Candyman and the Monsters of Urban Legends


candyOn May 31, two twelve-year-olds in Wisconsin allegedly stabbed a friend 19 times in honour of the mythic Slender Man. Fortunately, the victim survived. We disseminate most urban legends and false news stories via the internet now, and the Slender Man was one of the first major urban legends created as an internet meme, its success often credited to the chaotic nature of the internet.

This latest tragedy is something of a horrific role-reversal. Monsters, serial killers and maniacs in film and literature are often inspired by the real thing. A truly horrific incident based on fiction is another matter. For no matter what sick, depraved Awful one can create, it doesn’t hold a candle to reality.

Bernard Rose’s Candyman both exploits and takes such matters into account. The film follows Helen Lyle (Virgina Madsen) a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the then-fictional academic field of Folklore. Her thesis is on local spook story Candyman, one not dissimilar to Bloody Mary, when murders in the projects begin to eerily resemble that of the legend.

In his introduction for the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, Jan Harold Brumvand discusses a scene in 1998’s slasher flick Urban Legend in which the lead characters sit in on a folklore class. “[The class] is of interest to folklorists since it shows us Hollywood’s idea of what a college class in the subjext might be like. Unfortunately, it’s a poor example, since professor Wexler’s approach is merely to tell a lot of scary stories, show some slides, and encourage students to try ‘urban legend experiments,’ like drinking a can of soda after eating Pop Rocks candies to test whether the combination will explode in the stomach.”

This was a fake urban legends lecture from 1998, 6 years prior in 1992 filmmakers did not fare much better. The film’s premise is set by Xander Berkeley’s unspecified university class in which he gives a ranting lecture about urban legends in one of the opening scenes of the film. He goes on about alligators in sewers and other modern folkloric classics and, like the best movie professors, he assigns no homework and gives no test.

Candyman’s legend has since grown as well-known as it is in the film. Born a slave with a talent for painting, his hand was cut off by his masters before he was stung to death by bees. Now, his spirit wanders the graffitti-stained, impoverished projects of Cabrini Green with a hook jammed in his bloody stump. Once the very human Candyman killer is exposed, the Candyman of legend makes his first appearance. Angered with the lack of fear spread by his name the spirit intends to wreak havoc.

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Candyman, as played by Tony Todd, is a monstrous creature. Todd’s eerie, dgnified portrayal transcends just another slasher and puts him in the pantheon of classic movie monsters. His throaty, hypnotic voice, his sketetal body filled with bees lumbers around, filling even the most ordinary parking garage with dread. However, the film’s unspoken monsters are slavery and the discrimination of minorites. It’s no accident that the film is set in Chicago, a city in which racial segregation graces the headlines to this day.

Rose took the modus operandi of what turns out to be a very human murderer cashing in on the legend straight from headlines. Several murders were committed due to an architectural flaw that linked apartments together through adjoining medicine cabinets. Lyle’s own apartment in the film turns out to be a revamped project building, separating it from a slum merely with spackle and wallpaper.

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Candyman’s brutal murder was due to his interracial relationship with the plantation owner’s daughter, who resembled Helen. Thus, Candyman’s designs on his victim are two-fold: exposing what was once considered taboo and pointing out that it is still considered as such.

The entire experience leaves you slightly hypnotized (as Madsen claims she actually was on set), helped along by Phillip Glass’ brilliant, understated score. There will always be something insidious about the nature of urban legends, though perhaps nothing as horrific as their origin.

— Kenny Hedges

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