Candyman: Bittersweet Difference

Candyman: Bittersweet Difference

One aspect that horrifies society is that of difference.  What differs from the norm and that which we do not know are what perpetuates fear within society.  This too is what inspires the horror film.  As we have studied often in this course, what is different from the norm remains repressed within society until it is projected and unleashed as the monster; the symbolic difference that represents our fears.  This is the case in Bernard Rose’s film Candyman.  In his film, what is different is what is repressed, so much so that it has taken the form of the “myth” or “legend of the Candyman.  The Candyman signifies difference in many respects.  He is firstly created as an outcast and monster based on the legend itself.  The story is that that he was brutally beaten and cut with razors, stung by a hive of bees and then burned to death.  If one chants his name five times in a mirror, he will appear only to murder you with the large hook he has for a hand.  The reason that he was killed is because he impregnated the daughter of a wealthy white man.  This leads to the main idea of difference within the film: that of racial difference.  The Candyman is black and the constant contrast between the races is a significant difference that helps drive the horror throughout the film.  The mere fact that Candyman was murdered because he was with a white girl and that he is created into a “mythical” monster because of this is discriminatory enough.  There are also other contrasts that further emphasize Candyman’s difference in society.  The woman who is investigating the case, Helen, is white and her partner, Bernadette is black; the contrast between the nice part of town and the ghetto are constant reminders of difference in society.  The film also compares family life and contrasts how white people are treated versus how black people are treated.  At one point, after Helen is attacked, she states: “Two people get brutally murdered and the cops do nothing- a white woman gets attacked and the whole place gets shut down.”  By using emphasizing Candyman’s alienation by contrasting how different races are treated, the film develops the underlining message that what is truly horrifying is racism in society.  It is racism that created the Candyman and it is racism that continues to fuel his legend.

There are many ways in which this theme of difference is used to signify horror in Candyman.  In the essay “When the Woman Looks” by Linda Williams, she discusses the significance of the woman’s look in relation to the monster and her male counterparts.

Difference is also discussed in Lucy Fischer’s essay “Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby”.  It is pregnancy and childbirth that alienate the woman from society.  Finally the destruction of difference is discussed using James Conlon’s article “The Place of Passion: Reflections on Fatal Attraction” and how passion must be destroyed or it will wreak domestic stability.  By examining these three articles, we can begin to understand how difference is used to signify horror through the use of the woman’s look, parturition and passion versus domestic stability.

The use of the woman’s look is an important part of Candyman for it also helps to explain difference.  In Linda Williams essay “When A Woman Looks”, she begins by discussing the difference between the way woman look versus the way in which men look.  While men make it a point to look, woman “cover their eyes or hide behind the shoulders of their dates” (Williams 15).  An interesting an example of the way men look versus the way woman look can be seen in the opposition that lies between Helen and Bernadette, the two woman who are investigating the case.  Helen, who is white, is never afraid of anything.  She does not believe in the Candyman and is not “afraid to look”.  Bernadette, on the other hand, who is black, is always cautious, wide-eyed and afraid.  How the two woman test out the “candyman” legend by chanting his name five times in the mirror it is Bernadette who cannot bring herself to say his name five times.  When they go to investigate in the ghetto, it is Bernadette once again who wants to back out, and it is Helen who later on crawls through the mirror to take pictures.  While Bernadette is taking on the role of the woman who is afraid to look, Helen takes on the role of the man.  She is determined and not afraid to “look” into anything.  Williams discusses when a woman does “look and sees” and observes how they “must be punished in the end” (DD 17).  This is indeed true with Helen.  At one point she is investigating the bathroom where one of Candyman’s murders took place and is “punished” by having four black guys beat her up.  One is actually playing the part of the Candyman and Helen ends up with a black eye: her punishment for looking.  The fact that it is four black males who beat her up is even more significant, for it was her “look” that invites the horror of difference and emphasized that racist undertone in the film.

Helen continues to pursue her investigation of Candyman and is again “punished” at the end of the movie.  She has seen too much.  She invades his privacy and literally steps into his world when she steps through the mouth of his graphite face on the wall.  Similar to the example that Williams uses of Christine in the Phantom of the Opera, Helen violates the Candyman’s privacy and she “becomes responsible for the horror that her look reveals” (Williams 19).  As a result, she appears insane to the outside world for only Helen can see Candyman, and slowly loses control as he invades her mind.  He places her in a trance and then she blacks out, only to wake up in a pool of blood with someone dead beside her.  The fact that she is the only woman who looks in the beginning of the film foreshadows the end when she is punished and in a sense “becomes” Candyman.  He is left to burn in the fire and she returns in his spot.  She has become the “male” and even appears more masculine in the last bathroom scene because of her bald head.  She reverses roles with her husband, for in the last scene he takes on a more feminine role.  He looks in the mirror and says her name.  He sees himself as a woman sees herself in a mirror as a “biological freak” (Williams 21) and recognizes himself as a monster.  The fact that he “looks” how a woman looks results in his punishment.  He saw or “said” things that he should not, and therefore Helen appears and kills him.  The fact that she looks is a signifier of difference for in the end she takes on the male role and becomes an outcast from society like Candyman.

Williams expands on the idea of when a woman looks and how it is often “simultaneous with her victimization” (DD 18) and discusses the connection between woman and monster.  She discusses a “trance-like” look that overcomes a woman that she shares with the monster as they “recognize their similar status”.  When Helen first sees Candyman in the parking lot, she is held in a trance-like state and as focus on her look.  She remains paralyzed and the audience is left urging her to jump into her car and flee.  As Williams explains: “where the (male) voyeur’s properly distance look safely masters the potential threat of the (female) body it views, the woman’s look of horror paralyzes her in such a way that distance is overcome” (DD 18).  While Candyman calls Helen in a long shot, Helen’s trance like face is held in close up and intercut with close ups of Candyman’s graphite eyes, thereby holding her in place at this sign of recognition.  He, in turn, is allowed to master her through her look (Williams 18).  Similar to the example Williams uses of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, Helen “follows her master’s voice” (Williams 18) by not escaping in her car. “Be my victim” Candyman calls, emphasizing that her first look at him is also her first sign of victimization.

The relationship between Helen and Candyman is important to examine in light of how they both represent difference as a signifier of horror.  Williams discusses how sexual interest “resides most often in the monster and not the bland ostensible heroes…..” (DD 20), and this results in the connection between woman and monster.  While Helen is investigating Candyman, her husband is having and affair with one of his students- proving that he has failed to be the male counterpart.  What ultimately drives her to Candyman in the end is when she ends up in a psychiatric ward.  Helen escapes, and when she comes home she walks in on Stacey, the student, repainting her home.  They look at Helen as if she has gone mad and her husband barely pretends to know her.  The husband has shown that he is useless at a crucial moment when Helen needs help.

Helen is alienated, like Candyman and has no one to turn to.  “They will all abandon you” he chants.  Now that everyone believes that she is crazy she is like Candyman “in the eyes of the traumatized male” (Williams 20).  Their story is similar to that of Dracula.  At the end we discover that she was the white girl he loved in another life.  “IT WAS ALWAYS HELEN” the graphite says over her picture.  “All you have is my desire for you”; “we shall die together”; “come with me and be immortal” are some of the many things he chants that reflect their strange relationship.  He tries to control her to alienate her.  For example, he floats on top of her in the psychiatric ward and asks for a kiss so that she screams and appears crazy to the outside world that cannot see him.  Like Dracula, the connection between sex an violence and the lure of immortality is “not seen as repressed animal sexuality but as feared power and potency of a different kind of sexuality” (Williams 20).  Their relationship is horrifying because it is different.  Helen and Candyman are both outcasts and there is a sort of “sympathetic identification” (Williams 21).  When Helen looks she shares the male fear of the monster’s freakiness, yet she also recognizes the sense in which this freakiness is similar to her own difference. (Williams 21).  After her first encounter with Candyman she blacks out and wakes up in a pool of blood.  She is promptly arrested and strip searched; she too is being “constituted as an exhibitionist”.  She is being put on display and gossiped about like Candyman.  She has become an object of desire to Candyman and an object of horror to society.  It is through the woman’s look in Candyman that initially punishes her and then alienates her from society.  Yet, “her look is more than simply a punishment for looking or a narcissistic fascination with the distortion of her own image in the mirror that patriarchy holds up to her; it is also a recognition of their similar status as potent threats to a vulnerable male power.” (Williams 23)

Another element of Candyman that reveals difference is the theme of parturition.  The baby is the first factor that alienates Helen and bonds her with Candyman and is the final factor that redeems her in society.  Lucy Fischer explores this further in the article entitled “Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby”.

In the section entitle “False Labor”, Fischer discusses the parallels between the macabre and childbirth and the affiliation between pregnancy and the supernatural in relation to Rosemary’s Baby.  She discusses how childbirth has been looked upon over the years and how although the expectation within society is that giving birth is supposed to be a joyous experience, “strikingly less attention has been given to its impact on the mother”.  As a result the anxieties many mothers feel have been repressed and have “returned” in the form of horror in such films as Rosemary’s Baby (Williams 417).  The way in which childbirth is repressed in Rosemary’s Baby can be compared to the baby in Candyman.  First, the cause of Candyman’s alienation is the act of impregnating itself.  He impregnated a girl and was then killed under her father’s orders.  Candyman then became a repressed legend in society who returns to try and reunite with Helen and recreate the family that he once lost.  “You’re mine now, it is time for a new miracle” he says right before the climactic final scene; the miracle meaning the baby in the bonfire that Helen must rescue.

The baby is also a symbol of difference for it is the reason Helen is arrested and shut off from society.  When she first encounters Candyman, she is put into a trance.  In Fischer’s essay, she discusses how Rich and Kitzinger “associate pregnancy with possession”.  She is, in a sense, impregnated by Candyman during this trance and is similarly possessed.  She wakes up in a pool of blood in Anne Marie’s home.  The dog’s head has been chopped off and Anne Marie is attacking her screaming that Helen has killed her baby.  There have been many parallels between the macabre and childbirth (Fischer 418).  When she wakes up in a pool of blood, this links the two with Helen “because of her parturition and the blood with it, she will be impure” (Fischer 418).  She is now impure in the sense that she has become an outcast from society until the baby is found to prove her innocence.

Helen has not only become outcast from society but also from her own family.  She discovers when she escapes the hospital that her husband has been having an affair with his student, Stacey, who has now moved in and taken over Helen’s role.  Helen now resembles the role of the midwife, similarly to Mimi in Rosemary’s Baby.  Helen has “little standing in the community and (is) thought to bear evil spirits” (Fischer 18), people think that Helen is crazy, including her husband.  Midwives were often accused of taking the woman’s baby away and offering it to the devil.  Similarly how Mimi is trying to take Rosemary’s devil baby, Helen is accused of hiding Anne Marie’s baby.  In the end, she finds the baby in the middle of a bonfire and for a moment Helen and Candyman are, for a moment, united with Anne Marie’s baby.  The conclusion resembles the end of Rosemary’s Baby when the coven is circling around Rosemary’s baby.  They are both false family units with the baby representing difference.  While the baby is the actual devil in the later, Helen and Candyman’s baby represents difference because it is the reason they have both been repressed in society.  The fire that burns around them is like the fire’s of hell but also symbolizes a “different” sort of motherhood for “motherhood was always close to death”(Fischer 17).  In a sense, Helen becomes a mother for a moment because she comes close to death and faces the “perpetual fever” (Fischer 417) of the fire.

Helen’s “birth” can be discussed further using Fischer’s section on Hysterical Pregnancy so that we can understand her alienation caused by the child.  Like Rosemary, Helen blacks out when she is “impregnated” after her first encounter with Candyman.  She doesn’t remember slaughtering the dog and what happened to Anne Marie’s baby.  Technically, Candyman did not impregnate her, but this is also similar to Rosemary, for her husband Guy was allegedly uninvolved with the impregnation.  This “evokes primitive beliefs that human males are removed from procreation”.  Oddly enough, we never know who the real baby’s father is in Candyman.

Helen also has similar dreams to Rosemary.  Whenever she is caught in the trance Candyman has over her she is haunted by the baby, which is intercut quickly with flashes of Candyman’s eyes and her own.  Another common dream that many woman have is of a “sharp claw or tooth plunged into some part of her body.  She tries to flee, but her persecutors run after her from behind while she faces another danger in front.” (Fischer 420)  When Helen goes into her second “dream” or “trance” she tries to flee from Candyman but he appears all around her and eventually comes and scrapes his hook along her neck.  This is similar to the dream that pregnant woman have.

It is also common for woman to be paranoid during their pregnancy.  “Woman commonly begin to view the outside world as potentially threatening”.  The baby is shrouded in paranoia.  First Anne Marie is paranoid that someone is going to take away her baby and by the end of the film Helen feels very threatened by the outside world.  No one believes there is a Candyman; her “discomforts are consistently minimized (Fischer 412).  She is also anxious because she is losing control over her body and mind, another symptom often experienced during pregnancy (Fischer 422).  She is anxious about losing her husband, and like Rosemary, she ends up alone.  She briefly “seeks out external support out of a desire to be cared for and protected” (Fischer 423) and goes to Candyman in his lair.  However, in the end she runs away from him and he must deal with the thought that she found “abjection in him (the beloved child)” (Fischer 421).

Partruition in Candyman signifies difference in many ways.  It symbolizes what has been repressed in Candyman and what he attempts to project onto Helen, that which is their reunion.  Only this results in alienating them both from society and his eventual rejection from her.  Helen’s emotions and actions parallel those of a pregnant woman or Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby which results in her own alienation in society, and it is not until she returns the baby that she is once again accepted.

One can also explore difference in the film Candyman by discussing passion, and how passion essentially destroys difference.  One of the first statements in James Conlon’s article “The Place of Passion: Reflections on Fatal Attraction” is that passion brings destruction.  Plato states that “passion has no place.  It can only bring untruth, pain and destruction” while Nietzsche similarly states: il faut tuer les passions– we must kill our passions.  Conlon uses Madame Bovary as an example of the destruction of passion.  Emma Bovary’s lover had swayed her by proclaiming that her only duty was passion, but believing him ended up destroying her.  In Candyman, the Candyman tries to sway Helen into believing they are meant to be together; that passion is their duty so that the legend may live on. “To make lovers conquer in their rapture”; “you’re mine now”; “we shall die together”; “our names will be written on a thousand walls”; are some of the statements he chants to her that imply that passion is their duty.  Unlike Emma Bovary, Helen does not believe Candyman in the end and runs out of the fire leaving him burning behind.  Since Helen does not believe him she goes on “living”.  However, according to Conlon’s essay, passion must be destroyed, thus Candyman’s passion for Helen is finally destroyed and he dies when she rejects his offer of immortality with him.  This is one of many examples of how passion is destroyed in the film.

One can also look at the place of passion in the film and how it is used “in context with adultery…a specific reaction to domestic life” (Conlon 402) which is how Conlon analyzes the film Fatal Attraction.  One of the first signs we notice that something is amiss in the marriage between Helen and her husband Trevor, is in one of the very first scenes.  Helen visits Trevor at school during his “urban legend” lecture, a subject that they both feel very passionately about.  They have a small dispute; Helen asks him why he held the lecture when she specifically asked him not to, for it might have a negative influence on the interviews she is conducting for her thesis on Candyman.  This is then followed by another small dispute over one of his students, Stacey.  Helen asks him if there was something going on with her for “she could barely look me in the eye”, however, he denies her accusation.  As her investigation of Candyman progresses or the more passionate she feels about the case the more strange and suspicious Trevor’s behaviour becomes.  After her first encounter with Candyman which resulted in her black out and arrest, she finds herself in jail.  She tries to call Trevor at three o’clock in the morning and he is not home.   This is the first link between passion and adultery and how they destruct domestic life.

We must first try to understand the nature of the adultery in Candyman.  Similarly to Fatal Attraction, Helen is like Alex.  She is passionate about her work and is very determined.  Like Dan in Fatal Attraction, Trevor feels threatened by her work, she hasn’t “played by the rules” (Conlon 404).  He shows that he is ashamed by her when he fails to stick up for her at a dinner with another Candyman expert.  Stacey on the other hand offers something “fundamentally different” (Conlon 405).  Trevor can control Stacey, similarly to how Candyman can control Helen.  Trevor and Candyman both hold the power of information and can feed their passions.  Helen can also be compared with Beth in Fatal Attraction.  Helen has done nothing wrong and is an admirable wife, Stacey is like Alex and represent the “passion” that is missing from Trevor’s life.  While Helen takes all the passion from Trevor, she is represent Candyman’s love for her.  Although Candyman tries to reunite with her and build a family, and Trevor and Stacey try to live together after Helen’s death, “passion cannot be domesticated, it must be eliminated” (Williams 411).  This is why Helen must leave Candyman.  He must die for his passions and she must destroy hers, which was the Candyman case.  Trevor as well must die for his sin, and in the end all the passions are destroyed.  What was different was what the characters clung to as their passions which is why all is eliminated in the end.

In the film Candyman, the aspect of what is different is what signifies horror and is shown through three different ways.  Helen’s look in the film sets her apart from all the other woman.  She is never afraid to look, and is therefore punished and becomes an outcast in society.  She therefore shares a bond with the monster for he is an outsider as well, yet although she shares the same “freakiness” as him she rejects him in the end which emphasizes the films theme of racial difference.

Difference is also shown through parturition in comparison to Rosemary’s Baby.  The baby in the film represents the repression from Candyman’s past as well as the factor that alienates Helen from society, yet redeems her in the end.  She experiences many aspects of pregnancy, and to a certain degree Candyman has impregnated her.  The horror of which both Candyman’s past, and the terror Helen undergoes for the baby reflect a sort of racist outlook towards interracial couples.

Finally, by examining the aspect of how passion is played out throughout the film, we can understand why all the various elements are destroyed in the end.  All the characters have an obsession.  Candyman is obsessed with reuniting with Helen.  Helen is obsessed with the Candyman case.  Trevor’s passion is his work but he must have the power and feels threatened by Helen, and can only fill this void by having an affair with someone weaker than him; a student.  Both Candyman’s and Trevor’s passion clash with their domestic life, and therefore must both be eliminated, by Helen.  Although she has been “destroyed” herself, she must return to destroy all other traces of difference and return the balance.


Conlon, James. “The Place of Passion: Reflections on Fatal Attraction”. Dread of Difference (DD). 1996: University of Texas Press.

Fischer, Lucy. “Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby”. Dread of Difference (DD). 1996: University of Texas Press.


Williams, Linda. “When A Woman Looks”. Dread of Difference (DD). 1996: University of Texas Press.

Candyman: Bittersweet Difference
Article Name
Candyman: Bittersweet Difference
Candyman: Bittersweet Difference
(Visited 324 times, 1 visits today)
Share it!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on YummlyShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on LinkedInShare on StumbleUpon

3 thoughts on “Candyman: Bittersweet Difference

  1. Jonelle

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.

    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow,
    just wanted to say superb blog!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *