ByAlea Anderson, writer at
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Alea Anderson

Candyman is a 1992 slasher film that tells the story of married graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) who crosses paths with a modern mythological figure known as Candyman (Tony Todd). Fairly uncommon for films, explores a number of themes and social issues that hold strong importance to this day.

"What do the good know except what the bad teach them by their excesses?"

Class And Race

A member of the white middle class, Helen attends the University of Illinois, her husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley) is a professor there, and they live in a condo apartment in downtown Chicago. Helen and her friend Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) are working on a thesis about urban legends, and they come across the story of the Candyman.

Brought to her attention by two African-American cleaning ladies at the university, Helen learns Candyman is connected to vicious murders occurring in the notorious Cabrini Green housing projects. Helen finds a link between her condo and Cabrini Green, as both were built as housing projects except her building was plastered over and sold as high-priced condos. This was meant to form a boundary between her neighborhood of Lincoln Village and the Chicago Gold Coast, keeping the poor ghetto separate from the wealthy. This proved that despite looking vastly different, the two groups are similar beneath the surface.

Hoods in Cabrini Green. 'Candyman' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
Hoods in Cabrini Green. 'Candyman' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

Fully aware of the Cabrini's reputation, Bernadette is reluctant about setting foot in the area ruled by gangs and violence, but Helen is willing to cross into the dangerous part of town and risk their safety for a grade. She is quick to assume the African-American inhabitants of Cabrini Green are so desperate that they blame a mythological figure for their miserable lives.

The gangs and residents of Cabrini immediately don't welcome the two "privileged" outsiders intruding on their turf. They write Helen off as the educated white woman coming to see "how the other half lives" and "slum with the natives," thinking she's free to go through their homes without permission to get what she wants and tell them how things should be done. Bernadette, on the other hand, is far more wary and admits to being scared to even drive past Cabrini Green. She is also well aware of how the residents would treat her and Helen, especially because of Helen's race.

After taking some photographs, Helen and Bernadette interview a resident named Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams), a single mother with her infant son Anthony trying to make end meets in poor living conditions. She makes it clear that white people don't go to places like Cabrini Green except to cause trouble, and that reporters paint the residents in a negative light by labeling them as gang bangers and thieves.

Despite two people being brutally killed, it's only after Helen, a white woman, is attacked that the police take action by locking the place down and immediately catch the apparent perpetrator behind the grisly murders committed in Candyman's name.

Candyman, formerly known as Daniel Robitaille. 'Candyman' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
Candyman, formerly known as Daniel Robitaille. 'Candyman' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

Compared to Cabrini Green's residents, Candyman's situation can be likened to that of a white person. His father was a slave who made a fortune after the Civil War for inventing a shoemaking device capable of mass production. Born Daniel Robitaille, Candyman attended the best schools, grew up in "polite society," and soon rose to prominence as a renowned artist. Despite being black, Candyman lived a privileged life, something uncommon for African-Americans at that point in time. Instead of being a stereotypical poor black man, Candyman is portrayed as one of class and dignity.

As Candyman frames Helen for a series of grisly murders, one can argue that Helen begins experiencing things from a "black perspective." After she is assaulted in Cabrini, African-American detective Valento treats Helen with concern and civility. However, after Candyman steals Anne-Marie's baby, kills her dog and pins the crime on Helen, detective Valento treats her with hostility. Not caring about Helen's side of the story, he reads Helen her rights and is ready to throw the book at her. Before her interrogation, Helen is subjected to a strip search as she tearfully begs to take a shower first to wash the blood off. Her pleas fall on deaf ears. After she's released from custody, Helen's friends and colleagues turn their backs on her as she is now stigmatized.


Helen learns the myth of Candyman. 'Candyman' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
Helen learns the myth of Candyman. 'Candyman' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

As an educated woman in the world of academia, Helen is surrounded by egotistical male colleagues who often don't take her seriously. In a restaurant with Trevor and his colleague, Professor Purcell, a confident Helen tells Purcell that she and Bernadette are going to bury him with their info on Candyman, only for Purcell to pompously laugh twice at Helen's expense. Once for the fact that he wrote a book on Candyman 10 years ago and again for Helen not knowing Candyman's backstory, after which he enlightens her.

Helen's marriage is strong but strained. Trevor teaches a course on modern folklore and Helen chastises him for not postponing it due to her currently working on a thesis for the subject. His response is to say he has a curriculum to follow and passively tells Helen not to be mad at him. She suspects Trevor of infidelity with a young undergrad student named Stacey, but he deflects Helen's suspicion by writing off Stacey's affection towards him as "adolescent hormones."

After Helen returns to her apartment after escaping a month's stay in a mental hospital, she finds Stacey painting the walls pink, a color that Helen hates. Then Trevor appears, talking to Stacey in a childlike manner that suggests he wants to "play house" with the younger model he traded Helen for.

Interracial Love

Candyman seduces Helen. 'Candyman' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
Candyman seduces Helen. 'Candyman' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

One of the most debated themes of the film is the taboo on interracial relationships. A first glance at the film would cause some people to immediately point out the dynamic between Candyman and Helen, labeling it as another instance of an "imposing" black man preying on a "vulnerable" white woman. The very reason for Candyman's existence is that he fell in love with a wealthy, white landowner's daughter, Caroline Sullivan, and got her pregnant. Despite Caroline having genuine feelings for Candyman, her father could only see the affair as the defilement of his bloodline and his daughter's virginal beauty, so he paid off a lynch mob to kill Candyman.

"They will all abandon you. All you have left is my desire for you."

In each encounter, Candyman demands Helen to surrender to him and be his victim. If interpreted another way, it would seem Candyman is playing on Helen's vulnerabilities to make her surrender to his charms. He says everyone will abandon her and the only thing she will have left is his desire for her. When she goes into his lair in Cabrini Green, Helen decides to give in to Candyman's demands in exchange for baby Anthony's life. As Candyman entices Helen with the promise of immortality, his hook strokes her leg and slowly goes up her skirt, and the look on Helen's face suggests she is sexually aroused.

'It Was Always You, Helen'

'Candyman' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]
'Candyman' [Credit: TriStar Pictures]

In Candyman's lair, Helen finds a wall with the message above and a mural depicting his lynching and Caroline forced to bear witness. This can be seen in two different ways:

Whenever Helen is in Candyman's presence, she appears hypnotized, becomes weak in the knees, and her speech becomes slurred. Through the interactions between the two, it's greatly suggested that Candyman torments and affects her so because Helen reminds him of Caroline or she might be Caroline's reincarnation. If one were to go with the latter theory, Candyman could not only seek to punish Helen for not taking the stories about him seriously and discouraging people from believing in him, but to kill her in order to be reunited with Caroline in the afterlife. If she is Caroline reincarnated, then Helen may genuinely be drawn to Candyman, and may want to die in order to be with him. As Helen is being told Candyman's backstory and while she looks at the paintings of him in Cabrini Green, her facial expressions can have one believe she is sympathetic to what happened to Candyman but is also, on a deeper level, reacting as if she were present during his ordeal. The theory of Helen being Caroline Sullivan's reincarnation can also mean that Helen was destined to be Candyman's victim.

On the flip side, the message can be Candyman's way of telling Helen that she is solely responsible for the murders and kidnapping, though she keeps telling everyone (and herself) that she hasn't gone crazy and it really was a mythological figure who's responsible. On a deeper level, it can represent Helen having to suffer and pay for the past crimes committed against black people by her race as a whole. Candyman is angered by Helen's dismissal of the horror he endured by claiming it to only be a story used to scare people, so he seeks to teach her a lesson by putting her through a similar pain. In a way, Helen's fate is a mirror of Candyman's when she is ultimately, albeit unintentionally, burned at the stake by a crowd of African-Americans. She begins as an outsider studying a legend to becoming a part of it, shown by the ending and the last shot of the film as the credits roll.

Relive the terror of Candyman with the trailer below, and feel free to comment on your experience with Candyman. Sweets to the sweet.


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