Speaking as someone who has been on this earth since the early 1970s, I can attest to the fact that some movies often behave like wine. They may be novel when they first come out, but after a few years they become bland. However, if you let them age long enough, they become good again, oftentimes embodying a nostalgia factor that makes their imperfections seem endearing.
This process takes about 20 years for the effects to be initially felt, which is why nostalgia often runs in 20-year cycles, which coincide with a person in his or her 20s looking back fondly at what they watched as a child, and major movie studios remaking beloved titles old enough to drink.
Because of this, the films of the 90s are starting to look more and more vintage. Yeah, there’s that bump in the middle of the decade with really bad CGI that will always hamper films like Spawn and Species, but the movies from the earlier part of that decade seemed to have escaped that. Such is the case with the 1992 horror film Candyman.
Candyman took on the subject of urban legends when they were gaining popularity, and it started its own legends about the now-iconic monster. Case in point, I saw it as a college preview back in 1992, and I knew plenty of people who immediately went home and said the name five times in the mirror. (My sister, who was often affected like this from horror movies, wouldn’t allow me to do it with her in the house.)
With so much horror watching taking place this October, this got me thinking back to this grisly cinematic gem: Can you really summon the Candyman by saying his name five times in a mirror?
The Answer: Absolutely! It happened to a friend of a friend of mine. (But seriously, the real Candyman is even more evil.)
According to the film, and according to an alarming number of sites online that claim the myth to be real, Candyman (Tony Todd) was a slave named Daniel Robitaille who fell in love with the landowner’s daughter. When the landowner discovers their relationship, he and the townspeople hunt Robitaille down for private justice. They cut off his right hand and replace it with a rusty hook. Then, they smear him with honey and have bees sting him to death.
Now, as the legend goes, if you turn off the lights and say his name three times while looking in the mirror, he will emerge from the darkness to seek revenge for his death.
Contrary to what you might read on the internet, author Clive Barker simply made this legend up for his short story “The Forbidden” in his fifth volume of The Books of Blood. This tale was then adapted for the screen by Bernard Rose, who directed the film.
The Candyman character is similar to the infamous Bloody Mary urban legend, which involves the invoking of the spirit of Mary Worth (not the King Features comic strip that has run for seven decades in newspapers). Sometimes the Bloody Mary legend involves chanting her name, and other versions require it to be said in the mirror three times. While this legend is more for suburban slumber parties, the Candyman character includes elements that spin into urban culture, most obviously the use of “candy” as a code word for drugs as well as the slavery connection. Finally, to give it an even more grisly nature, Candyman is characterized by a hook, which is an element in other urban legend stories.
Ironically, even though the character and story behind Candyman is entirely fabricated, it has become an urban legend itself, with many people claiming it to be a real story.
So if Hollywood lied to me about this one, what about…
All the other urban legends in films?
Urban legends are nothing new to movies. In fact, the 2000 film Urban Legend plays off a dozen or more stories. Similar to Candyman, this movie also feature collegiate study of urban legends, which is inspired by Jan Harold Brunvand, one of the first academics to study these tales. Brunvand’s work became most popular in the 1980s, which helped fuel the urban legend in Candyman, Urban Legend, and their sequels.
If you’re familiar with these tales, you’ll see them crop up in various horror films throughout the past thirtysomething years. The 1983 anthology film Nightmares features a segment called “Terror in Topanga” reminiscent of the “killer in the back seat” story. In the 1979 horror film When a Stranger Calls tells about the tormented babysitter who receives phone calls from inside the house. That film’s 2006 remake and the 1974 horror film Black Christmas also features calls coming from inside the house. Lewis Teague’s 1980 thriller Alligator plays off the popular urban legend about alligators in the sewers.
Even horror guru Stephen King isn’t immune to dipping into the urban legends well for his story ideas. The segment “The Hitch-hiker” in Creepshow 2 is a variant of the “vanishing hitchhiker” tale.
Movies in general have also been the source for urban legends of their own, including the ghost appearing in Three Men and a Baby, the death by skin suffocation in Goldfinger, pretty much everything in The Shining from the moon landing to the Holocaust, and the hanging Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz (debunked in another article I wrote a while back here).
But getting back to Candyman…
Where about that true story?
Yes, there was a real story about a monster called the Candy Man, but he wasn’t a slave from Louisiana, nor was he a ghost living in Cabrini-Green. The Candy Man was Ronald Clark O’Bryan form Deer Park, Texas. O’Bryan was in debt for more than $100,000, so he took multiple life insurance policies out on his kids and ended up killing his eight-year-old son Timothy.
On Halloween in 1974, O’Bryan laced five 21-inch Pixy Stix with potassium cyanide. He gave one each to his son Timothy and daughter Elizabeth. He also gave them to three other children in the neighborhood in order to throw suspicion on someone else handing out candy during trick-or-treating. Later that night, Timothy asked to have some of his Halloween candy, and he chose the Pixy Stix. After eating it, Timothy became ill and died while being taken to the hospital. A subsequent investigation found that the amount of poison in each Pixy Stix was enough to kill several adults.
O’Bryan claimed a man in a house that didn’t initially answer the door to the trick-or-treaters had handed him the Pixy Stix through the barely open door. However, the police ruled out the homeowner as a suspect because he was at work that night. A subsequent investigation uncovered O’Bryan’s crippling debt and the life insurance policies he took out on his children. He was arrested and convicted on one count of capital murder and four counts of attempted murder. O’Bryan was executed by lethal injection on March 31, 1984.
As a parent and a human being, the story of the real Candy Man is more chilling than anything Clive Barker could conjure in his mind. And it becomes even more bizarre that this true story fuels the overall urban legend of poisoned Halloween candy. While there are cases of this happening, they are usually isolated and not part of a plot to randomly sting trick-or-treaters.
Still, I check my kids’ Halloween candy every year. (Though I admit I usually just eat anything that looks suspicious.)
Saying the name “Candyman” in the mirror five times may not summon a murdered slave with a hook for a hand, and if you’re holding a giant Pixy Stix, it still won’t summon the spirit of Ronald Clark O’Bryan. But are you willing to test that out?