Appropriation is nothing new. Mainstream culture— more specifically white mainstream culture— has used the ideas and traditions of less fortunate communities for their own benefit. While this practice is not new, the representation of the phenomenon is. The 1992 film Candyman by Bernard Rose explores appropriation through an earlier lens than Jordan Peele’s Get Out which was produced in 2017. Candyman is a film that follows Helen Lyle— a white woman—who is writing her doctoral thesis on urban legends. She decides to pick something a bit academically spicey and chooses the urban legend of Candyman which is a specifically Black urban legend through origin and retelling. She is then turned mad by her obsession. She dies saving a child Candyman was going to kill. Helen is then the epitome of a “white savior” who returns from the dead— with the exact powers and weapon of Candyman— to exact revenge on her husband and anyone unfortunate enough to say her name in a mirror five times. Get Out is a film that explicitly talks about appropriation when Chris, a Black man, goes on a trip with his girlfriend Rose to visit her family, all of whom are white. He then finds out they kidnap Black people in order to steal their bodies to inhabit. As bell hooks speaks about in her article, “ Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” racial discourse is becoming a commodification: “Within current debates about race and difference, mass culture is the contemporary location that both publicly declares and perpetuates the idea that there is a pleasure to be found in the acknowledgment and enjoyment of racial difference” (hooks 21). Both Get Out and Candyman have white characters that find pleasure in racial differences. The entire premise of Get Out is that black culture is now popular and attractive which hooks would explain: “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture. Cultural taboos around sexuality and desire are transgressed and made explicit” (hooks 21). The main protagonist Chris is targeted because of his blackness and his aggressors are evil by virtue of their appropriation. The Armitage family is only one part of the order of the coagula. Not much is known about the order in order to demonstrate the unknown extent of white privilege and its overreaching access to every aspect of the Black experience.
Just as the fear of the unknown nature of the predominantly white order of coagula makes appropriation villainous, the known nature of Candyman does the opposite. Helen knows the truth about Candyman and despite that she continues to discover more because as hooks would put it: “The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling” (hooks 21). Helen is so enticed by Candyman and his otherness in her predominantly white environment she is willing to die— and at the end of the film kill.
Whitetopias and the Struggles of Redlining
The first and possibly most important thing to unpack in any racial divide is location. In Candyman, the main protagonist comes from Cabrini Green which all of the characters collectively call, “the ghetto” which Bernadette— Helen’s token black friend— claims to be “overtaken by hoodlums.” As stated in Joan Hawkins, “Vanilla Nightmares and Urban Legends: The Racial Politics of Candyman (1992)” This is where Candyman gets his power and his true origin story that is often overshadowed by Helen: “Helen’s face appears in a close-up, behind the skyline, linking her to the geography and to the love story that is vital to the film” (Hawkins 252-253). While Helen is trying to get the true story as compared to her white male colleagues she is still unaware of her privilege. She feels as though her uncovering the story is more important than the people actually living in Cabrini Green as seen when Jake is begging her to stop just so she can ignore his warnings. She is also out of place in Cabrini Green as when she tries to enter the building she is told to leave and even when she ignores that strong request they shout up the stairs: “The police are coming up the back”. They had already chased her away from the elevator but even with their reservations, Helen was still able to enter their space safely. This is because of Helen’s whiteness: “In part, this is due to the interracial love story, but in large part, it is due to the hidden history of redlining, of the freeway system, and of what one documentary calls the ‘Jim Crow of the North’—the hidden apartheid of legal restrictive covenants that governed the construction of most Northern American cities” (Hawkins 260). Helen discovers her apartment was actually supposed to be a part of the “ghetto” but since there was no train to separate her building they decided to upmarket it. The buildings are identical with the only difference being one is redlined to keep black people in one part of the city and keep white people in the “nicer” parts. Even though Helen is encouraged to stay on her side of the tracks she is still allowed to enter their space without consequence. On the other hand, when her only Black friend Bernadette is at Helen’s apartment in broad daylight she is killed by a fear that quite literally turns her white. It was okay when her friend was there late and was giving her expertise on the ghetto, yet when she came over to a white space to be a good friend she was “whitened” to death. Her skin tone was turned white as she lay on the ground dead as if the change in her color is what killed her rather than the stab marks. Bernadette as a character herself follows respectability politics in that even though she is not as affluent as Helen she is above those living in Cabrini Green who she deems “hoodlums.” For this, it seems a death by converting to whiteness seems fitting and especially so because of the double standard. When Helen appropriates the story of Candyman she is seen as an academic and even powerful when she replaces Candyman; however, when a black woman does it she is punished and in a way that dictates her appearance. Appropriation is presented to be fine when it is a white person taking something for white people but it is proposed as a problem when the shoe is on the other foot.
In Get Out there is less of a focus on the city and more on what Notivny Lawrence coins as, “Whitopias” in his article “ A Peaceful Place Denied: Horror Film’s Whitetopias.” A whitetopias is the inverse of redlining. While redling focuses on keeping black people in one place a whitetopias focuses on keeping white people together— both accomplishing segregation in different ways. The introduction of the film follows the discomfort of Andre, a Black man, who is looking for his white girlfriend in her white neighborhood. The audience is meant to see him as an outsider who is being pushed out of this environment before Jeremy Armitage can even “extract” him from the neighborhood. The song in the background is, “Run, Rabbit, Run!” by Flanagan and Allen. This adds to this effect of making Andre an outsider since the line: “run rabbit, run, run, run, rabbit” is repeated as if the record is stuck and once Andre is removed the song can finally finish as if his mere presence was harming the “whitetopias”.
As Helen is free in her movement in Candyman Chris is not: “Once Chris crosses the threshold of the Armitage home, he will have entered spatial, cultural, and emotional territory that he may not be able to traverse safely” (Lawrence 77). Chris enters a whitetopias which has much more space since it is in a “suburrrb” while Helen only had to enter an already crowded apartment building. Since Chris is already psychologically vulnerable— and is in a space where no one looks like him— he is a sitting duck for Missy Armitage’s mind games. That and Jeremy Armitage’s physical capability, father Dean Armitage’s surgical and cultish capabilities, and Rose’s twisted love game show the audience that Chris’s environment is out to get him.
What’s Love Got to Do With It?
The opening to Get Out shows the audience the relationship between Rose and Chris in a unique way. After the abduction and the spiritual music, the movie cuts to a song titled: “Take My Heart (You Can Have It If You Want It)” by Kool and the Gang. This shift is immediate as if their love was overlapping the serious nature of a song about the adversity of slavery. This song is also playing while Rose is picking out baked goods from a bakery and Chris is coming out from a steamy shower to shave. This is clear foreshadowing that Rose has hand-picked Chris for his physicality but also speaks to interracial relationships as a whole. From the perspective of the audience, we are told to see Rose picking a baked good the same way she picked Chris only she gets more say in his life. When they are in the car together she throws out his cigarette and we discover she is making him quit cold turkey. We are meant to believe she wants the best for him but we learn her true intention was to make sure he was a “good” product for her family. In that same car ride, Rod takes the phone and begs the question: “Why are you going to meet a white girl’s parents? Is she licking your balls or something?” While this may be oversexualized comedic relief there is truth in humor. Rod is truly concerned about Chris being introduced to a white family because of racial bias and even uses sex as something that may be in play. This is in part because of the larger stigma of fetishization of black men that he believes to be the reason he and Rose are dating— which is exactly the case— and Rod keeps this belief the entire film. This appropriation is what makes Rose villainous and how Chris even falls into her trap. This is a large development compared to Candyman.
The “love” story in Candyman is much different as Jordan Peele— director of get out— said “Candyman is the black boogeyman in pursuit of this blonde white woman” as stated in the documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. This is a much more problematic stereotype of an interracial relationship but it is the entire premise of Candyman’s origin. The story that white Professor Phillips—who never even stepped foot into Cabrini Green— claims is that Candyman was the son of a slave who was raised with “all the right schools” in polite society. He had a talent as an artist and he simply fell in love while painting a white woman. She became pregnant and for that his arm was cut off, his body smothered with honey, and was eventually stung to death and burned. His ashes were spread over Cabrini Green which swings everything back around to location while stressing the importance of his interracial attraction being deadly. As Helen hears this story she is not so much scared as she is curious. At no point in this gruesome story does she ask him to stop even with its gruesome nature and the fact they just ate. Helen knows Professor Phillip is claiming the story almost as his own and decides that appropriating its true origin will give her his platform and power. Helen is intrigued by this challenge and with the fire in her eye the scene fades out with her taking more pictures at Cabrini Green.
The love story of Helen and Candyman themselves is unique. Even though it may seem that Candyman is chasing after Helen at certain points it is the other way around. Helen refuses to let anyone tell her no when they have any information about Candyman. When the young boy Jake tells her he is scared for his life if anyone found out that he said anything Helen disregarded his warning which ultimately led her into the hospital. Even when she was still wounded and had a swollen eye she was still going back to Cabrini Green to get as much information as she possibly could. Near the end of the film, Candyman tries to trap Helen to make her his for all eternity. Even though she clearly escapes with the child and is a hero to all who live in Cabrini Green she still comes back. When her husband is staring at the mirror he is extremely displeased. He says Helen’s name out of despair for what he lost and gave up for his student who will never be Helen. When he says her name for the fifth and last time she uses Candyman’s hook to brutally murder him only to let his girlfriend survive to tell the tale and grow her power just as the same as Candyman. One of the most deadly forms of appropriation next to the Coagula procedure in Get Out.
The clean ending of Get Out and the sticky finales of Candyman
The ending of Get Out is much more progressive as Manuela Lazic points out: “Get Out was much less compromising: it lets its black lead not only survive but kill the emissaries of the racist myth” as she stated in her article “Before ‘Get Out,’ There Was ‘Candyman’”. Chris is able to take out the Armitage family while surviving as compared to Candyman who is not only killed but replaced by Helen (the white woman who killed him). After Chris is able to defeat the Armitage family – and lastly his “toxic” ex Rose– he drives away with Rod in an airport security car that appears to just be a normal cop car. Peel prepares the audience to see the frightening image of a black man towering over a dead white woman. This plays into the harmful stereotype that black men are a threat to society, especially white women. Rose gasps for help and Chris throws his arms to the air as we see the blue and red lights. The audience anticipates Chris’s arrest; However, Rod’s presence settles the audience and as Chris gets in the front seat it demonstrates Chris’s complete victory.
Candyman is a film that seemingly has four endings. The first when Candyman himself is defeated by Helen refusing to be an urban legend. He trapped her in the Cabrini Green campfire with the baby everyone thinks she kidnapped. She then throws him off of her and escapes with the baby in her arms. Refusing his power; which itself has two interpretations. The first being she refuses his power and demonstrates to the audience her white savior complex was somewhat genuine and she only had Cabrini Green’s best interest at heart. Or the more realistic is that she did not want to be an urban legend connected to Candyman. This makes the most sense considering that the final shot of the film is her killing her husband as an entirely new urban legend, although still using Candyman’s hook. The second “ending” is at Helen’s funeral. At first the audience only sees her husband, his mistress, and the professor she wished to reign superior over. The shot then pans out to all of Cabrini Green led by Jake and the mother of the baby she saved. The two throw Candyman’s signature hook in the grave with Helen and let all of Cabrini Green pay their respects to their “savior”. The third ending is a panoramic shot of the inside of Cabrini Green where murals of Candyman are now covered with Helen. In a once black space has now been quite literally and figuratively been whitewashed with Helen’s image. The film ends with Helen appearing in the mirror like Candyman as stated before. These multiple conclusions leave the audience with a variety of mixed feelings and interpretations, but what is clear through all of this is the fact Helen’s appropriation of the urban legend Candyman is the driving force behind the evil in the film.
Since Candyman was written and directed by white men, it makes sense the representation is focused on the white perspective. Helen is supposed to be the character the audience focuses on and even replaces the villain at the end. Get Out is directed by a Black director—Jordan Peele— whose work has most commonly been centered around race. The time difference also adds to the ability to even mention race as a part of the films. Get Out constantly points out the race of the characters while Candyman only hints at race when they use terms such as “hoodlum” and those from the “ghetto”. Between the directors being able to represent their own perspective and the sadly small advancements for Black Americans it is clear Get Out has a more progressive story than Candyman. Both these films demonstrate appropriation as villainous and do so through entirely unique ways.
Keetley, Dawn, ed. Jordan Peele’s Get Out: Political Horror. 1st ed., Ohio State University Press, 2020.
Hawkins, Joan. “Vanilla Nightmares and Urban Legends: The Racial Politics of Candyman (1992).” Black Camera: The New Series, vol. 14, no. 2, Spring 2023, pp. 252–74. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.2979/blackcamera.14.2.15.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation, South End Press, 1992.
Lazic, Manuela. “Before ‘Get out,‘ There Was ‘Candyman’.” The Ringer, The Ringer, 4 Oct. 2018, https://www.theringer.com/movies/2018/10/4/17933940/candyman-get-out-race-horror.
Peele, Jordan. Get Out. Universal Pictures, 2017.
Rose, Bernard. Candyman. TriStar Pictures, 1992.
Jack Schembri, a budding horror scholar, is a student at Kutztown University double majoring in English and psychology with minors in professional writing and women’s gender and sexuality studies. He has published work in the Keystone Newspaper. Originally from the small town of Harleysville, Pennsylvania, Jack is a huge fan of horror films and novels. He also loves to bake.
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