Retro review: Candyman (1992)

You know the drill here. You say his name five times and Bloody Mary-like he appears and bloody stump-hooks you into gory oblivion. And also he is Tony Todd, which actually makes me want to hang out with him.

Candyman is a classic, largely by virtue of its weirdness. It’s a story about a contemporary legend that is both real–i.e., the events related in the Candyman story within the film are true (within the film)–and also depends upon belief for its continued existence. It’s meta-folk-horror, which is an awesome combination of things to be.

I’ve seen this a few times over the years, and while I admit that I was distracted during this latest viewing, I still like this film. I don’t love it–it’s not that effective as horror–but it’s fun, especially for a folklorist. The main character, Helen, is a graduate student writing a “thesis” (along with her friend Bernadette, apparently, which is weird) about urban legends. It’s never explicitly labeled “folklore”–popular culture often seems to imagine some distinction between “folklore,” “legends,” “myths” and other genre terms, even though we consider them all as falling under the rubric of folklore–but it’s clear that this is what she’s doing. So that’s a plus.

Helen’s thesis is about Candyman, a black man living in Chicago in the years after the Civil War. The story goes that the poor guy hooked up with a white lady, and because even back then ‘Murica was ‘Murica, they went ahead and lynched him. Specifically they cut off his hand and replaced it with a hook (I still don’t understand why they gave him a hook–almost like they wanted his inevitable angry ghost to have the perfect awful murder weapon). Then they covered him in honey and let a bunch of bees sting him to death. Now, for some reason, if you look in a mirror and say his name five times he appears and, you know. Sings you a soothing lullaby. Probably.

Never mind that there’s no clear thematic link between his death and the way he’s summoned, or that his appearances in the modern world as a murderous ghost are pretty random and arbitrary and not really dependent on having people say his name: the point is that there’s a contemporary legend which turns out to be true, and a bunch of folklorists studying it, and ultimately most of the folklorists get murdered as a result. Movies like this remind me why I chose this career path.

Pictured: Either a scene from the film, or me teaching my Intro class. You decide. ...Psych. I'd never wear a cardigan all open like that. So gauche.

Pictured: Either a scene from the film, or me teaching my Intro class. You decide. …Psych. I’d never wear that cardigan. So gauche. Like the cords, though.

Helen, of course, is a skeptic. She doesn’t believe in this stuff. It’s just a story. And this is Hollywood, so of course she’s wrong. It is a story, but it’s also truth. So predictably, people start dying, and Helen is ultimately offered a chance to become a part of the story herself, promised immortality in both a literal and a figurative sense.

There’s a ton of interesting folkloric stuff going on here. Folklorist Mikel Koven wrote an insightful piece on Candyman [1] that does a better job exploring these issues than I could hope to do here, so rather than write my own Candyman thesis, I’ll direct you to his work. I’ll just add that the film itself is aware of the importance of folklore to its own narrative: in his first appearance, Candyman tells Helen, “You were not content with the stories, so I was obliged to come.” He makes it clear that he needs belief to exist–that the folklore that tells his story actually prolongs his existence.

I do have some nerdy questions that are less criticisms than they are snarky observations that only someone in the field being represented would even catch. Snark. For one thing, why was Helen mad about the “urban legend lecture” her husband gave? There’s no way that doing a lecture could negatively affect her fieldwork. Makes no sense. Likewise, the scene where Helen and Bernadette are sitting in a restaurant with Helen’s husband and a fat long-haired British folklorist in a tweed jacket (Michael Culkin) is just hilarious. Helen gets all defensive about her work, because Tweedy apparently already wrote a paper on Candyman years previously and, I dunno, he’s smarmy and British, and she tells him that her current work will “bury” him. Hah. Nobody takes folklore study this seriously. Not even folklorists.

Candyman isn’t really frightening, but it’s an interesting movie. At times it feels contrived, over-acted and wooden, but it’s also refreshingly self-aware–at least when it comes to folklore and belief. Plus, Tony Todd.


[1] Koven, Mikel J. Film, Folklore, and Urban Legends. Lanham, MD; Toronto; Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2008. For Koven’s discussion of Candyman, see ch. 9, Film and Ostension: The Case of Candyman, p.137-152.

Folklore Mondays: Halloween Meltdown ’13 Edition (#2)

This go-round we have a slice of academic folklore history. The clip below is a short excerpt from a 1970 documentary entitled Tales of the Supernatural by folklorist Sharon R. Sherman, professor emerita of folklore at University of Oregon. The content is likely familiar, as stories like The Hook and The Vanishing Hitchhiker are super famous, now as then.

You can watch the entire film online at Folkstreams, an online collection of films related to American folklore. 

(Tales of the Supernatural copyright ©1970, Sharon R. Sherman.)

Works Cited
Sherman, Sharon R. Tales of the Supernatural. video, 1970.,106.