Odds and Dead Ends : Cultural Touchstones in Candyman

Clive Barker was one of those names (and still is) to give Stephen King a run for his money. When he burst onto the scene with his short story collections, Books of Blood Vol I – VI, he didn’t hold a single thing back. People getting faces ripped off like balaclavas, all the hands of the population becoming murderously sentient, a secret subway station piled high with carcasses; they never stopped for a second to think of people’s sensibilities. Barker’s tales just went for it.

            One of those stories is called ‘The Forbidden’, published in Vol 5. It follows Helen, wandering around the poorer, less-well policed neighbourhoods of the aptly named Spector Street Estate, looking for ideas for her thesis on urban graffiti. After stumbling upon a local legend of a man with a hooked hand murdering people in the recent past, and finding the figure’s murals on the walls, her explorations and curiosity lead her to discover the mythical figure himself: Candyman, embodiment of urban legend, kept alive by the rumours and fears of the local people. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for Helen.

            After Barker had become one of the new voices in horror, film adaptations of his stories began to follow. The Hellbound Heart was made into Hellraiser, which truly established his name. Cabal became Nightbreed, Rawhead Rex from Vol 3 was made into a film in ’86. It would take until 1992 for ‘The Forbidden’ to become Candyman, and when it did, it made the journey across the pond from the UK to the USA, with some cultural changes.

            In the original short story, Barker focused on the issues of class in British society as the major cause for the dilapidation and poverty in the estate. There is, perhaps, a little similarity to a folk-horror setup, that the ‘locals’, portrayed normally in those films as less educated and less technologically advanced, but have a connection to the area or land, and therefore the past. This gives them a greater connection to whatever supernatural occurrences may come through in the course of the story/film, with the modern, upper-class, wealthier city-folk unable to embrace the past and therefore perishing as a result. Here, despite the narrative taking place within an urban area, there seems to be a similar concept. Those who have not had their minds polluted by education and wealth of the upper echelons of society are much more of-the-moment, of the now, connected to the primal nature of things, including the supernatural.

            In terms of narrative, not much changed when the story went across the pond, but the class element went away, presumably because class is much more of a concern and talking point in British society (blame our aristocratic, pompous background which we’ve never quite shed). Instead, the issues of racial inequality in ethnic minority communities were brought in, especially in black communities. Spector Street Estate became Cabrini-Green, a real housing estate in Chicago which had, since its creation, fallen into a reputation of crime and poor living conditions.

Cabrini-Green had, over the years, numerous incidents leading to its reputation. Gang warfare in 1970 saw the death of two police officers, gang killings claimed the lives of 11 in the early 80s, and other incidents besides these – including rapes, poisonings, sniper killings, and more, even in the years after Candyman – meant that Cabrini-Green was already a location with its own monsters and dark history. Bringing this darkness and animosity in the shape of a mythical evil presence could be seen to be personifying the violent myth of Cabrini-Green itself, allowing a community and a nation to see a specific entity, and therefore rationalise the violence. After all, that’s sort of what urban legends are; easily digestible, concrete tales and embodiments of fears and social taboos which can teach us life lessons. Here, we can see all of the issues and problems within a certain portion of society brought together and embodied in a single figure of the Candyman.

            Speaking of which, it should also be acknowledged that it’s a rare thing to have a black, now-franchised, horror villain. Casting Tony Todd is an inspired move, bringing a slow, imposing malice to the role in a similar (but different) way to Doug Bradley’s Pinhead from Hellraiser (considering both are Barker stories, not too surprising). Barker wanted something menacing for Pinhead, specifically harking back to Dracula for inspiration. It’s not hard to see that Dracula’s grand, somewhat regal appearance, might have even influenced Candyman. With the gentleman vampire now bleeding into popular culture (thanks to people like Bram Stoker and John Poldori), it might be possible to say that there’s a deliberate drawing on this same set of influences for the portrayal of the lord of urban myth himself. There is an education about him, knowledge and learning, which is at odds with the portrayals of almost all other characters of colour in the film (with a few exceptions including Kasi Lemmons’s Bernadette), further making him different and ‘other’. He straddles the worlds of the student and the studied, the haves and the have-nots. He is outside reference, and yet a reference for all.

            I could mention the influence of actual urban legends such as the hook-man leaving his hook in the side of the car, but I’m fairly sure are discussed in the film anyway. The film, nonetheless, is a compilation, a merging, of various aspects of the real world and of popular culture, culminating in one of the most memorable franchises in horror (and perhaps one of the most unique). With the new film being released shortly, it will be interesting to see how the film story is once again updated to bring in new influences and elements. It’s a superb cultural touchstone, purely of the time, yet applicable to all times.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: kjudgemental

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One thought on “Odds and Dead Ends : Cultural Touchstones in Candyman

  1. Pingback: Black Horror Movies | HorrorAddicts.net

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