A Brief History of CANDYMAN’s Themes and Origin Story

Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (2021) is one of this year’s most-anticipated horror flicks. For those who grew up with this legendary antagonist, the film will offer a new perspective on his story while simultaneously transporting them back to the days when they were afraid to say his name five times in front of a mirror. (Perhaps that fear never went away…) However, Candyman (2021) will serve to bridge a generational gap, introducing the franchise’s fabled foe to a new audience.

Many new horror fans, particularly those under 30, weren’t even born when the original Candyman hit theaters in 1992. And others may be coming to the franchise for the first time. Either way, there’s a subset of viewers who aren’t familiar with the lore nor themes established in the original trilogy, specifically the first film. So, let’s take a trip down memory lane and examine this universe’s themes, commentary, and how these might translate in this new installment.

collage image of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Candyman 2021 with Tony Todd as Candyman in 1992 film

Universal Pictures/TriStar Pictures

In a featurette, producer Jordan Peele says Candyman is the “ patron saint of urban legends.” This couldn’t be truer. Urban legends are engaging and terrifying, often hinging on little factual basis or concrete information. They are typically verbal (but can also be in written or digital forms) with nebulous origins. It’s a tale coming from a “friend of a friend” or passed down through generations with variations depending on who is telling it. In fact, the Candyman character is based on “The Forbidden,” a folklore-ish horror short story in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood anthology.

The book Candyman is quite different. He’s yellow with pale blue lips and, although his race and origin are never made clear (he can be read as a white person), the story takes place in Liverpool. Candyman‘s director and writer, Bernard Rose (a white, male Liverpool native) got the rights to make a film from Baker; however, he changed the narrative and its location after seeing Chicago.  His shifts are intriguing in many ways and problematic in others.

An Urban Legend Is Reborn

We learn Candyman’s story through Helen, who is doing a thesis on urban legends and folklore. The film’s opening scenes examine the concepts of a legend well with people recounting secondhand stories. In one scene, a college class discusses a particular tale, realizing that it’s told differently depending on geographic location. But boy is this Candyman legend a good one. A spirit appears in a mirror after a person says their name five times and slits their throat with a hook. That is about as scary (and intriguing) as it gets.

Tony Todd as Candyman with bees on his face

TriStar Pictures

Like other films that take place among marginalized communities and spaces, a horror element highlights the lack of resources and care from larger social systems. In Candyman’s case, there have been a string of murders in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects. No one outside of the residents seem to care except certain white people like Helen. And even those people are more interested in satiating their curiosity and/or laughing and being entertained by this seemingly tall tale. They don’t intend to find solutions to the problem but instead seek to examine it for examination’s sake.

Cabrini-Green and its residents are on the fringes of society. It’s a place where terrible things happen to people and it’s somehow their own fault. Ruthie Jean, deceased prior to the events of the film, is a prime example. Both she and her neighbor Anne Marie call 911 multiple times to get help after hearing scary noises only to be ignored. The authorities eventually arrive but Ruthie Jean’s already dead, killed with a hook. A detective later tells Helen that there’s nothing they can do for “those people” in this community.

From an outside perspective, Cabrini-Green is itself a “horror,” a collective of haunted dwellings where “scary, dangerous people” live. Furthermore, it is a reminder of the disenfranchisement set in place by systemic inequities. Candyman‘s commentary about Cabrini-Green says a lot about how America (as a collective) feels about the projects. Helen’s friend Bernadette (a Black woman) brings a bag of artillery to go there and others are afraid to ride by in the daytime. The film tries to counteract this notion with Anne-Marie, Ruthie Jean’s neighbor and Anthony’s mother.

She’s a working mom who lives in fear of Candyman as well as losing her infant son to the dangers of the streets. Helen and Bernadette meet her and have a sudden epiphany that everyone who lives there isn’t a murderous criminal. (Sigh.)

Helen and Bernadette from Candyman 1992 film stand in graffiti hallway

TriStar Pictures

However, there is little screen time nor nuanced development for Anne-Marie or any other Black person in this film. (The exception may be young Jake.) It’s rather odd considering its centered in a predominately Black neighborhood. Of course, Anthony cannot have character development as a baby. He’s used as a bargaining chip for Candyman to lure Helen in so they can all burn together and create a new horrifying myth. Yikes.

This is what makes Candyman (2021) so thrilling. It will focus squarely on an adult Anthony and also includes Anne-Marie. They will get to be more than one-note characters whose sole purpose is to move the plot along for a white protagonist. DaCosta and Peele, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside her, get to reframe this tale through a Black lens. Candyman is a rare slasher with a Black antagonist and the film is an important point for representation in Black horror history. So, it is exciting to see what this version will do under DaCosta’s direction.

The original film’s strongest point is undoubtedly the titular character himself. Tony Todd is absolutely stunning and frightening as Candyman from his voice to his shudder-inducing stare. Pure horror perfection. A LEGEND. He brings poetic gravitas and a sexual undercurrent to the role, giving a character who could have simply been a generic “slicer and dicer” some necessary depth. And, we get a high-level backstory for him.

Candyman is Daniel Robitaille, the son of an enslaved man from the early 1900s. Robitaille became a highly sought-after artist by wealthy white people. He falls in love with a white woman and fathers her child. The woman’s father sends an angry lynch mob to kill him. They cut off his hand, put honeycomb on it, and let bees sting him to death.

Tony Todd as Candyman stands in a parking garage wearing a long brown fur coat

TriStar Pictures

But, before he dies, his soul transfers into a mirror, and his ashes are eventually tossed across the land where Cabrini-Green stands. And boom, you have the makings of a folktale come to life. He’s ready to split anyone from their “groin to their gullet” who dares to speak his name five times in a mirror. Whew… that’s a lot of layers to digest.

The concept of a Black man becoming a vengeful entity after dying at the hands of white people makes sense. He is essentially the respectable Negro, an intelligent and talented guy who is good enough to be in proximity to wealth and whiteness. But that welcome comes with parameters and being with a white woman falls outside of that boundary. In fact, Candyman shows racism for what it is to Black people: the catalyst for an enduring horror story.

Eyebrow Raising Examinations

However, it’s disturbing and baffling that Candyman kills Black people. There’s the argument that this legend is not quite universal and lies primarily in this specific community. And this explains why they are testing this theory and finding out the unfortunate answer.

Sure, they are also inadvertently living on top of his ashes. Still, wildly vengeful spirit or not, nothing absolves him from hurting his own people. Candyman was trippin’. It made more sense for him to take his vengeance out on more people who look like his oppressors.

He does this to a minute degree with Helen.  She’s framed for his activities but she obviously doesn’t meet instant death like others. In fact, he’s rather obsessed with her to the point that their interactions are borderline sexual in nature. (Candyman heavily implies that Helen is either a reincarnation or bears an uncanny resemblance to Robitalle’s former flame, which explains his unsettling preoccupation with her.)

He’s whispering in her mind about how she belongs to him, hovering over her while she’s strapped to a gurney, and slipping his hook under her dress, slowly pulling it up while breathing on her. Oh, and let’s not forget when he leans over to kiss her with a mouth full of bees. This Black “boogeyman” vs. innocent white woman framing is yet another reminder that Candyman comes through a white creative lens.

As expected, the film caused quite a stir among several Black filmmakers for the aforementioned reasons, among others. But, for many viewers, including ’90s kids like me, the character is an integral part of Black culture. A scary spirit who looked like us became the subject of sleepovers. It is a generational legend that we all believe in just a bit.

Candyman continues to be divisive and oft-discussed with documentaries like Horror Noire and panels examining its elements. Like its clever turn where a white woman is wrongfully accused of murder and deadly assault and not believed by the authorities. The residents take things into their own hands and burn Candyman but Helen manages to sacrifice herself and save baby Anthony. She becomes the new legend among the community, the ending to a story that no one will truly believe outside of this community. Is it giving a smidgen of white savior? Yes… yes it is. But this film is still a classic.

Back for a Second and Third Round 

Enter Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh. It takes us three years into the future following the Chicago storyline. We get a new location, New Orleans, and a new woman, Annie Tarrant, for Candyman to harass. Once again, the protagonist doesn’t believe in Candyman, who murdered her own father. She evokes his name and stirs up a mess. This film revisits Robitalle’s origin story with more specificity from his own perspective.

We learn that his Candyman moniker has a grim story: a boy tastes the honey that is poured on his body and says “Candyman!”  The film doesn’t offer the same psychological tension as its predecessor but it does work to humanize Candyman. As he says, he is the reflection of the hatred that killed him.

We get the familial connection with Annie, who is a descendant of Robitaille and Caroline. She destroys the infamous mirror and Candyman (or so she thinks) and has a daughter, whom she weirdly names Caroline. (Like, maybe find a name that doesn’t remind you of your grim family history.)

Candyman: Day of the Dead takes place in 2020. Of course, the film came out in 1999 back when we thought we’d have flying cars and cool stuff. Neither the film nor us could predict what 2020 would really be like.

Surprise! Candyman is back from the grave and he’s stalking a now grown-up Caroline in Los Angeles right before Day of the Dead. He gives her the “Helen treatment,” killing her friends in a way that makes her look guilty. Odd things happen here, including a gang that tries to sacrifice her to Candyman only to die themselves.

After a LOT of people die, Caroline kills his paintings and he bursts into flames. She takes her mother’s advice and destroys the myth by pinning the murders on a deceased detective who tried to kill her. This film doesn’t have a ton of deeper commentary or lore. And, thankfully, it’s not something that you need to see for more Candyman context.

The Future of Candyman

Now, here we are at Candyman (2021). This film will act more like a “spiritual sequel” with some direct nods to the original, focusing on Anthony’s present life. He, along with his girlfriend, now live in luxury apartments that stand where the Cabrini-Green projects used to be. (This is for real… the last of it was torn down back in 2011.)

Candyman (2021) will likely follow in the original’s footprints of giving us some level of gore combined with psychological thrills and social analysis. The other sequels turned from this great design in favor of more slasher-like action. Not that there’s anything wrong with slasher action. But it was the mental game that really made Candyman scary as hell.

photo of Black man wearing a knit cap holding a red light up in a darkened room with graffiti on wall from Candyman 2021 film

Universal Pictures

Anthony, a visual artist, discovers truths about Candyman and will presumably share a special connection with the once-again risen spirit. And, thankfully Tony Todd is resurrecting the infamous titular character in some capacity to scare us once again. This is a great chance to really play into their dynamic.

Candyman (2021) will also undoubtedly examine gentrification and current issues in this community while they grapple with the Candyman legend. With Peele’s involvement, we can expect new motifs, color schematics, and other intricate details to digest. And, it will be interesting to see Candyman‘s motivations this time around.

Candyman (2021) is an exciting addition to one of the greatest contemporary urban legends. And, now that we have taken a look back at Candyman’s roots, it’s time to see what this new take offers. Candyman (2021) hits theaters on August 27.

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