Candyman is jolly good fun and great food for sociological thought. As ever, this is not a review, but a short analysis of the film from a sociological angle. Set in Chicago, the film tells the story of Helen (Virginia Madsen), a graduate student writing her thesis on the urban legend of Candyman. Candyman (Tony Todd) was once an artist called Daniel Robitaille who fell in love with the daughter of a rich man and was killed for being the son of a slave. His murderous spirit is conjured by calling his name five times in front of the mirror. Helen sets up to investigate two recent murders, which folklore attribute to Candyman.
Class & Race: class and race are intimately linked, especially in the US where segregation is not such a distant memory. Candyman was the son of a slave, but also able to raise his status by becoming an artist. However, by falling in love with daughter of rich man, he crosses the forbidden boundary of class and race. He is killed horribly on the father’s orders. Racial boundaries are here constituted through sexuality. As it is often the case with race/ethnicity and nationalism, women’s sexuality constitutes the boundary between the I and the Other. Therefore, women’s sexuality needs to be controlled to ensure the reproduction of national boundaries along racial and class lines. (For more see, Yuval-Davis 1997; Nagel 2000 and 2003). The murders are set in the Cabrini-Green public housing development in north-side Chicago overrun by violent gangs. In contrast, Helen is a white middle class student married to an academic living in a post apartment. She crosses class and racial boundaries by entering the Cabrini Green. A local gang leader punishes the trespassing by beating her up. He does so pretending to be Candyman. Candyman is therefore not just a folkloristic figure, but a myth that marks a boundary between black and white, poor and rich. He is turned into a god to be feared.
Religion: there are several aspects that tinge the film of religious hues. Helen believes that Candyman is just a legend. He appears to prove her wrong and does so by killing but framing her for the murders and the abduction of a child. The film contrast ‘illegitimate’ folk knowledge with ‘legitimate’ academic knowledge. The knowledge and religion of the poor black people of the Cabrini-Green is pitted against the authoritative white academic knowledge represented by Helen. Knowledge is therefore also shown to be along racial and class lines (postcolonial critique in a nutshell!). Helen’s status, in terms of authoritative knowledge, class and gender, is shattered as she becomes a suspect for the crimes. Faced with the reality of Candyman but no proof for it, her scientific knowledge cannot protect her and, indeed, dooms her as pariah.
The fact that Helen’s husband, Trevor (Xander Berkeley), is adulterous adds to the lack of integrity of academic knowledge. These academics full of fancy words are not so good after all. He is distant, unsupportive and doesn’t even attempt to believe her. Trevor represents hollow ‘reason’ that lacks ethics. Trevor also expresses his power as a (male) lecturer over his student with whom he has an affair and masculinity, while Helen is left alone fighting Candyman but also the police and psychiatrists.
Candyman wants to kill her to win over her scepticism and reassert the truth of his legend. He seeks to allure her by promising immortality in becoming part of the legend. The faithful of the estate have set up a pyre to burn in honour of Candyman. Helen finds herself inside the pyre with the abducted baby and Candyman. She dies rescuing the baby from the fire. The ‘congregation’ recognises her bravery by attending the funeral. Helen becomes the new Candyman. As mentioned, Candyman is a ‘god’/myth that marks a group identity along class, race and even ‘knowledge’. The film reflects a Durkheimian understanding of religion as the projection of social boundaries, consciousness and moralities.
Helen crosses those boundaries and gives recognition to that group by coming to believe in Candyman and becoming part of the legend. She also manages to replace murderous Daniel-Candyman with righteous Helen-Candyman. While Daniel-Candyman was merely inflicting pain and death, Helen-Candyman saves innocent lives (the baby) and punishes the wicked (her adulterous husband). Very empowering!