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Cabrini Green: The True Horror of Candyman

“Be my victim.”

In 1992 director Bernard Rose adapted a short novella by Clive Barker entitled “The Forbidden” into a big screen horror film: Candyman.

It starred Virginia Madsen as Helen Lyle, a Chicago Grad Student doing a thesis on urban legends, and Tony Todd in a career defining role as the titular boogeyman. The following year it hit home video and my friends and I (probably in our final year of Junior High at the time) finally got around to seeing it. I still remember going over to my buddy Joey’s apartment on a Saturday night, his dad, Bruce, had rented it for us to watch (Thanks Bruce!). I still remember the “ooooh shit” moment we both had as soon as the opening credits started playing and Philip Glass’ brilliantly haunting score began to blare out of the surround sound. We knew were in for something frightening and different. Turns out, it was one of the scariest movies we had seen in a long time. 

We were a group of kids who were always watching horror films, renting whatever we could from the video store or staying up late watching Joe Bob Briggs or movie channels hoping for a new horror flick to show up. So we were not newcomers to horror and didn’t scare easily. Candyman scared us, it scared our other friends when they watched it, it scared a lot of people.

Over the years since it’s release it has garnered heaps of praise and is regarded as a classic. It has found itself in my personal top 3 horror films and more than likely won’t be moved from there at this point. I originally intended to write this article as a normal retrospective of the film and my experience with it, however that ended up feeling kind of boring to me and was not letting me talk about the part of the film I always found the most fascinating and frightening.

As previously stated Candyman revolves around the story of Helen Lyle who is researching urban legend, particularly the growing number of tales she is hearing from interviewees about the mythical figure of Candyman (the hook wielding ghost of Daniel Robitaille, a black man who was murdered in an act of racism during the civil war era ) The stories hook (no pun intended) was that if you look in a mirror and say his name 5 times, he will appear behind you. So it’s basically the classic “bloody Mary” legend with a twist. Candyman as I said was a frightening film, Tony Todd’s portrayal of the ghostly figure was as perfect a performance as you will see. He played him with a gentlemanly quality and always spoke to his soon to be victims in a poetic dialogue, right before he would split them from “groin to gullet” with a large rusty hook jammed into the stump where his hand used to be. The film is full of creepy imagery, well earned scares, superb gore and overall it is extremely well put together. Still, rather than go into detail about the film, recap and dissect it which I originally intended to do, I decided to talk about the thing that gives the film it’s truly unique take on the old boogeyman story, it’s location, the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects of Chicago.

“An entire community starts attributing the daily horrors of their lives to a mythical figure” 

One of the boldest choices by director Bernard Rose was setting his film in Cabrini-Green. For so long horror had been relegated to old mansions, backwoods towns and of course the suburbs. 1988’s Child’s Play also set it’s story in urban Chicago, including some of the more downtrodden parts of the city, but the majority of it takes place in the middle class confines of the Barclay family apartment. Candyman on the other hand brought supernatural horror to the projects and did so with the blight of the area being an integral part of the story. It’s mythology was firmly rooted in the projects and it’s director was adamant about the importance of setting it in Cabrini-Green, regardless of the obvious obstacles and dangers of shooting in such an area.

The Cabrini presented in Candyman is far different from the one J.J. Dynamite Evans and family called home on the classic t.v. show “Good Times”. The films story starts out with Helen being told the story of a murder that occurred there, one where a woman named Ruthie Jean was killed by someone who came through the walls in her apartment. When Helen and research partner Bernadette head to Cabrini to investigate they are initially “greeted” by gang members (who were actual real gang members given parts in the film to ensure their cooperation and the safety of the production crew) eventually eluding them and making their way up to the apartment where the murder occurred, the residents all seem to blame the murder on the Candyman. Helen and Bernadette soon meet Ruthie Jean’s neighbor Anne-Marie McCoy who proceeds to tell them the story of what happened from her point of view. Ann-Marie is a stark contrast to the Gang Members whom they encountered in the lobby area. I bring these points up for two reasons, the first and most important being that while the general belief exists that these areas in real life are populated with nothing more than dangerous criminals, the actual truth is that there are plenty of good people in the community just trying to live their lives and raise their children safely among the crime. Ann-Marie makes this clear to Helen and also states how Ruthie Jean called for help yet no police came till it was too late, she then adds, “Everybody is scared, he could come right through these walls you know, I’m scared, scared for my child…they ain’t never gonna catch him..” “Who?,” Helen asks.


The reason I bring up that portion of the story first is because the entire Anne-Marie McCoy/ Ruthie Jean tale in which the movie centers a large part of its story around is inspired by an actual case that occurred in Chicago’s “Grace Abbot” housing projects. The horrific true story of Ruthie Mae McCoy (see the similarities?) is one that I came across while researching the film online. Upon reading up on it, it becomes clear this is where the movie makers drew their inspiration/concepts from for the Ruthie Jean/Candyman murder set up of the film. While I didn’t know about the true story till 22 years after the film was released, it still remained chilling stuff. On April 22nd, 1987, Between 8:45 and 9:00 pm, Ruthie Mae McCoy was shot and killed by someone who gained access to her apartment via the passageway behind her medicine cabinet. It would take police a day and a half to enter her apartment to discover her body. The in depth news article I read detailing the crime and it’s aftermath entitled “They Came In Through The Bathroom Mirror” was written by Chicago writer Steve Bogira in 1987. It is a fascinating piece that details the horrors of the Chicago Housing Authority properties. He also wrote a follow-up regarding Candyman and its similarities to his article along with his conversations with Illinois native John Malkovich that may or may not have lead to the film being green lit. I highly recommend reading the full article because it is as fascinating as it is sad. While judging by his follow up article, I get the impression Steve was not a fan of the film and also seemed to feel it exploited the people of the projects living situations, while there certainly is a bit of merit to that sentiment,  I personally feel otherwise and respectfully disagree. Nonetheless, without the Bogira article perhaps no one would know Ruthie Mae McCoy’s story and perhaps Candyman would be a far different film than what we have come to know.

Director Bernard Rose has always been adamant about his desire to give his film social undertones and bring light to real life issues through the horror. In a 1992 article in Fangoria magazine entitled “Demons of the Mind” he stated, “My element of social criticism asks how people can be expected to live in squalor, because the housing authority has allowed Cabrini Green to rot instead of trying to maintain it.” Growing up in New York City, I have been to my fair share of housing projects in my life, some good, some bad. Some I felt perfectly comfortable in, others I knew it was probably better if I didn’t hang around after it got dark. Cabrini-Green by all accounts from reading and speaking to friends from Chicago was a place that there was absolutely no reason to go near.

“I’m not trying to scare you Helen, I just want you to think okay? The gangs hold this whole neighborhood hostage.”

While the tragic Ruthie Mae McCoy murder took place at the Grace Abbot housing project, it’s film counterpart was set amid the ominous concrete towers of Cabrini-Green. Star Virgina Madsen who grew up in Chicago stated, “Growing up here, I knew all about Cabrini-Green, you didn’t even drive by there, let alone enter on foot.”  In the film Helen (Madsen) discovers the hard way that initially it was a leader of a Cabrini based gang called the Overlords using the well known name of the mythical figure to cause fear throughout the neighborhood. By committing a series of seemingly mysterious murders in his name, such as Ruthie Jean’s and that of a young boy, leaving his calling card  “Sweets to the Sweet” written on the walls where he committed the acts, he lead the residents to believe these crimes were committed by a supernatural being rather than a man of flesh and blood. Helen being attacked by this man and left for dead eventually leads to his arrest, thus proving to residents that there was no Candyman and their belief of him begins to dwindle, prompting the REAL Candyman to prove his doubters wrong.

While the gang culture in the film is touched upon often and part of the story, it is still a movie about a ghost, a monster, a boogeyman. However, when it comes to the reality of this real life location, its reputation precedes it. In a 1992 interview Candyman himself Tony Todd had this to say about some of his experience filming in such a notorious area “I tried to come there with no expectations, but I still felt fear. Anybody who didn’t belong there was subject to Danger. The Cops told me to keep my eyes on the rooftops for snipers, and then I ran into a woman and her two children, they were hustling back from the grocery store before it got too dark, and thought the film security people were cops, she asked us when we were going to clean the projects up, which really got to me.” This exchange stands out for many reasons, but the two that pertain to this article are 1. The area is known for being extremely dangerous and 2. The woman knows it is and still has no choice but to live there. This is also illustrated in the film by the characters of Anne Marie as well as the young boy Jake who befriends Helen early on in the film. Good people stuck in a bad situation trying to make the best of it. That was sadly a reality for many residents of Cabrini-Green. It truly was Hell on earth. Gangs did in fact hold the area hostage, The “Gangster Disciples” or “GD’s” were the dominant gang in the area and they are the same gang members who can be seen in the film, throwing up signs in the scene where Helen and Bernadette first arrive at Cabrini. The same gang that as stated before had to be put in the film as extras in order to be “allowed” to film there and assure the crews safety, and while there were no incidents with the cast and crew, there is the well known anecdote of one of the aforementioned snipers putting a bullet through the crews van.

Cabrini-Green had become so dangerous in it’s later years that at times police could not even respond to calls, the buildings became what were essentially fortresses for the gangs. Benard Rose stated “It’s not a safe place, it’s a place that police did not have control over”. As seen throughout the film, the walkways for the towers on each floor were covered with a steel fencing, closing off the previously open aired areas, this was done initially as a safety precaution but unfortunately lead to it being used as cover for snipers and became a hindrance to police trying to access the buildings but would be unable to see who might be standing armed in those areas who occupied vacant apartments, tearing down walls in order to have an escape route whenever police did do their raids. The good people who resided in Cabrini received little assistance from the Chicago Housing Authority. What you saw in the film, the sparse playing fields, and graffiti laden hallways were only the tip of the iceberg. Broken windows, lights, clogged trash chutes went unattended for months at a time. Some stairwells were even pitch black due to the lights being broken while elevators in those same buildings were out of service.

Murders sadly had become common place in this area, whether it was related to the gangs that called Cabrini home or others who saw the wild west nature of the property as an opportunity to do wrong. It just became a normal occurrence. Officers annually closed the streets to Cabrini on New Years Eve to keep any traffic out of the area as gangs would take to the streets firing their weapons any and every direction in a blatant display of disregard for the law. One of the most saddening occurrences was the accidental shooting of Dantrell Davis. He was 7 year old boy shot and killed by a gang member from one of the high rises who was aiming for a rival gang member. Dantrell Davis was holding his mothers hand as they walked to school when it happened. His tragic death would become one of the main factors over the neighborhoods lifespan that finally caused the city to take action.

In 1997, 5 years after Candyman would bring the area it’s most widespread notoriety, the city came out with a plan for redeveloping the neighborhood that would spell the end for Cabrini-Green. Many tenants were relocated throughout the city and the surrounding area would be rebuilt as a mixed income community. The last Cabrini-Green high rise was demolished on March 30th of 2011. Many of it’s former residents who were not involved in the gangs and drugs have good things to say despite the horrific living conditions and dangers Cabrini presented to them on a daily basis. Proof that life is what you make it. Many good people certainly resided here, in fact I would be confident in guessing MORE good people than bad resided in Cabrini, however the influential power of the bad unfortunately outweighed the good. Still the good people spoke of friendships discovered and memories made. Even some who were affected by tragedy and crime still spoke fondly of it and did not want to leave. It was their home, their community and many of those people had bonded amid the hardships and had plenty of enjoyable times. No gang could change that.

I remember after the film came out everyone now knew about Cabrini-Green, I remember in our old neighborhood we had an apartment building with an entirely boarded up, burned out floor, of course being kids, we eventually gained access to this floor and constantly drew comparisons to the burnt out apartment Helen and Bernadette enter to investigate the Ruthie Jane murder. It was scary for us to enter that hallway, not knowing what was in it, I remember there being talk of someone spray painting the Candyman face and “sweets to the sweet” on the walls, I also don’t remember if I actually ever saw them or just pictured them via peoples stories, but everyone in the neighborhood would call that building Cabrini-Green for a while because of that floor, that stayed that way for years. While we knew it wasn’t anywhere close to being the dangerous place Cabrini was, it was still an example of the influence Candyman had on people at the time.

For years Cabrini-Green was synonymous with a danger and crime. While the rest of the United States along with Chicago had other housing projects reported to be just as dangerous or at times worse such as the Robert Taylor homes and the ABLA houses in Chicago, they weren’t put on display in a popular movie that we watched over and over again throughout our lives.

Bring up the name Cabrini Green to horror fans and chances are they know exactly what you are talking about. However, chances are they don’t know much more beyond what the movie showed, I took interest for whatever reason and wanted to find out more and wouldn’t say I was shocked by how a prominent city such as Chicago could let such a large community turn into a war zone as much as I was just morbidly intrigued by the horrifying nature of it all. Gone forever are the looming towers where lives were lived, ended and lost. The residents have all moved on with their lives, no doubt with the memories of Cabrini-Green etched into their minds.

Candyman now serves as a bit of a time capsule for them as well as us. It’s become one of those all time horror films that introduced the world to a now classic horror character. Still most people who have seen the movie won’t ever know that the neighborhood was demolished. They won’t know how severe the situation was while the gangs essentially held the neighborhoods hostage. Nor will they ever know the true stories of Ruthie Mae McCoy or Dantrell Davis.

While the hook wielding spirit of Candyman is fictitious, The horrors and ghosts left behind by Cabrini-Green are all too real.

6 replies on “Cabrini Green: The True Horror of Candyman”

I know the movie is fiction but I won’t lie I have never looked in the mirror and said Candyman five times.

This is a great review about a great movie.
You mention the movie being one of your favorite horror movies, since it is one of mine too, I would be curious to know what other movies are you favorites. Do you have a post with such a list?
Cheers from Montréal, QC

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