The question as to whether an examination of societal inequality can exist in the space between documented historical atrocities and traditional horror filmmaking is answered, although only in part, by Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992). Heavy on the visceral thrills we expect from the genre, the film succeeds in asking some very pointed questions about race and class, even if the answers are deeply problematic. Certainly, Candyman’s titular villain is a unique manifestation of the intersection between race and historical memory in popular culture and so I am interested in taking a closer look at the film’s underlying social narrative.
Based on the short story by Clive Barker, Candyman opens with Helen, our white female protagonist, researching urban legends for her dissertation. She becomes enthralled with the legend of the son of a black slave turned rich manufacturer, Robitaille, who was horrifically lynched after having impregnated a white woman. Helen’s decision to attempt to summon Robitaille , now called Candyman, and dispel his existence has unseen consequences which hinge on the malleable borders of reality. Is Candyman a figment of Helen’s mind or is he a spirit bent on vengeance? How a character answers this question in the film is largely dependent upon that character’s historical memory.
Upon its release, Candyman was criticized as being irresponsible and racist. Certainly its casting of the quintessential bogeyman as vengeful, black and obsessed with a white woman gives credence to this criticism. And yet, the overarching narrative isn’t quite so simple. The intersection of race and historical memory in this film is particularly challenging because it uses the prejudicial views of the audience to its advantage before upending those assumptions. Using Cabrini-Green as a central location in the film personalizes the film with the audience by using their knowledge of the place (via newspapers and the television) against them. In the 1990s, news footage that cast inhabitants of this housing project as societal “others” was rampant. As such, Helen’s initial disgust with ghetto life becomes the audience’s disgust. That Helen is White and the inhabitants of Cabrini-Green are African-American is not something that can be dismissed.
Increasing the audience’s discomfort, moreover, is the realization of our own culpability in this narrative. It takes the notion of the killer as part of the archaic past and makes it a past in which we, the viewers, play a part. Unlike other slasher film monsters whose origin stories are based in extreme psychosis (Michael Myers) or, worse, unapologetic perversion (Freddy, Leatherface), Candyman originates when an unsought and undeserved horror is foisted upon him. As the audience, we are disgusted by what was done to Robitaille and can appreciate his source of pain. Film historian Kirsten Moana Thompson’s claim that lynching “symbolically feminized African-American men” means that Candyman is not only trying to seek vengeance upon his enemies and reclaim a lost love, but that he is also attempting to reassert his masculinity through the act of killing. The lynching backstory gives the audience entry into this film in a way other slasher films do not.
That Robitaille is a victim of unchallenged racism is evident in the lynching scene. Not surprisingly, Robitaille’s transformation into Candyman comes fraught with bee imagery. Long recognized for its association to poverty, the bee imagery embedded in this film is clearly intentional. In her review of Tammy Horn’s book Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation, reviewer Laurie Carlson notes:
As British society threatened to collapse under intense poverty during the seventeenth century, bee symbolism became useful as a tool to fight poverty, suggesting that the natural order of the hive might be a good model for humanity. Male drones have only one job, mating with the queen, and at summer’s end the worker bees cast them out of the hive to save the expense of feeding them through winter. It was the identification of the “drones,” the nonfunctional and expendable members of the hive, which provided a simple biological reason for poverty: poor people were simply drones, too lazy to improve their own condition. The drone analogy proved useful for generations as a label for the poor and unemployed, rooted as it was in natural law.[i]
Much like a drone, Robitaille is cast out of a society in which his only value is predicated upon his willingness to conform to the standards of the White establishment. Equally problematic is what the bee imagery signals to the wider audience considering the film’s depiction of Cabrini-Green and its generational poverty. My guess is that there is a statement being made about the suffering created by institutionalized racism, and yet how that statement is received is likely dependent upon the race of the viewer.
The victims, too, serve a purpose in reiterating the importance of honoring personal and group history. The Caucasian victims (the teenage girl, the doctor) are primarily deniers of the mythology whose deaths are gruesome but don’t seem to linger. Yet, to forget the past, too, is rendered a crime. This is illustrated when Bernadette, the African American researcher working with Helen, is killed in a particularly gruesome fashion. This moment seems to imply that the danger of forgetting the past is perhaps more harmful than simply denying it.
Helen’s death brings the lynching narrative full circle. As we see her screaming “Help Me!” while an angry crowd surrounds the fire it is impossible not to be reminded of Robitaille’s death. It is the ultimate moment of “mirroring” which the film has been building to through the repeated use of mirrors. Helen’s position at the end as the new Candyman possibly undoes some of this highly charged narrative. Are we to equate the motivations of Helen, who has been slighted by her husband, with the motivations of Candyman, who has been lynched? Perhaps the film is implying that Helen, with all her privilege, could never know an evil like lynching and so she is left to magnify her own lesser horrors so as so assuage her white guilt. To be honest, I’m not really sure.