Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, a rebootquel of the 1992 original, will bring to life for a new generation the haunting story of Daniel Robitaille, a.k.a. the Candyman. The hook-handed boogeyman is the stuff of nightmares, appearing to those who take his name in vain and don’t believe in his existence. Murder soon follows. He’s the quintessential urban legend come to life. But many real-life urban legends start out rooted in kernels of truth or history that get twisted over the years.
That begs the question…
Is ‘Candyman’ Based On A True Story?
Is the character of Candyman based on a real-life person? Is the Candyman movie based on a true story?
In a word, no. But also…yes. Candyman may not be exactly based on a singular historical figure or true story, but it doesn’t mean the elements that influenced it aren’t rooted in them.
The original movie is actually based on the 1985 short story “The Forbidden” by horror master Clive Barker, which itself was based on a 1978 short film Barker had directed. Barker’s story provided the framework for Candyman: Both movies follow a graduate student named Helen whose thesis research alerts her to the local urban legend of the Candyman. Eventually, her investigations and skepticism draw the attention of the real Candyman and his wrath. In both the book and the movie, Helen ends up murdered by a vengeful Candyman, herself then becoming part of the local folklore surrounding the Candyman.
However, that’s where the similarities stop. In Barker’s original short story, Candyman was described as a lurid and jaundiced man with waxy skin, but his race, real name, backstory and origin never are mentioned. Those weren’t fleshed out until the movie, with Candyman becoming a black man with the casting of Tony Todd. Likewise, Barker set his story in urban Liverpool to explore themes of the British class system, whereas movie director Bernard Rose moved the setting of the movie adaptation to the Cabrini-Green public housing development in Chicago, choosing to focus on themes of social class as Barker did but also adding an exploration of race. And while the short story introduced Candyman’s iconic hook hand and the bees that herald his presence, the element of having to say his name five times in a mirror didn’t exist until the movie adaptation.
But the influences on Candyman don’t end with Clive Barker.
It’s Also Influenced By Two Well-Known Urban Legends
Both the short story and movie incorporate elements of two of the most widely-known and widespread urban legends: The Hookman and Bloody Mary (or La Llorona in Spanish-speaking areas of the Americas). Those elements account for two of Candyman’s most notable features:
1. His Hook Hand
In the Hookman story, a young couple is making out in a parked car when suddenly, a breaking radio bulletin announces that a serial killer has escaped from the nearby mental institution and that he has a hook for a hand. There are different versions of the story, but it usually involves the girl being scared when they hear something scraping along the car. He tells her not to worry, that it’s just a tree branch, but she convinces him to leave anyway. As he peels out and drives off, neither of them notice that they’ve brought something with them: A single hook hanging from the door handle.
It’s widely accepted that the Hookman legend started to circulate among teenagers in U.S. in the 1950s, becoming widespread by the end of the decade. But, as with most urban legends, the exact origin of the Hookman legend is hard to pinpoint. And, like with much folklore, it has the feel of a morality tale – in this case, warning teenagers of the dangers of necking in parked cars, leading to underage sex. But some historians believe the legend of the Hookman has roots in real-life lovers’ lane murders, like the Texarkana Moonlight Murders in 1946 or the robberies and rape that happened around the lovers’ lane area of Palos Verdes, California in 1955. Even today, the isolated location of most lovers’ lanes draws serial killers looking to do their work off the grid, such as Houston’s Lovers’ Lane Murders in 1990 or the Colonial Parkway Murders in Virginia in the late ’80s.
2. Saying His Name Five Times Into A Mirror
The urban legend of Bloody Mary is arguably even more well-known than the Hookman. Virtually every kid in America knows the sleepover game: Say “Bloody Mary” three times (sometimes seven or thirteen) into a mirror in a dark room (usually while carrying a lit candle) and the spirit of Bloody Mary will appear and try to scratch your eyes out.
The origin of Bloody Mary differs depending on the telling: Some say she was a witch who was burned at the stake for practicing black magic; more modern interpretations say she was a young woman who was disfigured and killed in a tragic car accident. There are also a few real-life women that historians suggest the Bloody Mary legend could be influenced by:
- Mary Tudor (Mary I of England), a Catholic queen who put so many Protestants to death it earned her the nickname of “Bloody Mary”
- Elizabeth Bathory, a 16th-century Hungarian noblewoman who tortured and murdered hundreds of peasant girls between 1590 and 1610, earning, among others, the nickname of “Countess of Blood”
- Mary Worth, an accused witch who was blamed for kidnapping young girls and put to death during the Salem witch trials
- Mary Worth, a woman in Illinois who lured slaves in the 1800s with the premise of an underground railroad only to torture and mutilate them
But what does the mirror have to do with it? Researchers in Italy studied the phenomenon in the 2000s and discovered that staring into a mirror in a dimly-lit room for a prolonged period of time can actually cause a person to hallucinate. The effects are much like being on a bad acid trip, with one’s reflection appearing to melt, distort, and spin, and other hallucinations such as animalistic or unearthly faces appearing in the mirror. Explanations have ranged from a temporary dissociative identity effect to the optical illusion of Troxler’s fading to unintentional self-hypnosis. Regardless, there is a scientific basis for seeing strange apparitions when you stare long enough into the mirror of a darkened room.
The folklore of La Llorona that exists in Spanish-speaking culture has overlapping similarities to that of Bloody Mary, despite a different story of origin. It’s said you can summon La Llorona, also known as The Weeping Woman, or the Woman in White in America, by placing red candles in a darkened room of mirrors and chanting her name. La Llorona’s story is more tragic than the ruthless Bloody Mary, however, and it has existed in some form for centuries. While there are variations, the gist of it involves a young Mexican woman named Maria who marries a rich man and they have two children. Their relationship eventually deteriorates, with him lavishing attention on their children while ignoring her. One day, she sees him in town with another woman, and she drowns her children in a fit of grief and rage and jealousy. She immediately realizes what she’s done and tries to save them but it’s too late. Now, she’s cursed, spending the rest of her days as a restless spirit who wanders up and down near bodies of water and wails for her lost children.
Most folklorists view her as the embodiment of grief. It was all too common for mothers centuries ago to lose their children at extremely young ages, life expectancy being as short as it was. It also captures the horror we feel about instances of mothers, such as Andrea Yates, murdering their children. It’s the ultimate perversity of nature and we recoil from it. Now, we understand that postpartum depression is real and can be intense and prolonged, as is schizophrenia, but centuries ago, people had no explanation for a mother who might suddenly snap and kill her children.
The Candyman Also Has A Tragic Backstory Based On Historical Realities
Like La Llorona, the Candyman has a tragic backstory and was created as a byproduct of his era. Actor Tony Todd fleshed out the story for his character and based it in history. In the movie’s mythology, Candyman had been a real man, Daniel Robitaille (a name he wasn’t given until the second movie). The son of a slave who became a successful shoemaker, Robitaille grew up to be a painter and was one day commissioned to paint a portrait of Caroline Sullivan, a wealthy white woman. He and Caroline begin a forbidden, interracial love affair but when Caroline gets pregnant, her father finds out and grows enraged. A lynch mob shows up and attacks Daniel, severing his right hand that had touched a white woman and covering his body in honey, causing a swarm of bees to sting him to death.
Lest you think that’s excessive, know that it’s rooted in history. Laws against interracial sex and relationships had been around since colonial times, particularly in the Southern states, where laws ratified and enforced the inferior status of slaves and Black people. After the Civil War, the sudden influx of freed slaves caused a new kind of racial tension to arise. Interracial relationships started cropping up and when they were found out, angry white mobs did often react violently, killing Black men to “protect” the purity of white women. A stereotype of Black men as being violent, lustful, and savage was perpetuated, with the idea that they were rapists stemming from the lies of disapproving families of white women who had willingly entered into relationships with Black men. Not until the landmark case Loving v. Virginia in 1967 did interracial marriage become legal.
So there you have it. Like all of the best urban legends and local folklore tales, the legend of the Candyman is based on a mix of real-life historical events and figures, and that amalgamation is then added to and changed over the years. If you think about it, the origin of the Candyman movie exactly reflects the way the urban legends it’s based upon come to life. Just don’t test out the mirror theory.
You can check out the trailer for the new movie below. Add Candyman to Your Watchlist and we’ll let you know when tickets go on sale.