Candyman and Irresponsible Storytelling

In Opinion by Melody Gulliver

It seems like everyone has a “Candyman” story. When I was seven, I would sneak into my sister’s room after my parents fell asleep. We would watch all sorts of films and when we were too afraid to fall asleep, we would talk ourselves into oblivion. Horror films brought us together in a way other movies couldn’t. Maybe it was the thrill of childhood rebellion. Or, maybe it was the security of not being alone. As a child, Candyman was nothing more than a scary story that amplified a fear of bees and slashers. After watching it again nearly fifteen years later, my fondness for it has faded into unabashed discomfort. It is no longer a movie that evoked childhood thrill. I cannot separate the merit of the work from the irresponsibility of its storytelling. The characterization of Candyman as a grotesque, hostile, and threatening black man obsessed with a white woman perpetuates dangerous racial stereotypes. The consequence of this depiction fortifies the racial fears and constructs that people of color have worked so ardently to dismantle.

While the film incorporates a backstory that helps humanize Candyman’s rage, the complexity and emotional impact of his trauma is largely left unexplored. This is illustrated in the way Helen Lyle learns Candyman was murdered in a vicious hate act. The film makes no attempt to expand and emotionalize this atrocity through a visual depiction. Visual depiction increases credibility and urges audience members to confront uncomfortable truths, sympathize with the victim, and condemn the perpetrators. The effect of oral storytelling is that it reinforces a disconnect and inhibits villainous forces like racism from being properly acknowledged in the story’s context. Through this incident, the film failed to substantiate Candyman’s actions by underlining complex emotionality. Candyman’s apparent one-sidedness eroded the potential for audience sympathy and intensified racial fears. After Helen learns of Candyman’s trauma, she develops a thesis that invalidates the authenticity of Candyman for her anthropological dissertation. Helen’s consumption of Candyman’s narrative and subsequent skepticism emboldens the narrative’s racial inequalities. It appears the study of Candyman and Cabrini-Green, the poverty-stricken neighborhood he terrorizes, is merely a mechanism to her advance anthropological pursuits. It is not genuine concern, but rather, a curiosity that propels Helen’s work.

In addition to the white consumption of black tragedy for personal benefit, Candyman promotes a racial caricature reminiscent of D.W Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” Similar to Candyman, reception of Griffith’s 1915 film differed on two accounts: the artistic merit and its appallingly racist content. For some, Griffith’s bold cinematic choices revolutionized the motion picture industry and thus, warranted it a historic artifact despite its disturbingly racist narrative. Birth of a Nation relied on racist tropes including the hypersexualized and violent savagery of African American men to intensify social fears and validate racial anxiety. Specifically, it championed a notion that black men pose a dangerous threat to white women. Although Candyman isn’t as explicit as Birth of a Nation, it echoes similar sentiments. While Candyman was summoned by Helen’s naïve accord (i.e. she said his name five times), he terrorizes her for an elongated period because of her resemblance to his late lover. At one point, Candyman deliberately acknowledges this obsession, stating, “it was always you.” The film’s horror is contingent upon this irrational obsession. Candyman’s actions are guided in part because of his myth (i.e. “needs to shed innocent blood”) and his fascination with Helen. Worse than just irresponsible storytelling, Candyman augments racist tropes for commercial gain. For that reason, any creative value is compromised almost entirely.