it a second before she’s ready to die. Stripping her of her privilege, forcing her to confront how easy she’s truly had it, that’s a fantastic way to go about that entire plot line.

With Helen’s arc over the course of the movie, the changes made to Candyman himself are brilliant and perfectly fitting the new narrative as well. He perfectly compliments her. In “The Forbidden” the character was very vaguely described. He could technically be anyone, but Barker describes him as beautiful, almost glowing, an abstract being in a way that probably couldn’t translate it to the screen. The greatest liberties are taken with the title character, even though most of his dialogue is word-for-word what it was in the short story.

Bernard Rose gave the Candyman a backstory and cast an African American actor and those two things were so smart in reconfiguring that character for the story he wanted to tell and the setting he chose. And it’s not just the fact that Candyman has an origin that makes it so interesting, it’s that the origin he’s given and how that perfectly contrasts Helen’s own story. Daniel Robitaille was an African American man growing up just after the end of the Civil War, the son of a former slave and one of the first Black men growing up in a kind of aristocracy, educated among them even though these people obviously did not want him there. He was an artist and was killed for sleeping with the daughter of a plantation owner, whose portrait he was hired to paint. He grew up surrounded by privilege, he understood it, but even though he got to have much of that same experience, it wasn’t his because he was clearly seen by the rich white men around him to be nothing but an intruder on their way of life. Candyman wasn’t stripped of his own privilege because he never really had it.

The people around him were not only racist, but still no doubt fondly remembering slavery, and as soon as they learned of a Black man having a relationship with a white woman, they wasted no time assembling a vigilante mob to kill him as publicly and viciously as possible. This introduces such a tragically romantic element to Candyman’s character. He does as much as he can to explain to Helen that living beyond death as an urban legend is a blissful kind of immortality, but he’s so clearly alone and he doesn’t want to be.

Helen ultimately embraces that. She’s being tormented, she’s being accused and nobody wants to listen to her. That privilege is shattering and she’s being subjected to so much of the same treatment that the Candyman himself was subjected to. That’s what makes the ending work so well, because even though the Candyman “dies” he gets everything that he wanted. Helen is transformed in death into an urban legend, appearing when her husband—suddenly coming to the realization that he maybe loved his wife—says her name five times in the mirror, and Helen effectively takes the Candyman’s place.

The journey she takes through the film is harrowing, but it’s poignant. Helen steps into a different culture and despite her fascination with it, she doesn’t understand a single thing about it. She’s entrenched in white privilege in the early portion of the movie and up to the moment Candyman is actually introduced. After her first encounter with the Candyman, she is subjected to the experience of having that all stripped from her, bit by bit. Every comfort, every relationship is taken from her until she has nothing left. For the Candyman himself, this is entirely the point, as his goal is for her to want to die so that she can become a story, a rumor, an urban legend just like he is. A plan that, of course, obviously works. But simply by doing this, he is also subjecting her to an experience she never would have come to on her own, showing her a place of privilege that she was probably never even aware of before, simply by taking it away from her. It’s even, to an extent, the film’s way of fixing its own POV. Either the hero should be Black or the monster preying on this community should be white, and that’s what Helen becomes. The monster. The new boogeyman. A new name to recite into the mirror.

Candyman is, without a doubt, a movie that deals with race on multiple levels. It has its strengths and weaknesses on that front, but I would absolutely consider this core plot and what it says about upper class white people, even those who aren’t intentionally prejudiced, to be removed from their place of privilege to see their standing more clearly. The fact that it manages to do this while also being a deeply moving, poetic, romantic and genuinely unsettling movie is a true testament to what Bernard Rose, Clive Barker and the cast and crew created. There’s a reason we’re still talking about Candyman today and a reason why a new version with a new perspective has now hit theaters. After all, this story by its very nature is meant to be told and retold.

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