October 13, 2021

Hooked on Black Horror

by Not Past It

Background show artwork for Not Past It

Candyman, Candyman, Candyman… Do you dare say it five times? On October 16, 1992, Candyman was released in theaters introducing the world to the ghost-like ghoul with a hook for a hand. But this horror cult classic is different--it features a Black man as the haunting character with a backstory of racial trauma. We explore the legacy of the film and why it has such staying power, despite its flaws.

Where to Listen


Simone: Tell me if this rings true: I’ve found that when I ask someone if they like scary movies, I basically get one of two responses. It’s either like, “No way! I get scared way too easily.” Or, it’s like, “Scary movies? I’m ob-sessed with scary movies.” I myself fall very much into the latter category.

Simone: There's something weirdly addictive about the thrill of the suspense, that feeling you get in your stomach when you’re like, “Oh no…something bad's about to happen.”  And my favorite scary movies aren’t the ones about monsters just killing people for shits and giggles. I like the ones where monsters are killing people for compelling reasons. Gimme a backstory, gimme twisted, psychological motives, gimme personal trauma as metaphor. Now that’s scary.

Simone: And for me, one of the movies that does this best is the 1992 cult horror classic, Candyman. Know the story? It hinges on an urban legend…that if you look into a mirror and say the name Candyman five times, the Candyman himself, this ghost-like ghoul with a hook for a hand, shows up, and well... 

[SFX: (screams)]

Simone: When the film came out back in ‘92, it instantly took a spot in Black cinema canon. It even inspired a slew of sequels—the most recent one from 2021. But as great as it is, there are some parts of the movie that just kinda…make my skin crawl…and not in a good way. So I tried to understand that discomfort…and what I learned taught me a whole lot more about who gets to tell these tales of horror.

Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history—and this month we’re telling you the stories that still haunt our world. I'm Simone Polanen. 

Simone: 29 years ago this week, on Friday October 16, 1992, the original Candyman hit theaters. Today on the show, we’re exploring the legacy of the film, why it has such staying power—despite its flaws—and what the horror movie genre can tell us about the cultural reckoning we’re living through.

Simone: Say it with me: Candyman, Candyman, Candyman...dare to keep going? More, after the break.

Simone: Do either of you feel inspired to say Candyman five times while looking into a mirror? 

Brittany Luse: I would never do that. 

Eric Eddings: I don’t play that. (laughter)

Brittany: I would never. I don't step on cracks. As my mom has once said, she's like, “I don't know any of that old magic, but I respect it.”

Simone: To really get into why I love this movie so much, but also why parts of it make me feel icky, I called up Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings. They co-host the podcast, For Colored Nerds, they’re horror buffs, and most importantly, they are Candyman superfans. 

Eric: It's one of my favorite horror movies.

Simone: Yeah, what makes it one of your favorites? 

Eric: Well, it's just, it's a Horror. Movie. It is meant to be dark and macabre and like, feel very tense and unsettling, like the entire time.

Brittany  For sure. Like, to Eric's point, it's like deliberately macabre, but I love, I absolutely love horror movies. I love being scared at home or in the theater. I think it's just so much fun.

Simone: If you’ve never seen the 1992 film Candyman—well, first off, I recommend you change that immediately. But here’s what you need to know.

Simone: The film takes place in early 90s Chicago and follows the story of Helen Lyle, a white graduate student at the University of Illinois Chicago. 

Brittany: She is a white woman who is dealing with sexism in academia, where she is focusing on studying urban legends. And, uh, there's this one specific urban legend of Candyman, that takes place in, you know, a black part of Chicago. 

Simone: And it’s through her research that she learns about this one local legend in particular—Candyman—a boogeyman type figure who’s seen haunting the nearby housing project, called Cabrini-Green. 

Eric: When you're looking at Cabrini-Green, you know, you see the graffiti that is everywhere in this housing development, you see how the, like, limited access to sunlight that people you know, have in their homes. It’s not windows in their homes, really.

Simone: The story really takes off with a murder at Cabrini-Green. 

Simone: And the residents there keep saying it’s Candyman who did it. Helen descends from her ivory tower at the university and heads down to the scene of the murder in person. 

Brittany: You know, Helen continues to basically force her way into these projects. There are people at the entrance when she's trying to come in, who are like, “Who are you here to see? We know you're not supposed to be here. Like, who are you? What, what, like, you're dressed like a department store catalog. Why are you here?”

Simone: In the end, Helen really should’ve listened to the residents at Cabrini-Green! Because—ok, minor spoiler here—the Candyman…the real Candyman…he shows up. 

[CANDYMAN, Candyman: Helen…]

Simone: And he haunts the fuck outta Helen. 

[CANDYMAN, Candyman: I came for you.]

[CANDYMAN, Helen: Do I know you?]

[CANDYMAN, Candyman: No, but you doubted me.]

Simone: The film is well made with rich cinematography, expert pacing, super effective sound design...but I like to think Candyman endures to this day because of one performance in particular, from the titular boogeyman himself, as played by the incomparable Tony Todd.

Eric: Tony—sorry, we can cuss, right?—Tony Fucking Todd. His voice! His presence! He's like, “uh, Helen…” 

[CANDYMAN, Candyman: Helen, Helen...be my victim. 

Eric: “...be my victim.”

Brittany: It's Candyman's movie. It's Tony Todd's movie. Maybe it's also too, because like Tony, Todd was probably like 35, 40, 6'5" Black man, maybe the age I'm at now, I'm like, “Hmm, like how bad is the hook? Like what can we do?”

Simone: Well, if you were looking for a horror-themed fan fiction prompt...you’re welcome.

Simone: Casting a tall, deep-voiced Black man as the monster—you might be thinking, “Hmm, that’s an iffy choice, politically.” But when it came out in ‘92, the film garnered a lot of support from Black audiences. It grossed almost 26 million dollars. And reportedly, the NAACP even called the film “good fun,” and found it progressive that a black actor could join the ranks of iconic boogeymen like Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger.


Simone: And I think, in part, that’s because Candyman isn’t some arbitrarily violent villain. We come to understand the journey he’s been on to become who he is. 

Brittany: I think one of the aspects of the film that's the most exciting is how Candyman becomes a sympathetic figure. Candyman is, is the character that I sympathize with the most. I understand why he wants vengeance. He died from an unimaginable act of racist violence.

Simone: That unimaginable act of racist violence, it complicates Candyman’s story...from that of a senseless monster…to a more sympathetic character. Because before he was Candyman, he was just a man.

Simone: Who lived in New Orleans in the late 1800s—the son of a formerly enslaved man. He was a painter by trade, celebrated for his talent and famous enough that he landed a commission to paint the portrait of a white woman, the daughter of a local wealthy landowner.

Simone: In the process of painting this woman’s portrait, the two fell in secret, forbidden love. But then, she got pregnant, and things quickly fell apart.

Simone: The painter left New Orleans and fled up North. But the girl’s father hired a pack of men to follow the painter to what later became Cabrini-Green. 

Simone: When the men found him, they pinned him down and sawed off his painting hand. And then, they slathered honey all over his body and let a nearby swarm of bees sting him to death. 

Simone: They burned his corpse, but his spirit....remained. Vengeful, murderous, and full of rage. That spirit became the monster we meet in the movie…the monster with bees crawling on his face and a hook where his hand used to be…the one the locals call Candyman.  

Simone: The story of the painter’s journey to becoming Candyman is reminiscent of a type  of story that’s all too common in America’s history. Of gruesome acts of violence against Black people at the hands of white people. 

Simone: But in this case, that story was invented for the film. You see, Candyman was originally based on a short-story searching out the class divides in poor urban areas in Liverpool. And while the race of the characters is never explicitly mentioned, the story is very specific to an English social context. So this white, British director, Bernard Rose, read it, and knew he had to make the movie. But he also knew he could reach a larger audience if it was set in America. And so, he transported the story to Chicago and the Cabrini-Green housing complex, populated mostly by Black American residents. 

Brittany: A place where, I think the movie kind of, like, fails is that there is like a gesturing at like inequality without explaining why that is. I'm not saying that like, Candyman should have specifically had the phrase “red lining” in it, but like, I think that something that the film left unexamined was like, well, you know, we kind of get into the badness of Cabrini-Green, but there isn't really too much investigation into how it got that way, or why Cabrini-Green exists the way it does in the film, to begin with.

[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: Picture a no man's land with broken windows, dark abandoned buildings, no law and order…]

Simone: This is  a CBS news report from 1989—on Cabrini-Green. The real Cabrini-Green, an actual public housing project in Chicago.

[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: There are carefully demarcated areas controlled by rival bands of armed militia fighting over the rubble. Nearly every night there's sniper fire. It sounds like Beirut, but in fact, it's America.]


Simone: In 1942 the Frances Cabrini Homes were built to be this Chicago utopia of affordable housing. And additional public housing units were built in the area soon after, to make this giant complex. But funding for upkeep and social services disappeared, leaving buildings full of broken appliances and elevators. With little oversight, the different buildings were warred over by different local gangs. A 1982 study found that the Chicago Housing Authority was one of the worst-managed public housing agencies in the nation.

[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: It exists unseen, except by those who live there—a creature of state, local and federal government. The product of bad politics, failed policy, and official neglect.]

Simone: And the depiction of Cabrini-Green that ended up onscreen in Candyman has a lot of problems. 

Eric: I think, my hesitation is so much of it is a translation of perceived Blackness. Whether it's perceiving its poverty, whether it's perceiving, its like horror and its trauma, and it's almost, almost all filtered through the lens of a white woman who was preying on them.

Simone: The film places Candyman in Cabrini-Green to magnify the pain and trauma that’s already there. But not in a way that actually humanizes the Black people carrying it…because it chooses to focus more on how all the white people respond to it.

Simone: Would you call Candyman a Black horror film?

Eric: Hmmm, that's a good question...

Simone: The answer to which requires a deep dive into the history of Black Horror. Which we’ll get to after the break. How’s that for a hook? Ughhh...

Simone: Before the break, I spoke with Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings about the 1992 film, Candyman. As much as we love the film, there are a few places it falls short—namely, it features Black people and their stories, but it doesn’t center their experience in a way that rings true.

Simone: I wanted to understand why a film like this can feel like both a success and a failure. So I talked to an expert...and, maybe the bravest person I’ve ever met.  

Dr. Coleman: I say Candyman almost every morning in the mirror. 


Simone: Really? 

Dr. Coleman: I do. 

Simone: Wow. 

Dr. Coleman: In my bathroom mirror.

Simone: How’s that going for you?

Dr. Coleman: Well, look we’re here together! So I think it brings me luck!           

Simone: This is Dr. Robin Means Coleman. She’s an avid Candyman fan, professor of communication studies, and Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Northwestern University. 

Dr. Coleman: My claim to fame is that I wrote the, sort of the book, on black horror movies called Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present

Dr. Coleman: What I do is take a look at that entire historical trajectory of the ways in which Blacks are, are participating in the horror genre. So what we're talking about is more than a 100-year history where Black people show up in horror films. 

Simone: Not only did Dr. Coleman study over 100 years of film history, to put her book together, she also watched over 3,000 horror films. Including—duh—Candyman.

Simone: And in her research, she found a lot of films that had the same problem that Candyman has…where there are Black characters present, even in big roles, but the films themselves don't really serve them.

Dr. Coleman: It comes out of, sort of, the mind and imagination of a white director, out of whiteness. Whiteness is the center of the story. It isn't Blackness.

Simone: These aren’t Black horror films, not quite. Dr. Coleman calls films like these.... 

Dr. Coleman: “Blacks in Horror Films.” Blacks in Horror is really about the ways in which Black people are either parachuted into stories—they may be used as vehicles to push the narrative forward—but it really isn't about their history, their culture, their experience. 

Simone: The Original Candyman is based on a short story that’s not originally about Black people. It's directed by a white man, and it’s about a white woman entering a black neighborhood where she’s not necessarily welcome. And the film preys on the anxieties of white audiences about impoverished black communities. All of these traits are hallmarks of Blacks in Horror. 

Dr. Coleman: What's complicated about this story is that monster re-emerges, but in Cabrini-Green, and terrorizes Black folks, when, right across the tracks are sort of the descendants of those who have, just meted out such trauma, not only on him, but on—really on the Black community.

Simone: To many Black audiences watching—myself included—this is a major logical and emotional flaw. We understand how Candyman becomes the monster that he is—but his choices? Make it make sense!

Simone: This is totally in contrast with the films that truly center Blackness. Those are what Dr. Coleman calls, "Black Horror."

Dr. Coleman: This is horror coming out of the imagination of Black directors, who are featuring and centering and starring Black folks and Black stories. 

Dr. Coleman: It doesn't mean, even, that it has to be a 100% Black cast, but what it does do is that it speaks, um, to Black experiences and histories and culture. But it really does center Blackness. 

Simone: Dr. Coleman says an early example of true Black horror is the 1972 Blaxploitation classic, Blacula

[BLACULA TRAILER, VO: Blacula, Dracula's, soul brother, deadlier even than he...]

Dr. Coleman: I mean we're talking about a vampire who's kind of moving through the slave triangle trade and ends up in LA and, and does kind of mini lecture on, on that.

[BLACULA TRAILER, VO: The Black avenger...rising from his tomb to fill the night with horror.]

Dr. Coleman: That’s Black Horror.

Simone: Yes. It’s campy...Dracula’s soul brother. But Dr. Coleman says, in this film, we have the Black experience in front of, and behind the camera. And in terms of representation, it makes a difference.

Simone: In the mid 90s came another classic Black Horror Film. Tales From The Hood.

[TALES FROM THE HOOD TRAILER, VO: Now, your most terrifying nightmare and your most frightening reality are about to meet...on the streets. 

[TALES FROM THE HOOD TRAILER, Ball: And this is a trip, homie…]

Simone: The film was executive produced by Spike Lee and set in South Central LA. Which had just gone through the Rodney King beating, the LA race riots, and the OJ trial. And its Black director, Rusty Cundieff, made the setting an important part of the story.

Dr. Coleman: Rusty's intervening on these narratives. He's homing in on police brutality. He's also indicting our politicians. Where he's also demanding that Black people take some accountability and sort of behave in the ways that protect the Black community.

Simone: That leads us to the Black horror film that revitalized the genre...

[GET OUT TRAILER, Missy: Sink into the floor.]

[GET OUT TRAILER, Chris: Wait, wait, wait.]

[GET OUT TRAILER, Missy: Sink.]

[GET OUT TRAILER. Chris: If there's too many white people, I get nervous.]

Simone: I know you know it. 

[GET OUT TRAILER, Georgina: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. (screams)]

Simone: I'm talking about Jordan Peele’s masterpiece…Get Out.

DR. COLEMAN: I think that everybody's talking about Black Horror because of Jordan Peele, not just because of, of box office popularity and high quality of Get Out, but it does this sort of crossover moment. We've got a Black Horror film that wins an Academy Award and for, kind of, mainstream viewership, that's huge.

Simone: Peele launched this moment in culture where Black horror is taken seriously—so it makes sense he would want to go back and fix the problems with the movies that got him interested in black horror in the first place, including Candyman

[ARCHIVAL, Jordan Peele: This was one of the movies that told me that, that black people can be in horror.]

Simone: This is Jordan Peele from an interview with the Movie Times in August of 2021. 

[ARCHIVAL, Jordan Peele: I was a horror fan and we didn't have a Black Freddy. We didn't have a Black Jason. But, when Candyman came along, it felt very daring. And it felt very cathartic.]

Simone: Like Brittany, Eric and me, Peele was bowled over by the commanding Tony Todd as the original Candyman. It made the film distinctly special. But not perfect. 

[ARCHIVAL, Jordan Peele: Helen Lyle is a bit of a fish out of water, to say the least, in the Cabrini-Green area. A lot is focused on her fear and therefore, the audience's fear of this Black space.]

Simone: Peele saw an opportunity to update the story.

[ARCHIVAL, Jordan Peele: And the story that resonated to me, now, is the story of my fear of the white space. And to be able to explore the quote unquote mirror image, or the flip of the first one. We tried to bring out the connection with the, the fact that this is an epidemic of violence on Black bodies in this country.]

Simone: And so, Peele teamed up with Nia DaCosta—also a Black director—and made a new movie. In the Peele-produced 2021 sequel to Candyman, we follow the story of Anthony McCoy, a young Black artist in the Chicago scene. Early in the film, Anthony learns that his roots aren’t in the South Side of Chicago where he spent his childhood. He was actually born in Cabrini-Green. And now he’s living in the luxury condos where Cabrini-Green once stood—a detail that’s borrowed from the true story of the infamous housing project. 

Simone: The last Cabrini-Green high-rise building was demolished in 2011, displacing thousands of residents. In the movie, Anthony makes it his mission to understand the gentrification that swallowed this place and he talks about it explicitly. 

[CANDYMAN 2021, Anthony McCoy: Who do you think makes the hood? The city cuts off community and waits for it to die. Then they invite developers in, and say, “Hey you artists, you young people, you white—preferably or only—please come to the hood, it’s cheap. And if you stick it out for a couple of years, we’ll bring you a Whole Foods.]

Simone: Unlike the original Candyman, the 2021 film centers Blackness—not just by having a Black protagonist, but by delving into the anxieties and the fears that reflect the present realities of many Black audiences watching. 

Simone: Black Horror is having a moment right now. Which is great, but actually introduces another problem. See, I feel like Hollywood does this thing where an idea is trending, right? Really connecting with the public. And they’ll take it and just kinda flatten it into the shape of a movie. If you’ve got the right people involved, you can get something nuanced and thrilling and true.

Simone: But more often than not, you get something much clumsier, something that misses what was special about the original idea and just reduces it to its most obvious, most vulgar form. 

Brittany: There's been a lot of investment by Hollywood in stories featuring Black people where the horror has something to do with police violence or police brutality. 

Simone: Brittany Luse—co-host of the For Colored Nerds podcast, who we heard from earlier—has also noticed this unfortunate trend. 

Brittany: I personally don't actually have much interest in watching those kinds of movies, just because that type of violence is not new to me as a Black person. When it's just sort of like that relentless battery of violence against Black people, it just feels harmful and tiring. 

Simone: In 2020, the Black Horror film Antebellum was panned for violent depictions of the treatment of enslaved people—that felt gimmicky and exploitative. Lena Waithe and Little  Marvin’s 2021 TV-series called Them was criticized for being a rehash of racial traumas for the sake of shock value. 

Simone: Brittany’s had the same experience a lot of us have had: every time we turn on our TVs or open Twitter, we see real-life violence constantly. So when these images get reflected back to us on film in this ham-handed way, it's like...yeah....we know...

Brittany: That echo chamber thing of social media is I think what gets a lot of like film executives to be like, “Oh, we have to make a movie that's going to be speaking out against racism.” And I think that might be where some of that sort of like message stuff is coming in and it's a drain.

Simone: The horror we watch does not exist in a vacuum. And our understanding of what we’re seeing on our screens is changing. It’s like our tolerance for trauma as entertainment is shifting as we’re confronted with the reality of what that trauma actually looks like. 

Dr. Coleman: We’ve always seen this kind of Black trauma in our entertainment media. That's what made Black Horror films so popular. But in 2020 and 2021 in particular, this is a moment where our entertainment, media or real life lived experience are blurring and it's too much. 

Simone: This moment we’re in right now...it influences the way we experience violence against black people in movies...and Dr. Coleman points out this even changes the way we watch classic films.

Dr. Coleman: It's one thing to see Ben shot down by a militia at the end of Night of the Living Dead. It's another thing if we saw that moment in 2020, and then walked out of a movie theater and then saw George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, that's when it feels like there's no relief from these narratives—real or imagined—and it feels like it ceases to be entertaining because it's happening every day right in front of us.  

Simone: Yeah, you said something at the beginning there that I'd love for you to expand on, which is we are used to seeing Black trauma in our entertainment and that, that's part of the reason or that, that's what makes the entertainment so popular?

Dr. Coleman: So I think Black stories and not all of them are about trauma, right? But to tell the story of being Black in America means to tell the story of the ways in which Black people navigate this institution, right? And its policies that are not set up for us. It's laws that are not set up for us.

Dr. Coleman: And so to create narratives about being Black and in the US means that sometimes these stories reflect on those kinds of experiences, and then 2020 happened. And that, I think in 20 and 2021, it became fatiguing. 

Simone: For me, the horror genre has been a space where I can explore these scary feelings—like pain, terror, disgust, panic—but from the safety of my seat in the audience. Free of consequences—except for maybe sleeping with the light on for a few nights. 

Simone: But that doesn’t work as well when what you’re watching is just the images of actual, real-life horror reflected back to you, with just…better camera work and some ominous scoring.

Simone: What we’re demanding from the horror genre is what we’re asking from the rest of media—stories that stay true to the people they’re conveying. That don’t just draw on the parts that are best for spectacle. We want to be entertained, yes…but more than that, we want to see our humanity on screen.  

Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. This episode was produced by Remoy Philip. 

Simone: Next week, we visit the banks of the haunted Lake Lanier...

[NEWS CLIP, Buck Buchanan: You reach out in the dark, and all of a sudden you feel an arm and a leg, and it doesn’t move. That’s creepy.]

Simone: The rest of our team is producer Sarah Craig. And our associate producer is Julie Carli. Laura Newcombe is our intern. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Maura Walz, Andrea B. Scott, and Zac Stuart Pontier. Fact checking by Jane Ackermann. Sound design and mixing by Matt Boll and Enoch Kim. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. This episode included super special original spooky music by Bobby Lord featuring Natalia Paruz aka the Saw Lady. It was recorded by Sam Bair at Relic Room. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka. Special thanks to: Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey, Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles, and Nabeel Chollampat.

Simone: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. Click the little bell next to the follow button to get notifications for new episodes.

Simone: And hey, and we want to hear from you. What’s a moment in history that you can’t get past? Do you have a personal brush with history? Tell us about it! Send us an email to notpastit@zspmedia.com, or leave us a voicemail at 646-504-9252.

Simone: You can follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.

Dr. Coleman: Shall we do it? 

Simone: Let's do it. Let’s do it, alright.

Dr. Coleman & Simone: Candyman.

Dr. Coleman & Simone: Candyman.

Dr. Coleman & Simone: Candyman.

Dr. Coleman & Simone: Candyman.

Simone: Candyman. Hey! That was a dirty trick. Oh, man. I walked right into that one.