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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Examining the Urban Legends That Inspired ‘Candyman’

From the moment that the very first humans settled in the very first city, they were already sharing scary stories. What we now know as urban legends are simply the natural progression of a primal urge to make sense of society’s fears, a fact that Clive Barker was aware of when he wrote The Forbidden, the short Books of Blood story that was later adapted into Bernard Rose‘s Candyman (1992). Of course, this particular kind of yarn only works when presented with a hint of truth, and that’s why both the story and the film referenced several existing legends as they created a new horror icon.

And as we anxiously await the release of Nia DaCosta‘s revival of our favorite hook-handed apparition, I think that this is the perfect time to unpack the “real” myths and legends that inspired Candyman.

Taking place in the dilapidated outskirts of Liverpool, Barker’s original tale is actually quite different from Rose’s iconic adaptation. In Barker’s version, we follow a pretentious college student named Helen as she investigates recurring graffiti in the shady parts of town, eventually uncovering the sinister truth behind a legend she had previously dismissed as outdated folklore. While this version is more of a critique of the predatory way that outsiders often hijack lower-class narratives, it’s still very much rooted in popular stories that Barker likely knew from his own childhood.

Liverpool is no stranger to macabre urban myths, with popular yarns like that of the Vampire of St James’s Cemetery or even the tale of William Mackenzie, an engineer who was allegedly laid to rest inside a miniature pyramid instead of a grave so that the devil couldn’t collect his soul after a satanic bargain. The city even has an iconic ghost in the form of Lantern Jaw, a spectral figure with a square jaw and a spooky opera cloak that prowls the streets after dark. Based on decades of hearsay and anecdotal evidence, these stories sound like they could be true, and that was enough to inspire Barker and to keep these narratives alive in modern times.

Keeping in mind that Barker was well-versed in these spooky folk tales, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Candyman‘s name and the now-classic “sweets for the sweet” line are likely references to the real-world panic when parents became convinced that maniacs were hiding razors in Halloween treats. The villain’s iconic hook was also clearly borrowed from the classic urban legend about an escaped mental patient that preys on unsuspecting teenage couples.

Kudos to Jason Jenkins for finding this bonkers illustration!

Curiously, despite this smorgasbord of obvious inspirations for the Candyman mythology, Barker chose to keep his true nature as vague as possible, only describing the villainous figure as a jaundiced, hook-handed creature wearing a patchwork coat. To Barker, it doesn’t matter how the story began, but how it lives on and evolves so long as storytellers keep Candyman‘s memory alive. That’s what makes The Forbidden one of the most memorable entries in the Books of Blood, as it encourages readers to fill in the details themselves, making the scares more personal.

Naturally, Bernard Rose’s take on the story is a different creature altogether, moving the action to the outskirts of Chicago and developing surprisingly compelling mythology behind our antagonist. Here, Helen is directly studying popular urban legends in the city, with her investigation leading her to the real Cabrini Green housing projects. While she’s still obsessing over the Candyman mythos, the film is a much more sympathetic and tragic depiction of a well-intentioned woman that falls victim to ancient narratives, losing herself in a place long abandoned by society.

The film actually invents most of the lore that we now associate with Candyman, with Rose even incorporating the classic Bloody Mary ritual of chanting the antagonist’s name in front of mirrors in order to summon him. There’s also a child-abducting serial killer element that’s eerily reminiscent of both Chicago’s Homey the Clown (an alleged kidnapper who drove around in a van and lured in kids with promises of free candy) and the Andre Rand case, where the killer was later immortalized as the legendary Cropsey, inspiring the slasher classic The Burning and a fascinating documentary in the 2000s.

Obviously, the biggest difference between the film and the short story is the racial element. Tony Todd himself worked with Virginia Madsen to come up with the now-iconic origin story of a talented black painter who falls in love with the subject of one of his portraits, leading to his eventual execution by a racist mob. This additional layer of backstory transforms Candyman from a simple patchwork of existing tropes into a tragic Shakespearean figure, with the story becoming more compelling once you realize that the antagonist is just as tortured as his ill-fated victims.

Real bees and real hypnosis make it even spookier.

While there’s no direct precedent for this origin, it carries the same cautionary spirit found in many traditional African American folk tales, exposing a darker side to plantation-era America that was often unjustly romanticized in popular culture. There are also enough similarities to real tragic hate crimes for the story to sound eerily convincing, much like a naturally occurring urban legend.

While there’s no denying that these references to spooky oral tradition are what make Candyman such a special character, I think the scariest influence behind Rose’s film isn’t an urban legend at all, but a real crime that occurred in Chicago’s Grace Abbott Homes back in the late 80s. Exposed by journalist Steve Bogira in a fascinating article titled They Came in Through the Bathroom Mirror, the infamous murder of Ruth Mae McCoy is a dreadful case of societal neglect and police incompetence.

Known for its rampant crime and drug problems, Grace Abbot Homes was originally designed with a series of cramped service hallways in between apartments, meant to allow technicians easy access to plumbing and wiring without invading the privacy of residents. Unfortunately, these corridors also allowed access to the apartments themselves through bathroom medicine cabinets, a design flaw that would prove fatal once criminals began using these spaces to move around the complex (much like what Helen experiences in Rose’s film). These chilling home invasions were apparently common enough that some residents began barricading their bathrooms at night, knowing that no one cared enough about the neighborhood to fix the nightmarish problem.

That’s how Ruth ended up being killed by a pair of thieves who entered her home through the bathroom mirror, tragically spawning a real-life horror story in an isolated community. This environment of constant fear combined with reluctant law enforcement and racial insensitivity naturally led to the neighborhood becoming a breeding ground for anecdotal cautionary tales that live on to this very day. While Rose never confirmed that the Ruth Mae McCoy case influenced his vision for Candyman, I find it hard to believe that that the similarities are just a coincidence when the antagonist is meant to be the physical manifestation of killer stories.

Either way, one thing is for certain: there’s nothing quite like a good urban legend to get your skin crawling, so I’m excited to see how Nia DaCosta has updated this modern myth for a new generation. These stories often behave like living creatures, slowly changing as they reproduce and adapt to their environment, eventually evolving into something new, so I can’t wait to see what real stories inspired the return of Candyman. From e-mail chain letters to fake news, the digital age has changed the way that urban legends are created and spread, and that’s why I think these popular yarns are more fascinating (and dangerous) than ever.

The legend lives.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3679694/examining-urban-legends-inspired-candymaneditorial/

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