The real Candyman stories behind the legend may not be supernatural, but they are just as chilling as anything the movie could ever depict.
“Be my victim.”
With these words, an icon of horror was born in 1992’s Candyman. Candyman, the vengeful spirit of an artist lynched for having an illicit affair with a white woman, makes his presence terrifyingly plain to Helen Lyle, a graduate student researching what she’s sure is a myth.
He’s summoned when his name is said into a mirror, and he kills with his rusty hook-hand.
Throughout the course of the movie, Helen uncovers the truth behind the legend while encountering the more terrifying everyday realities of poverty, police indifference, and drugs that plagued the lives of Chicagoans during the 1990s.
Since his debut, Candyman has become a real-life urban legend. The eeriness of the character and his tragic backstory have resonated with generations of horror fans, leaving a lasting legacy that keeps viewers asking: “Is Candyman real?”
The true story of Candyman is complicated, but every bit as tragic, harrowing, and frightening as the movie itself.
Ruth Mae McCoy’s Tragic And Revealing Death
A real-life parallel to the events of the movie is the tragic murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy, a lonely, mentally ill resident of the ABLA homes on Chicago’s South Side.
On the night of April 22, 1987, a terrified Ruthie called 911 to request help from the police. She told the dispatcher that someone in the apartment next door was trying to come through her bathroom mirror. “They throwed the cabinet down,” she said, confusing the dispatcher, who thought she must be crazy.
What the dispatcher didn’t know is that McCoy was right. Narrow passages between apartments allowed maintenance workers easy access, but they became a popular way for burglars to break in by pushing the bathroom cabinet out of the wall.
Although a neighbor reported gunshots coming from McCoy’s apartment, police chose not to break down the door due to the risk of being sued by residents had they done so. When a building superintendent finally drilled the lock two days later, he discovered McCoy’s body face-down on the floor, shot four times.
The movie contains several elements of this sad tale. Candyman’s first confirmed victim is Ruthie Jean, a Cabrini-Green resident murdered by someone who came through her bathroom mirror. Like Ruthie McCoy, neighbors, including the coincidentally-named Ann Marie McCoy, saw Ruthie Jean as “crazy.”
And like Ruthie McCoy, Ruthie Jean called the police, only to die alone and without help.
No one is quite sure how the details of McCoy’s murder ended up in the movie, although they’re suspiciously close to real life. It’s possible that director Bernard Rose learned of McCoy’s murder after deciding to shoot his movie in Chicago. It’s also been suggested that John Malkovich had an interest in making a movie about the story, and shared the details with Rose.
What’s known for certain is that her death was far from unusual in Chicago’s public housing.
Poverty And Public Housing In Chicago’s Cabrini-Green
The movie takes place and was partially filmed at the Cabrini–Green Homes housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side. Cabrini-Green, like the ABLA homes where Ruth McCoy lived and died, was built to house thousands of Black migrants who came to Chicago for work and to escape the violence of the Jim Crow South.
The modern apartments featured gas stoves, indoor plumbing and bathrooms, hot water, and climate control to offer comfort to residents through the brutal cold of Lake Michigan winters. This early promise held out, and the homes appeared in television shows like Good Times as a model of a decent standard of living.
But gradual neglect from the Chicago Housing Authority transformed Cabrini-Green into a nightmare. By the 1990s, in full view of Sears Tower, 15,000 people, almost all African American, lived in dilapidated buildings among crime resulting from poverty and the drug trade.
Particularly telling are some of the words Ruth McCoy spoke to the police dispatcher: “The elevator’s working.” Elevators, lights, and utilities were so often out of order that, when they did function, it was worth mentioning.
By the time the film crew arrived to shoot the disturbing interior of the Candyman’s lair, they didn’t have to do much to make it convincing. Thirty years of neglect had already done their work for them.
Similarly, America’s troubled past of violence against Black men, and particularly those who formed relationships with white women, set the stage for another crucial plot point in Candyman: the tragic villain’s origin story.
‘Candyman’ And Interracial Relationships In The United States
In the film, the talented Black artist Daniel Robitaille fell in love with and impregnated a white woman whose portrait he was painting back in 1890. Upon discovery, her father hires a gang to beat him, saw off his hand and replace it with a hook. They then covered him in honey and let bees sting him to death. And in death, he became Candyman.
Helen Lyle is implied to be the reincarnation of Candyman’s white lover. This aspect of the story is especially terrifying because the risk to interracial couples — and to Black men in particular — was all too real throughout the history of the United States.
The timing is an important detail. By the late 19th century, white mobs took their anger out on their black neighbors, with lynchings growing common as the years passed.
In 1880, for example, lynch mobs murdered 40 African Americans. By 1890, the year cited in the movie as the start of the Candyman legend, that number had more than doubled to 85—and those were only the recorded killings. In fact, widespread violence was so popular that mobs even organized “lynching bees,” a grotesque, murderous counterpart to quilting bees or spelling bees.
No one was spared from this brutality. Even the world-famous boxer Jack Johnson, upon marrying a white woman, was hounded by a white mob in Chicago in 1911. In 1924, Cook County’s only known lynching victim, 33-year old William Bell, was beaten to death because “The dead man was suspected of having attempted to attack one of two white girls, but neither girl could identify Bell as the assailant.”
The lynching described in Candyman remains so terrifying because it was a lived, daily reality for generations of African Americans, whose reflection can be seen in the terror experienced by the Candyman.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that interracial couples gained legal recognition for their partnerships, by which time thousands of attacks and murders had been committed against African Americans all over the country. In February 2020, the House of Representatives passed a bill making lynching a federal crime.
Beyond the real terrors of the Black experience in the United States, Candyman also expertly draws on myths, stories, and urban legends to create a new horror icon with deep roots in familiar tales.
Bloody Mary, Clive Barker, And The Stories That Inspired ‘Candyman’
So who is Candyman?
The original Candyman was a character in British horror writer Clive Barker’s 1985 story “The Forbidden.” In this story, the titular character haunts a public housing tower in Barker’s native Liverpool.
Barker’s Candyman draws on urban legends like Bloody Mary, who’s said to appear after repeating her name several times in a mirror, or the Hookman, infamous for stories in which he attacks teenage lovers with his hook hand.
The Biblical story of Samson is another possible influence. In the Book of Judges, the Philistines rule Israel. Samson takes a Philistine wife, crossing racial lines, and notably slays a lion in whose belly bees produce honey. This influence can be seen in Candyman’s swarms of spectral swarms of bees and the references to sweetness throughout the film.
What sets Candyman apart from other horror icons is that, unlike Jason Voorhees or Leatherface, he only ever kills one person on-screen. He has much more in common with tragic avenging anti-heroes than he does with the monstrous image associated with him.
Tony Todd And The Candyman Of The Silver Screen
So was there an actual, real-life Candyman? Is there a legend in Chicago about the ghost of a vengeful artist wrongfully killed?
Well … no. The truth is that there is no single origin to the story of Candyman, except perhaps in the mind of Tony Todd. Todd worked out Candyman’s painful human backstory in rehearsals with Virginia Madsen.
In truth, the character draws on genuine historical violence, myths, and stories like those of McCoy and countless others to reveal the pain experienced by millions and the irrationality of the fears we cling to.
Todd made creative use of his knowledge of history and racial injustice to give life to Barker’s character. His improvisations impressed Rose so much that the original version he had written was scrapped, and the fateful, furious ghost we now know was born.
Whether or not Candyman drew on Ruthie Mae McCoy’s murder directly for inspiration, or whether it was simply a coincidental case of local research adding realism to the movie, is impossible to say. What is known is that her tragic death was one of many like it, caused by neglect and ignorance as much as aggression or criminality.
The scariest thing about Candyman isn’t his potential for bloodiness, but his ability to force audiences to think, even if only briefly, about the people who were being demonized in the Cabrini-Green Homes and the very real terror people like his character faced.
After learning the complex and grim history behind Candyman, read about the Greenwood Massacre, in which black Oklahomans fought back against racist mobs. Then, learn about the harrowing lynching of 14-year old Emmett Till, whose death inspired the movement to fight for the civil rights of African Americans.