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WHAT WE OWE TO CANDYMAN

Too often in horror stories and in our historical narratives, our dead are made into spectacles and fodder for white stories. Candyman was no exception.

Contains spoilers for Candyman (1992)

As intellectuals and consumers of popular culture we are left to think very differently and deeply about what meaning a narrative-in-death has for black subjects and representations of blackness in the popular national imagination.”

—Sharon Holland, Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity 

Nia DaCosta was gracious enough to share a glimpse of her upcoming film with us, a spiritual sequel to the 1992 horror classic of the same name, Candyman. “[A]t the intersection of white violence and black pain, [Candyman] is about unwilling martyrs,” she writes. “The people they were, the symbols we turn them into, the monsters we are told they must have been.” The teaser is a black and white shadow-puppet show with a new rendition of Candyman‘s original musical score, a haunting music box melody that sings of ghosts. The little figures play out various lynchings; not just that of the titular character himself, but also the all too real unfortunate ends of people like James Byrd, Jr. and George Stinney

The original Candyman is itself an adaptation of a short story. The Forbidden, by Clive Barker, a white man. It was written and directed by Bernard Rose, also a white man. While Barker’s is a tale about sweet sacrifices made to a spirit with a pale yellowing complexion and bright ruby eyes haunting in a low-income British neighborhood, Rose made the decision to locate the haunting in Chicago and shift the story to one of racial inequity as well as socio-economic disparity. But the film doesn’t seem to be interested in using white violence and racial containment for much else besides a convenient backdrop to tell a story about white victimhood, heroism, and victory. The phantom created in Rose’s imagination becomes yet another Black male monstrous figure terrorizing an “innocent” white woman. The thing is, she ain’t that innocent. 

Even so, Candyman—the ghost and the film—holds a special place in my heart, my history, my education, and my foray into studying Black monstrosity and phantasmagoria. Learning that the new project exploring his character would be helmed by a Black woman helped to ease my initial worries about how the new story would be envisioned, as I have always felt that the horror classic is remiss in its centering of a white woman in a story about a Black ghost. Now that DaCosta has shared her teaser and offered such poignant words about how she has conceived of this work, I am feeling more hopeful—even as I maintain my criticism that Black horror films deserve to expand beyond stories about “white violence and Black pain.” 

The white woman at the center of Rose’s Candyman is Helen Lyle, a graduate student working on a thesis on modern urban legends. As she learns from a fellow academic, Candyman is, indeed, an “unwilling martyr”:

The legend first appeared in 1890. Candyman was the son of a slave. His father had amassed a considerable fortune from designing a device for the mass-producing of shoes after the Civil War. Candyman had been sent to all the best schools and had grown up in polite society. He had a prodigious talent as an artist, and was much sought after when it came to the documenting of one’s wealth and position in society in a portrait. It was in this latter capacity that he was commissioned by a wealthy landowner to capture his daughter’s virginal beauty. Well, of course, they fell deeply in love, and she became pregnant. Poor Candyman! The father executed a terrible revenge. He paid a pack of brutal hooligans to do the deed. They chased Candyman through the town to Cabrini-Green, where they proceeded to saw off his right hand with a rusty blade. And no one came to his aid. But this was just the beginning of his ordeal. Nearby there was an apiary; dozens of hives filled with hungry bees. They smashed the hives and stole the honeycomb and smeared it over his prone naked body. Candyman was stung to death by the bees. They burnt his body on a giant pyre and scattered his ashes over Cabrini-Green.

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Helen follows the tradition of many white horror protagonists, venturing into a space where she explicitly does not belong and is not wanted for her own selfish reasons, refusing to heed the warnings of both the locals and her own peers. It is purely anthropological for her and she speaks with authority on a subject she is not qualified to speak on at all, even telling a young boy who lives at Cabrini-Green, “Candyman isn’t real” and dismissively saying that the residents are merely “attributing the daily horrors of their lives to a mythical figure.” Her privileged position deludes her into thinking that she knows the reality and experiences of the people of Cabrini-Green better than they do. When she conjures Candyman, she has only called his name in order to prove that he doesn’t exist. 

The ghost of Candyman is an urban legend that we see (re)told by a white middle-class teenager in the beginning of the film. When the ghost appears, his object of obsession is Helen. He only haunts where she goes and he only haunts her because she does not believe in him and challenges his existence. The Candyman that “haunts” the Cabrini-Green projects is a mortal man, a serial killer who takes on the moniker of “Candyman” in order to scare residents, using the weight of the already established urban legend. 

Save for baby Anthony, the Black folks of Cabrini-Green are never in danger of the hook-handed ghost’s wrath, but they are haunted by the ghosts of a history that led to the lynching of Candyman in the first place. One that relegates them to a space of social death as poor, Black urbanites suffering the effects of Reaganomics in the early 90s. The expensive condos where Helen lives were originally built to be public housing for low-income Black residents, but once the developers realized how profitable that location along the Gold Coast could be, they were turned into high-end condos. Now Cabrini-Green stands as a place where the police don’t come when called for help. They are subject to punishment from police, but not protection. It’s an old song.

The film’s ending is unsatisfying to me. Candyman burns, again, and Helen is heralded as a hero and a savior. Moreover, baby Anthony narrowly escapes becoming an unwilling martyr and it troubles me that he had to be written into harm’s way so that Helen could be written into victory. All these years later, I am probably most unsatisfied at the fact that Rose’s film ends with the literal (mis)appropriation of Candyman’s hook and method of haunting, as Helen now wields it in death. But Helen’s motivation as a vengeful spirit has removed the significance of the very hook that she uses to gut her victim. In her hand, it no longer carries the weight of Candyman’s lynching, of the artist’s hand that was cut from him, of the white violence and Black pain at the center of his story. 

What does it mean to conjure Candyman? What does it incur, beyond his wrath? What work does it do? What work should it do? What responsibility do we have to him, to his suffering? What is it we owe to Candyman and all the apparitions like him? They who bear the names we whisper and scream, the lost ones we uplift. They whose lives and deaths are made into symbols of injustice, hopelessness, and even vengeance. They who are imagined as monstrosities—in this world and the next—by those who must believe they are monsters, so that their death can carry less weight or no weight at all. The unwilling martyrs and unwilling ghosts whose deaths border on becoming urban legends of their own. 

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Too often in horror stories and in our historical narratives, our dead are made into spectacles, lore, and fodder for white stories; for their victimhood and their triumph. Rarely are they seen, rarely are they honored, rarely are they human. If horror films with Black ghosts insist upon being in conversation with white violence and Black death—as much as I crave for them to be in conversation with other things—may they at least do the work that Nia DaCosta’s Candyman seems to be taking up. I truly hope that the words she offered us ring true in the film. 

We should not call up the ghosts of our dead if the work that we are doing does not attend to their needs. That is the duty of the living, to tend the gardens of the dead and see that they bloom. Those of us who have survived thus far are duty-bound to remember what continually happens at the intersection of white violence and Black pain. We betray their spirits and our own when we make them into martyrs, offerings, and saints, reducing them to mere symbols and emblems for Black lives. We feed the beast that demands their names and blood as sacrifice. 

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Sherronda (she/they) is an essayist, editor, and storyteller writing pop culture and media analysis through a Black feminist lens with historical and cultural context. They often find themselves transfixed by Black monstrosity, survival, and resistance in the horror genre and its many fantastical narratives, especially zombie lore. Read more of their work at Black Youth Project.

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