Horror Blackademics: Candyman's Revenge On Gentrification

"How much did you pay for this place?" Fear, Entitlement, and Urban Space in Bernard Rose's Candyman
written by Aviva Briefel and Sianne Ngai

Horror Film Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini

Concept: Based within the 'haunted house' trope, "all horror or Gothic narratives derive from this point of private proprietorship, one that produces anxieties about proprietorship in general, these narratives subsequently establish anxiety as a form of emotional property." Fear is an inherited right owned by those privileged enough to own property. There is a struggle between both property and who has a right to be afraid.

Thus, "restricting the representation of fear or anxiety to figures we immediately recognize as privileged" (ex: white, middle- upper class people). Further, "being frightened is paradoxically a sign of empowerment" because of where horror is popularly located in films; surburbia and who owns property in suburbia.

Also, Briefel and Ngai argue that fear is originally experienced by those who are "economically marginalized" while in a space. If they become "repressed" or perish, they become a feared legend (ex: Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees- in this case Candyman) by the person(s) who own the space, and the fear is transferred to the privileged.

This transfer of fear harkens back to the Reagan sociocultural ideologies of the 1980's and its connection to popular culture texts. Particularly in horror films, the genre is known for capturing the fear of a nation (generally speaking), and placing it within an exaggerated, fictional narrative that is an allegory for reality. It keeps the genie in the bottle in order for us to understand and examine it. A product of Reagan's administration policies has been cuts in public housing that has displaced, dispersed, and further disenfranchised lower-income families and individuals that have been primarily Black and Brown in inner-cities.

Candyman (1992)
  • Denotes a shift away from the surburbs to the city as the popular narrative in horror.
  • Shifts the concept of the urban setting as having multiple threats to one, singular, mythical killer.
  • As an "urban horror film," it still maintains its commitment to addressing social concerns (crime, poverty, public housing, gentrification etc.)
  • Operates as a slasher film (ex: use of a hook as the only weapon utilized)
  • Candyman as subservient; voluntarily summoned and only appears therein.

Helen (Virginia Madsen), our protagonist, is the owner of fear (assaulted by a gang member calling himself Candyman and Candyman himself, positioning her to be implicated in multiple murders). Helen may not be responsible for the kidnapping of an infant or the murders, but they are symbolic markers or punishment for her imposition in a place she doesn't occupy. Her potential exploitation of the people with limited to no options to live anywhere else due to race and economic disenfranchisement, and perhaps her refusal to acknowledge her privilege as a white, educated, middle-class individual.

The product of 'liberal white guilt' is translated as Helen's transition from skeptic to believer/mythologized monster by way of her entanglement with Candyman and his tragic backstory in the film's third act. Helen is both the Final Girl and monster, haunted and haunter, doubling her position of privilege throughout the film. By becoming the myth, Helen usurps the original author's (Cabrini-Green residents) story and comprehension of it. Again, privileging the privileged.

Candyman operates on three levels:
  • "teenage horror story" - one told to Helen by a young, white man in the opening 
  • "academic fable" - his backstory told to Helen by one of her higher education peers
  • "urban reality" - recounts of true crime/fear by Black residents of one of Cabrini-Green's most notorious gang members
Discussion Questions:

What does the Reagan-Bush administration of the 1980's and the shift of middle-class Black families from the inner city to suburban neighborhoods suggest about horror film victims/types during this period?

What do you think using a highly publicized, real space such as Cabrini-Green for a horror film in contrast to commonly homogeneous suburban areas suggest about matters of race and class in American society?

Let's breakdown how Briefel and Ngai reference the tension between Helen (Virgina Madsen) and Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) in regards to their trip to the Cabrini-Green projects in the film. Through examples in dialogue, what do these two women, one black and the other white, suggest about authority, privilege, and intrusion?

What other spaces, objects, and things do Briefel and Ngai note as symbols of the larger narrative at play in Candyman?

How does Candyman also reinforce violent fear evoked by stereotypes of Black men, especially in regards to the title character's relationship to Helen? What critiques do Briefel and Ngai use?

Do you agree that "Helen finally achieves the vestmental inconspicuousness she sought on her first visit to the projects, this time successfully assimilating into the environment of Cabrini-Green and thereby positioning herself as entitled to the property shared by its inhabitants"? Why or why not?

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