“It’s All in Your Mind”: Candyman and the Myth of the Black Male Rapist

The movie Candyman1 resuscitates the age-old myth of the black male rapist. According to Angela Davis2, the historical pretext of the black male rapist was created in order to justify the gruesome practice of lynching blacks3. As Davis explains, it became “necessary” to avenge black men’s assaults on white womanhood4. In Candyman, the title character is the black rapist; he uses a hook for a hand-turned-phallus to rip white women5 apart “from their groin to their gullet”-nothing other than a rape-murder.

However, given the fictitious nature of the myth, its presence in the film immediately raises questions about the validity of Helen’s experiences with the legendary hook-wielding black man. As I will show, Helen may have participated in what Don Belton calls the “scapegoating of the black male body”6 in order to soothe her guilty conscience about the crimes she likely committed. Thus, by deploying the character of Helen in this manner, the film does no more than recycle harmful stereotypes about, and incite our contemporary society’s fears of, black men.

To explain the connection between the myth of the black male rapist and the observation of its deployment in Candyman, I first want to provide some background about it. In Women, Race & Class, Angela Davis chronicles the relationship between lynching and this myth. In a chapter titled “Rape, Racism, and the Myth of the Black Rapist,” she explains that the practice of lynching blacks was a means of intimidation and political domination. The lynching of blacks became quite popular after the Civil War and emancipation.

“Lynching,” she states, “was undisguised counterinsurgency, a guarantee that black people would not be able to achieve their goals of citizenship and economic equality.”7 Over time whites came up with more propaganda designed to justify the lynching of blacks to those white persons who, for whatever reason, still had doubts about the immorality of the practice. And soon, the myth of the black male rapist was borne8. Even though most lynchings were not performed as retribution for sexual assaults, the “racist cry of rape became a popular explanation which was far more effective than…previous attempts to justify mob attacks on Black people.”9

The great majority of lynchings occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after which the number began to decline10. One well-known story of a somewhat recent lynching is that of Emmett Till in 1953. Till, a 14-year-old black male, was found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River, his body maimed and disfigured. As punishment for allegedly whistling at a white woman, Till was “shot in the head and thrown in the river with a mammoth cotton gin fan tied around his neck.”11 In another version of the story, Till’s penis had been cut off and was found stuffed in his mouth.12

This history surrounding the myth of the black male rapist is definitely germane to Candyman. It should be clear that Candyman was the victim of a lynching himself! According to the brief life-history recounted in the film, Candyman was the son of an ex-slave. His father amassed a significant fortune manufacturing shoes, and with this fortune financed Candyman’s education at elite (read: white) schools. Around 1890-a period in which the myth widely circulated-Candyman had become a prominent portraitist and was eventually commissioned to paint a self-portrait of the daughter of a wealthy white landowner. Candyman agreed, but during the daughter’s sitting, the two committed the unspeakable during that time: they fell in love; and eventually the daughter became pregnant.

Their relationship, however, was short-lived, for the daughter’s father was not pleased to learn that his daughter was pregnant, especially with the child of a black man. In retribution for what he believed to be a true crime, the father ordered a group of men to hunt down and lynch Candyman. Specifically, the men sawed off his right hand-the one he used to paint-and then smeared his naked, prone body with honey stolen from an agitated hive of angry bees. Candyman died by being stung to death by the bees.

The dismemberment involved in Candyman’s lynching is symbolic13. Sawing off the hand that Candyman used to paint amounts to a castration. Just like the version of Emmett Till’s story that recounts his own genital dismemberment, so Candyman suffers a similar fate, although at the expense of his hand, not literally his penis. Notice it was Candyman’s deft artistic ability, channeled through his hand, which enabled him to “capture” the “virginal beauty” of the wealthy white landowner’s daughter. I call attention to the language used in the retelling in the film of Candyman’s story in order to underscore its relevance to the way Candyman “deflowered” this white woman by both artistically seizing her beauteous virtue and displaying it on canvas, as well as impregnating her.

While Candyman may not actually have raped her, the going rumor surrounding black male/white female coupling at the time predetermined the context of their sexual encounter14. This, in turn, reflects how black men, to use the language of Frantz Fanon, were (are) “overdetermined from without…the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of [them] but of [their] own appearance”15; or in other words, by their black maleness. As Lewis Gordon states, “[t]o be black is to be, as Du Bois observed, a ‘problem.'”16 “The black is rape, nymphomania, crime, stupidity, moral weakness, and sin.”17 Thus is Candyman.

Over time it is quite possible that news of Candyman’s horrific lynching ended up turning into a tale to warn black men (and white women) about the mortal danger involved in “deflowering” white women. And as with the re-telling of most stories, details probably started to get muddled. The tale, perhaps, began to frame Candyman as an actual rapist who came back from the grave to terrify white women by pentrating their bodies with his pseudo phallus which, incidentally, replaces his other tool: his painter’s hand! Even Candyman, himself, attests to his word-of-mouth origins when he says, “I am rumor. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners; to live in other people’s dreams. But not to have to be!” Hence borne is the urban legend of Candyman that we find Helen researching in the film.

Piqued by the revelation of a myth based on false allegations, which became a warped urban legend about a black man who rapes white women with his hook-hand, I turn a skeptical eye to Helen’s narrative. Three observations make me wonder if Helen got so wrapped up in her research that she somehow turned psychotic: 1) she has an obvious fear of black men (which to her credit she does attempt to overcome); 2) the way Candyman is conjured up by calling into one’s own image suggests Helen’s psyche is his productive womb; and 3) the manner in which Candyman appears to her is hallucinogenic-she has delusions, a sign of schizophrenia, for which she was medicated during her stay at the hospital.

Regarding reasons 1 and 2, we witness Helen’s attempt to control her fear when she first visits Cabrini Green. The camera juxtaposes the spectator’s gaze with that of Helen’s to reveal her watching several threatening black men standing in front of the building. One of them even makes a pass at her.18 Even though Helen claims that she “doesn’t scare too easy,” the subsequent exploration that she and Bernadette make of Cabrini Green is clearly overshadowed by fear as she cautiously creeps up the stairs, peers around corners, and finally, ventures into Rita Mae’s apartment. It is there where Helen once again beckons Candyman, an act that is really a type of soul-searching. Just as we witnessed another white woman conjure up Candyman at the beginning of the film, so the repetition of this white woman/Candyman narrative discovered through ethnographic research demands Helen to try it out, too. When Helen looks into the mirror it is her reflection she sees; this is a move toward self-inquiry and commentary. When she begins to chant Candyman’s name, she is actually calling within her psyche, searching for the essence of this black man to emerge. I want to underscore that Candyman is produced not from outside an individual; he exists within and emerges from the individual. Hence, Helen plays an active role in engineering Candyman.

Regarding reason 3, when Candyman first appears to Helen he supposedly calls her from the other side of the parking garage, but his voice sounds like it’s coming from inside her head. Helen then appears as though she is in a trance, her eyes glazed over, as if she were hallucinating. Similarly when she’s at the hospital, where we discover she’s been on a high dosage of Thorazine (an anti-delusion drug) while in their custody, she claims that Candyman was floating above her when she was strapped down to a table.

However, when Dr. Burke shows her the video recording of the events that supposedly occurred at the moment in question, there is no Candyman to be found. Of course it’s then that it hits her: maybe she really did kidnap Ann Marie’s baby and murder Bernadette. It can’t be! “No part of me,” Helen says, “no matter how hidden, is capable of that.” This, perhaps is a Freudian slip, as she ends up implying that indeed, there is some hidden part of herself that she’s aware of, but which she must deny. Sounds like a confession to me. Moreover, even the proverbial writing on the wall indicts her: “It was always you, Helen.”

The real horror of Candyman, then, is not so much the way the film attempts to evoke fear in an audience horrified by Helen’s victimization at the hands of a sinister, evil hook-wielding black rapist who ends up causing her death. Instead, it is the way Helen manipulates the Candyman tale to scapegoat black men to help cover up her crimes!19 As a result, Candyman, by delving into history to retrieve a racist myth responsible for the death of perhaps thousands of black men, thereby succeeds in recycling and upgrading the myth, and packing it with just about all the negative stereotypes that black men are currently believed to embody: criminal, poverty-stricken, filthy, sexual threat, and murderer. Standing in as a modern day black Everyman, Candyman is the socially constructed “horror” of black male deviance.

By resuscitating these stereotypes in the name of horror, the film takes for granted the way in which it participates in the continued circulation of a racist discourse about the nature of black men. It’s as if these stereotypes-these concepts-of black manhood have taken on their own existence; and as such, everyone-including black men-must reconcile themselves against them. Herein lies the potential violence present in mainstream film representation of black men. For the question now becomes, “How can something so unreal (e.g., the stereotypes of black men) masquerade as real, and in doing so have such real consequences for the meaning and quality of life for black men?”

I don’t know. Maybe we should ask Helen.

1 Dir. Bernard Rose. 1992. Videocassette. Columbia-Tristar.

2 Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race & Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1981.

3 I might add, too, that the myth also served to discourage ,black male/white female racial mixing. For a detailed analysis of the discouragement of this particular interracial coupling, see chapter 8 of Naomi Zack’s Race and Mixed Race. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

4 Davis, p. 186.

5 Indeed, it is only white women whom Candyman stalks. One might disagree by citing the instance of Rita Mae’s murder-a black woman. However, the storyline suggests that it was an imposter who committed this crime-the same one who assaulted Helen. Plus, it’s not so much whom Candyman supposedly murders, it is the effect the murders have on some white woman at the center of Candyman’s attention. For example, the white woman murdered in the beginning of the film was a central victim, as evidenced by the fact that it was her narrative we learned about, not her boyfriend’s. Similarly, the kidnapping of Ann Marie’s child, Bernadette’s and Dr. Burke’s murders, and Jake’s mistaking Helen for Candyman near the end of the film, are all connected by Helen’s narrative. She is the central victim.

And lastly, when Helen does, in a sense, become the “new” Candyman after her death, she begins to terrorize Trevor’s girlfriend. While it was interesting to watch her get revenge on Trevor, the real importance of his murder is realized in the final frame when the camera zooms in on the girlfriend screaming upon the discovery of his body. Guiltily, she is also holding a bloody butcher knife in her left hand in a traditional strike position, thereby implicating her as Trevor’s murderer, and thus the central victim.

6 Belton, Don. Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. In the introduction he writes “the black male body has been scapegoated in the cultural imagination to represent the violence we fear as a nation.

The irony in this, of course, is that the black male body has perhaps endured the most sustained and brutal punishment of all in the building of our nation, and all for the existential crime of being black instead of white. During the first quarter of this century, the public hanging, castration, and burning of black men was not only a regular event in the South and the Midwest but a public rite and form of civic entertainment,” p.2. Given Candyman’s own lynching, Belton’s words resonate deeply with my argument that Helen conjures up Candyman as a scapegoat for her crimes.

7 Davis, p. 185.

8 In fact, Gus, a character in the classic film Birth of a Nation, is a representation of the black male rapist.

9 Davis, p. 187.

10 I should note, however, that some do continue to be reported even today, even though they might not be officially recognized as such. I refer to the recent slaying of a black man in Jasper, Texas who was beaten, tied to the back of a pick-up truck, and dragged to death.

11 Alexander, Elizabeth, p. 102. “Can you be BLACK and look at this?”: Reading the Rodney King Video(s).” Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. Ed. Thelma Golden. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994 : 91-110.

12 Ibid., p. 102.

13 In addition to the symbolism I detail at this point in the body of the paper, Candyman’s “castration” also betrays white anxiety about the black phallus. As Frantz Fanon states in Black Skin, White Masks (see next note for reference), “one is no longer aware of the Negro but only of a penis; the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis,” p. 170, his emphasis.

14 Zack, Race and Mixed Race, chapter 8 and 11. Detailing the work of Robert W. Shyfeld, a physician in the Army Medical Corps, Zack notes “it was depraved for white women to have sex with black men.”, p. 117.

15 Fanon, Frantz, p. 116. Black Skin, White Masks. (1952) Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

16 Gordon, Lewis, p. 22, his emphasis. Her Majesty’s Other Children: Sketches of Racism from a Neocolonial Age. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

17 Ibid., p 44, his emphasis.

18 I refer to the man who asked Helen, “Want some’n baby? I got it for you,” sexual innuendo in tow.

19 Indeed, perhaps it is Helen, and not Candyman, who chillingly intones “Be my victim!”

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