I can’t believe it’s been 25 years. Candyman was released on Oct. 16, 1992, but I remember it like it was yesterday because I couldn’t look in a reflective surface for a week after first seeing this film. To be honest, it took me over a year before I was able to enter the bathroom alone without a chill running up my spine. In fact, to this day, I don’t think you could pay me enough to say his name while looking into a mirror. Candyman had that kind of effect on me.
(Matter of fact, I’m going to write this piece without mentioning his name five times because, well, one can never be too careful.)
Written and directed by Bernard Rose and based on the short story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker, this film tells the story of a white anthropologist, played by Virginia Madsen, who is interested in investigating the genesis of modern folklore. This leads her to Cabrini Green, a notorious housing project, to research Candyman, played by Tony “I Got a Deep-Ass Voice” Todd, a Chicago urban myth who, locals claim, is responsible for deaths and mutilations in the area. What ensues is a movie that terrified me when I first saw it at the too-young age of 11. Yet, watching it as an adult, I am intrigued by how the film is also a meditation on black male obsession with white womanhood and the pitfalls of the white-savior complex.
Anti-blackness created this monster. He was the son of a freed-slave-turned-industrialist who discovered that he had a talent for painting. When the antagonist of the film fell in love and fathered a child with a white woman in 1890, a lynch mob cut off the hand he painted with, replaced it with a hook and covered his body with honey. He died from bee stings while the lynch mob chanted “Candyman,” thereby giving him his name.
Put simply, this is the ultimate “Leave those white girls alone” movie. His infatuation with white women and his desire to enter white society make him who he is, and Helen, the main character of the film, is the new object of his desire. This was written and directed by a white man, but I am convinced that my grandmother, whose only advice for me when I left college was “Work hard” and “Leave them damn white girls alone,” was a consultant on the film.
Meanwhile, as mentioned above, Helen is a white woman interested in contemporary folklore, which leads her to the housing project over which the lynch mob spread the ashes of the titular character. I didn’t catch it as a kid, but when this movie goes to that housing project, the filmmakers shoot the space as if the black people who populate it are monstrous.
The residents of the housing project are lifeless and haunted, the set design is deviant and the music is ominous. It treats black bodies as if they’re a menace to the civility of white society, and while that deeply disturbed me, I found it comical how Helen, emboldened by sheer white audacity, could not be convinced that seeking out Candyman was a bad idea. She set in motion all that came thereafter, yet the film consistently depicts her as though she is someone with whom we should be empathetic.
It felt very much like a sad story of a white woman who voted for Donald Trump and, thereafter, lamented her choice—except I don’t give a damn about white regret over actions that create black pain. In that way, this film feels both prophetic and derivative—even 25 years after it premiered.
Candyman (damn, was that five times?) remains a phenomenological examination of historical trauma and still one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen. Yet as an adult, I now see that the character played by Tony Todd is not the real villain of the film. It is now clear to me that, as in Get Out, whiteness is the thing lurking in the dark of which we should all be afraid.