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Hell Mouth still from "Candyman," directed by Bernard Rose. 1992.
Culver City, CA: TriStar Pictures, 2004. DVD.
Obsession, Madness, and Damnation: Through the Mouth of Hell in Candyman
Posted: 10/09/11

Ah, October: the season of cheap costumes, small candies, and the resurrection of horror movies past.

While putting us in the mood for Halloween and giving us a quick and easy shot of adrenaline, horror movies like Candyman, a 1992 film produced by Clive Barker, operate far deeper into our social consciousness.  Though the audience can be distracted by the plotline or gore factor, the visual imagery in most horror films is often familiar, based upon that of our collective past.

Candyman, in particular,utilizes the medieval symbol of the hell mouth – a gaping visage that serves as the portal to hell – to warn the viewer of the dangerous pathway of obsession. Functioning as the polar opposite of the Christ like “Do this in memory of me,” one can imagine Candyman saying “Do this and be damned with me.”

Attention grad students – this isn’t a pretty story…

The film follows the graduate research activities of protagonist Helen Lyle and her thesis partner Bernadette Walsh as they interview undergraduate students at the University of Illinois, hunting for details and embellishments on urban legends. Specifically, they’re investigating the Candyman story: told along the same lines as “Bloody Mary,” the victim summons Candyman by saying his name in the mirror five times, then is ripped to pieces by his hooked right hand.

The film moves ahead with the typical buildup of a horror picture – that is until Helen interviews the neighbor of a real Candyman slaying. The murder takes place at Cabrini-Green, a (now demolished) public housing development located in the midst of gang-held Chicago.  Helen goes to the abandoned apartment of the murder victim and climbs through a hole in the wall. On the opposite side, a graffiti-ed face is painted, and Helen finds she is climbing out of the mouth and must climb back through to reach her exit.

By exiting and entering this modern-day hell mouth, Helen consciously damns herself and, indeed, spends the rest of the film trying to defend herself and loved ones from Candyman’s deadly hook. However, one always goes to hell for good reason, and the film details the “crimes” for which she is damned.
After two murders, which Candyman commits and Helen gets the blame, she is committed to an asylum. The accusation of madness fits within the definition set by Horace in his third satire: madness comes with the “unwillingness to be moderate and reasonable,” which can be divided into three specific actions: avarice, presumption and ambition, and the excesses of luxuries (eating, drinking, and sex.)(1)

Helen is guilty of all of these traditionally sinful actions. Her avarice and greed is apparent in her continual return to Cabrini-Green for more photographs. Despite the reservations of her partner Bernadette, Helen makes three trips to the housing project, each conducted with another trip through the hell mouth. In her need for more information, she endangers the life of a young resident and is ultimately assaulted by gang members.

The continued exploration of the dangerous location is spurned by Helen’s ambition. Revealed in a dinner conversation with academic advisor Purcell - “We’re not ready yet. Actually…we’re going to bury you”  - Helen demonstrates an active hostility and guarded jealousy towards a collegial review of her research.

At this dinner nearly everyone smokes, but throughout the film, Helen is rarely seen without a cigarette. Exceptionally notable in this day and age, when smoking has almost been eliminated from the silver screen, the overarching presence of smoking in 1992 was also remarkable.  That year, a large anti-smoking campaign was launched, spearheaded by an advertisement featuring Wayne McLaren, the original Marlboro Man, dying in a hospital bed.  The repetition of this new social sin further drives in more “coffin nails.”

Taken together, the excesses of smoking, ambition and greed drives Helen into a madness of obsessive research, through the mouth of Hell and into the arms of her research subject. “I came for you,” says the Candyman as he meets Helen face to face, with flashes of the hell mouth overtaking the screen. “Be my victim.”

At this point, can she really refuse him?

Suggested link:
Candyman comes for Helen

1. Sullivan, Margaret A. “Madness and Folly: Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Dulle Griet.” Art Bulletin 59:1 (1977): 55-66.


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