From the Archives: What Becomes a Legend Most?

This week the Gutter’s own Angela has wandered up the stairs of an ruined mansion carrying only a candelabra. She’ll be back next month. In the meantime, ponder and enjoy her piece on Candyman (1990)!


Bernard Rose’s Clive Barker’s Candyman is an intensely 1990s film. Characters smoke a LOT inside public places. A senior professor, Philip Purcell, refers to our main character Helen (Virginia Madsen) and research partner/Black Best Friend trope Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) as “my two most beautiful graduate students” and there are only chuckles, no complaints to the dean. It is honestly irritating rewatching and seeing how little Kasi Lemmons is allowed to do (although to be fair, she does a lot with what she gets) because at this point in mainstream (white) American culture, having a Black Best Friend onscreen at all was considered quite good enough. And I have to say, Candyman honestly makes me a little wistful for the days of a good chunky knit cowl neck, even though I’m petite and could never really carry off that look because I disappear into it like Ralphie’s little brother in his snowsuit in A Christmas Story. But one of the most 1990s things about the film is weirdly one of its most contemporary and perhaps its most timeless elements, too: at its heart, underneath all the bees, Candyman is a cautionary tale, not just about disregarding the inherent wisdom of folklore, not just about the pervasive stain of racism that undergirds and supercedes class conflict in the U.S., but the wrongness of a woman who uses her racial and class privilege to traverse into forbidden spaces.

The film follows Helen Lyle, a semiotics graduate student in Chicago, as she pursues her thesis on urban legends into places less privilege-armored people fear to tread. The urban legends topic also happens to feature in a lecture course, given by her professor husband Trevor (Xander Berkley), a source of early friction in the film when Helen accuses Trevor of falling back on his promise to change his curriculum while she and Bernadette are interviewing the freshmen for their thesis. This conflict is one of many points where Helen’s thesis drama strikes me as unrealistic, up to and including her being unfamiliar with Purcell’s research on the Candyman legend, which makes for a decent exposition on-ramp, but also makes Helen (and Bernadette) look hasty and lazy. Purcell’s paper isn’t even ten years old. You might not even have to go through the microfiche, ladies. Come on.

But I digress. Helen and Bernadette interview (white) freshmen telling scary “true” stories they know; one of them is the story of Candyman, a hook-handed ghoul who can be summoned by repeating his name five times in the mirror. While Helen is transcribing the interview, one of the (black) janitorial staff comes in and comments on how everyone in the projects fears Candyman after it gets dark. Helen swoops onto her surprise primary source and discovers that the people who live in the Cabrini Green projects literally believe in Candyman and have attributed actual murders to him. This isn’t the usual urban legends telephone game of a person knowing a person who knows a person who summoned and was killed by the hook man; this is Ruthie Jean, who lived right there, was murdered last month and everyone knows Candyman did it. Helen sees the phenomena as the black innercity community, abandoned by white society and its criminal justice system to gang rule and poverty, rationalizing tragedy by attributing real crime to a myth. It is patronizing AF from a woman who is herself frequently patronized, but also right in line with her study, so perhaps she can be forgiven her Thesis Goggles. Those Thesis Goggles-borne assumptions take her right into the center of Candyman country, the gang-controlled projects of Cabrini Green, where she discovers elaborate graffiti as religious art and nervous apartment dwellers as unwitting sacrifices, a tense network of belief and denial all feeding into the deification of Candyman.

And of course, she can’t resist trying to summon him, encanting his name just as the story directs, although it turns out what really summons Candyman isn’t Helen’s petition; it is her doubt, doubt that threatens the existence of a monster who lives only in the dark corners of people’s fears. And then, there’s a special little twist at the end of the main plot hook, too. 

As Helen follows the trail of what she believes is a mortal killer, a gang leader who is, in fact, pretending to be Candyman attacks her; her initial instinct wasn’t entirely off the mark. Plus, her fearlessness in testifying against him enables the police to prosecute, taking him off the streets, which, at least briefly, improves the lives of the Cabrini Green residents. She becomes a heroine. But in so doing, she weakens the belief in the real, undead Candyman, and very soon, people close to Helen start getting gutted. Helen finds herself caught between the seductive appeals of the Candyman to “be my victim” and a desperate attempt to prove she’s not a serial killer. When the baby son of Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams), one of the Cabrini Green residents who was kind to Helen, disappears, Anne-Marie and the police believe Helen is responsible. But with baby Anthony’s abduction, for the first time possibly, Helen’s quest isn’t about her ambition, her name, or even saving her own life. It becomes about saving a child from becoming another sacrifice to Candyman’s deathless legend. She is, perhaps too literally, trying to be the community’s white savior. As it turns out, her sacrifice won’t be in vain, but it will still be a sacrifice.

Candyman himself, played with seductive pathos and elegance by Tony Todd, is a quintessential Clive Barker monster. I could completely see him and the Hell Priest sharing tea and sympathies about Kirsty and Helen. Women. You offer them endless exquisite pain and they just try to escape, why? Like Hellraiser’s Cenobites, Candyman must be summoned — although what he does once summoned seems entirely his own decision — and he exists, gloriously, beyond the physical plane, though the consequences he offers petitioners are very physical indeed. Like the Cenobites, too, he fetishizes physical mutilation as the purest path to undreamt of spiritual transcendence. His backstory, related to Helen during a testy dinner confrontation with Purcell, tells a horrifying story of racial violence, in which the brilliant artist Daniel Robitaille was commissioned by a wealthy landowner to paint his daughter and fell in love, like you do. The daughter became pregnant, and as punishment, poor Daniel is murdered by the father’s hired thugs, who saw off his hand, strip him, smear honey over him, and set an apiary full of angry bees on his bleeding, helpless nakedness. And then they burn him on a pyre and spread his ashes over Cabrini Green, which is a great way to make sure your vengeful demon is part of the bones of every building and every speck of dirt in a grave that can never be exhumed, salted, or otherwise put to rest. That is, in short, how you get a Candyman. 

It’s worth noting a few things about Purcell’s version of the story here. One, Candyman is never referred to by his human name in the story itself, or the movie. The name only comes in the sequel. Two, Purcell makes clear that Daniel grows up in polite society after his father makes a lot of money with a patent, so unlike almost every other black character in the film, Candyman is not poor or working class; his crime, apart from getting a woman pregnant out of wedlock, is obviously his blackness. Three: this incident takes place in Chicago, which accurately recognizes how racism and racial violence in the U.S. historically occurs throughout the country, not only in the south. It’s important, too, to see how that blackness is the part of his identity, like Helen’s womanhood, that is the transgressive deal-breaker over and above education, affluence, and merit. As those minority categories are their tickets to tragedy and the strange kind of transcendence after, it’s an important commonality, a stronger one even than Candyman and Pinhead’s penchant for florid butchery.

Candyman is based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” from his seminal The Books of Blood short story collection, and it is telling that seeking the forbidden in society dooms both Candyman and Helen in the film. That’s not in the original story though. That story contains many essential ingredients of the movie world, beyond the broad outline of its events — a fearless, undaunted Helen; the focus on urban legends, which was, at the time, not nearly as well understood or codified a concept as it was during the making of the film and certainly not the way it is today*, a supernatural creature created and sustained through the shared belief of a community, and the sense that uneducated council flat denizens share a truth together that academic rationalization only obfuscates and squanders. However, there is no racial component in this story. Indeed, there’s no Candyman backstory at all. The ending is also a bit more of a downer, with the population of the council estates that sustain Candyman’s legend deliberately sacrificing a baby to him, so it has a little bit of the folk horror conspiracy feel mixed in the urban legend. Much like Julia in The Hellbound Heart to Hellraiser though, Helen translates very cleanly: intelligence, ambition, and a redemptive desire to save a child from an immortal monster. 

Which brings me back to Helen and her own tragic end. “It was always you, Helen,” reads the graffiti in Candyman’s inner sanctum, depicting his lost beloved as a dead ringer for Virginia Madsen. Forgiving for a moment my intense hatred for the dead-lover-reincarnated trope, the poignance of Candyman reaching through time to liberate his reborn love into the blessed condition of being an eternal Monster Meme does wound. Get you someone who looks at you like Candyman looks at Helen, although probably not while kissing you with a mouthful of bees. For the purposes of the story though, I think it sadly only constrains Helen, another way of making her agency and ambition void, and that’s disappointing considering how driven and fierce she was to get to that inner sanctum. Really I would think Helen and Daniel have enough in common without a little destiny tacked on, but maybe that’s just me.

What makes Helen Helen — more than being Candyman’s lost love or Purcell’s student, chomping at the bit to publish something that eclipses him, or Trevor’s wife, who wants to be distinguished even as she’s researching in the same field he teaches and doesn’t need to wonder if he’s sleeping with his students — is her presumption. She is a real Karen** of a heroine. The way that she marches into the projects with Bernadette, shielded by pluck and confidence while her Black Best Friend cringes, the way she immediately, comfortably takes charge when helping Anne-Marie with her baby while in her apartment for the very first time, the way that she tries to assert authority and control in any situation, including when she’s being questioned under suspicion of murder: at all times, Helen has real “I want to speak to your manager” energy. Part of her tragedy is having that sense of entitlement stripped from her; literally, in the scene where a dispassionate policewoman commands her to remove her clothes in an unblinking monotone. She does ultimately suffer mortal wounds saving baby Anthony from a bonfire, but being isolated from privilege is the dismembering that makes her a real heroine and genuinely sympathetic. It just so happens that her martyrdom aligns with a very maternal wish to save a child. From these ashes, a new legend will be born, and as Candyman’s hook is thrown into her coffin by a grateful congregation from the Cabrini Green projects, she is accepted as their patron…monstress. Much like Candyman’s legend though, Helen’s monstrousness was not truly authored by her virtue — saving the baby — but her eagerness to cross into the forbidden.

* “The Forbidden” was published in 1985. The first academic writing on what we think of as urban myth was from Edgar Morin’s La Rume d’Orléans in 1969.  Jan Harold Brunvand used the actual term “urban legend” in 1979 in a book review.

**I concede that this read on her behavior, as with any usage of “Karen” as a pejorative, is sexist in of itself. Helen’s behavior would be utterly unremarkable in any era if she were a white male character, and she is a pretty good example of an obsessive seeker, a la every Lovecraft character, Henry Jekyll,  Jack Torrence, pretty much every 1950s-1960s era hero scientist. She wants to know, and for most male characters, that’s good enough. As a Karen myself, I claim the holy right to use it as a joke here, but I mean no harm, fellow Karens. She does fit the bill.


If you say Angela Englert in the mirror 5 times, they say she will appear and make you watch Hausu on blu-ray.

1 reply »

  1. Candyman (yes that’s my name, don’t wear it out) is still one of my FAVORITE horror films. The revenge theme is bloody real! From a racially charged origin of fear and brutality foisted upon the titular character and played with “seductive pathos and elegance by Tony Todd” to a feminist 20th century gas-lit protagonist, wonderfully portrayed by Virginia Madsen, this film shook me to my core. Thanks for the excellent review Angela Englert.


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