Updated: Oct 12, 2021
The moment I watched Candyman, I knew anything I wrote about it would be incredibly personal. I watched it for the first time a week before starting grad school. And since then, I’ve been haunted by the thought of having an experience similar to that of protagonist Helen Lyle, because I see far too many similarities between us. We’re both grad students (me an MA, she a PhD), both study the humanities/social sciences (depends on who you ask), and both are interested in the kinds of stories people tell, and why they tell them.
While I extensively study Shakespeare as part of my English BA and MA, Helen studies semiotics: a subset of anthropology and sociology. Semiotics encompasses how people use language, metaphor, allegory, and the like — urban legends included. The PhD thesis she’s working on is about how the poor, working class black people of Chicago created the urban legend of the boogeyman Candyman to cope with gang violence and poverty. This is where Candyman begins: with a graduate student on the brink of finishing the most important work of her career thus far, at a point of academic no-return.
As Helen researches Candyman and the grip he has on the residents of the Cabrini-Green housing projects, she learns that the recent murders there attributed to Candyman were actually committed by a gangster adopting his name. Convinced that the urban legend is simply that, she’s shocked when the real Candyman visits her. In their first confrontation, Candyman admonishes Helen for demystifying him and asks her to be his victim as penance. It’s later revealed that Helen reminds Candyman of his lover, a white woman, and he was lynched for getting her pregnant back in the 19th century. She refuses, obviously, but then things take a turn for the murderous.
Candyman frames Helen for an attack on one of her interviewees and the abduction of the woman’s baby, and then the murder of her friend and writing partner Bernadette. She gets arrested and institutionalized for her apparent crimes, but Candyman appears to her again at the psych ward with an offer: be his victim, save her interviewee’s baby, and become immortal with him. With nothing left to lose, she accepts his offer, returns the baby, and dies to be with him forever.
Yes. She sacrifices herself to the hook-hand man filled with literal bees because she reminds him of his long-dead lover.
Most horror flicks of the 80s and 90s are about high schoolers. I can’t even recall many movies (regardless of genre) that are about graduate students, so Candyman is already operating on a different plane of existence than a horror movie like Halloween or Scream. It’s not lost on me that one of the most notable stories about the grad school experience… is a horror movie where the PhD protagonist is (literally) killed by the subject of her own thesis. Granted, Midsommar is also about grad school research, but unlike Candyman, its protagonist is not the one actively researching.
Funnily enough — or perhaps not, given the content — I had to read The Last Professors by Frank Donoghue for class two days ago. The book is about the future of grad school, research, and academia, and it brought up an interesting little tidbit about how graduate school is depicted in the realm of pop culture: it flat-out isn’t.
Donoghue quotes novelist Tom Wolfe, who claims that grad school escapes any representation in pop culture because it is so “painful to recollect and difficult to represent.” Grad school — especially in the humanities — is a painful, sometimes horrifying, experience because it requires you to lose yourself in research, do thankless unpaid work, and sacrifice every aspect of your personal identity to become the ever-elusive tenured, published academic.
Something frequently brought up in discourse about going to grad school in the humanities is that it’s a constant sacrifice. Everything you do, whether it’s writing a final paper or tweeting on your “professional” Twitter account, is tailored towards building an academic identity. The grad student takes this identity with them to the publisher to get their thesis or dissertation published, a sign that you’ve “made it” as an academic. They carry their identity to a university where they hope to get hired and one day achieve tenure — after publishing another book, of course. Research is at the heart of grad school, and at the heart of Candyman, too. And it’s Helen’s obsessive research into Candyman’s mythos that gets her killed.
Helen is intense. She pushes Bernadette into summoning Candyman and going to the Cabrini-Green projects with her despite Bernadette’s protests. She stays up late obsessing over her research and field notes, trying to find the right angle to her thesis and an answer to the question: why is Candyman such a popular urban legend? Even after she’s arrested for the abduction of her interviewee’s child, she returns home to research Candyman like nothing happened. But as a fellow grad student and former thesis-writer myself, Helen’s obsession with her thesis topic and the act of getting the very best research actually kind of... hits close to home?
For Helen to have come so far in her academic career — again, at the point of academic no-return — to budge at all would mean the loss of everything she’s sacrificed her life for. The loss of all her research and hard work. The loss of the career she’s been working on for what I assume is nearly a decade. In the strangest way, Candyman accurately captures what it’s like to be a grad student in the throes of career-making/breaking research. As we see Helen clicking through projector slides, taking down interviews, and lurking through the abandoned units of Cabrini-Green, we know it’s all in the name of research. Even when Helen gets attacked by the gangster calling himself Candyman, she sees it as a great lead for her thesis. To let anything stand in her way — even Candyman’s haunting request to join him and be remembered for all eternity — would mean the loss of her academic identity.
What’s an academic to do when stuck between a rock and a hard place? Do more research. Push harder for a lead. Pull longer hours in the library. If you don’t, you don’t get published, which means no tenure, so you’ve essentially lost a decade (or more) for research that went nowhere. And as someone who’s terminally anxious about not finishing grad school or finding work after it? That’s where the horror of Candyman lies for me.
Having your name and story remembered is a big part of Candyman, but it’s a big part of grad school and academia at large, too. Candyman lashes out at Helen because she’s trying to take away the mystery (and therefore power) of his name and his story through her research. Research she’s doing to make a name for herself. And that’s why Candyman’s request that Helen “be his victim” offers a bleak look into how academia remembers the academic. We live in a world where 98% of academic articles in the humanities are never read or cited, so it’s highly likely that Helen’s (fictional) research on Candyman would collect dust in the University of Illinois Chicago’s library after she published.
But in a strange way, Helen’s research (and by extension, Bernadette’s) is recognized forever when she’s made immortal by joining Candyman in the afterlife. Her death and the murders she was framed for are reframed by her “obsession” with the Candyman legend. So is it not a kind of success, however twisted that success is, that Helen and her research will be talked about for generations?
On the other hand, what does it also say about the nature of grad school that you have to become so obsessed with your thesis, and be killed by it, for it to be remembered? She escapes academic obscurity, but only because she dies. Candyman is drawing on a lot of academia-adjacent anxieties in this way by showing a crazed Helen descend further into her obsession with Candyman’s legend — so obsessed that she becomes part of the urban legend herself.
I jokingly refer to Candyman and Helen as “boogeyman bf/grad student gf” but there’s something about Candyman that’s particularly chilling as a grad student. What if my research does more harm than good? What if I’m not a true ally to the people and communities I’m researching? What counts as going “too far” for my research? What if going to grad school kills me?! The latter is unlikely, but I feel too much kinship with Helen to write it off — just ask my friends how I acted while writing my undergrad thesis.
I can’t decide if Candyman is a cautionary tale about the horrors of grad school, or if it’s a horror film that just so happens to be about grad school. But the horror genre and certain aspects of Candyman’s story help effectively capture the reality of being a grad student in the humanities in the most chilling and painful kind of way. While I’m extremely grateful to be attending grad school (especially in the middle of a pandemic), I’m glad there’s a movie out there about my exact stage of life with a protagonist whose academic anxieties match mine. I almost don’t care that the representation is in a horror movie because it’s striking at the core of every grad student’s existence in such a cathartic way.
So Helen Lyle: I’ll see you in the mirror.