EESE 1/2000

"What's the matter, Trevor? Scared of something?"
Representing the Monstrous-feminine in Candyman

Andrea Kuhn (Erlangen)

frontispiece (Courtesy of TriStar)

In 1992 Candyman was released; it is a moderately successful horror movie (now spawning, as reports have it, its second sequel) that has since received considerable critical attention for its complex representation of a variety of issues.1 Gender-based approaches, however, have been rare so far, which is surprising in the discussion of a film that, as I would argue, both centers on and problematizes a specifically female subjectivity. Significantly, this subjectivity is inextricably linked to notions of monstrosity. In my reading of the film I will therefore concentrate on how the film uses and reworks this concept of what Barbara Creed has termed the monstrous-feminine to offer a new spin to the old tale of the girl and the monster. Before doing so, I will recapture Creed's line of argument, itself based on the work of Julia Kristeva.

In The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection2 Kristeva develops her theory of the abject, its relation to the concept of the mother and its significance in the constitution of the subject. This process starts for the child in the Semiotic, a pre-Oedipal space experienced as an undifferentiated continuum between his/herself, the surroundings and the mother's body. Kristeva calls this space chora (Plato's "empty space"); it presents a preverbal dimension of language structured by sensual impressions and the bodily needs of the child, not by language.3 Here the child learns to differentiate proper and improper, clean and unclean areas of the body. The maternal figure is of the utmost importance in this process. Kristeva describes her function as follows:

Maternal authority is the trustee of that mapping of the self's clean and proper body; it is distinguished from paternal laws within which, with the phallic phase and acquisition of language, the destiny of man will take shape.4
Since the child experiences himself as one with the mother and with nature, this authority is not yet associated with guilt and shame and is therefore radically different from the 'Law of the Father' which structures the Symbolic. Kristeva conceptualizes the Semiotic as contrast and precondition to the Symbolic, bound to be overcome and outgrown in order for 'culture,' society and subjectivity to exist. So-called abjects point towards the impossibility of such an ideal transcendence of the physical. In a literal sense the expression refers to abject secretions like excrements, blood, or puss; elements that threaten the subject's 'own,' proper body (corps propre) and therefore have to be expelled.5 This re-drawing of boundaries creates a sense of security, of inside/outside. Barbara Creed explains:
The abject [...] must be "radically excluded" (p. 2 [in Powers of Horror, A.K.]) from the place of the living subject, propelled away from the body and deposited on the other side of an imaginary border which separates the self from that which threatens the self. 6
For the child, abjects are closely linked to the figure of the mother of the semiotic chora. She becomes a key figure in the discussion of the abject, because she has to be repudiated and expelled by the child for it to be able to turn towards the father.7 Following the Oedipal trajectory, this becomes the precondition for the child's entry into the Symbolic. During this process the mother herself becomes an abject, relegated to the realm of the Semiotic forever, although neither can ever be fully repressed; they resurface in abjects that point towards the instability of the subject and the "fragility of the law"8 and therefore can be said to include not only bodily secretions, but everything that threatens to transgress 'borders' and the sanctity of the symbolic order (crimes, perversions, etc.).

Abjects threaten stable subject positions, the full constitution of which requires a clear demarcation line between Self and Other. The abject, however, is that which does not "respect borders, positions, rules", that "disturbs identity, system, order."9 It is a place "where meaning collapses," 10 the "place where 'I' am not,"11 presenting a life-threatening negation that must be radically excluded.

And yet the abject remains ambiguous; it fascinates as much as it repels. Its incorporating aspects promise the return to the oceanic primordial state inside the semiotic chora, the original oneness with the mother, in which the self disintegrates. Kristeva explains:

[A]bjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it-on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger. But also because abjection itself is a composite of judgement and affect, of condemnation and yearning, of signs and drives. Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship.12
This explains the urgency of an, often ritualistic, purification from the abject, where the original contact with the abject is renewed, so that it can then be ejected and the demarcation line between subject and that which threatens its existence can be redrawn more rigidly. In modern societies, this once religious cathartic function is being partly fulfilled by the horror film.13

In her essay "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection", Barbara Creed uses Kristeva's concept of the mother of the semiotic chora to take it a step further and to discover the traces of a more radical maternal presence in myth and popular culture. For Creed, it is above all the representation of the mother as abject that links the horror film to Kristeva's theory.14 In her conceptualization, the mother's relationship to the child is always problematic because of her reluctance to let him/her go. She needs her child to justify her own existence and to keep up some kind of connection to the Symbolic, from which she has effectively been expelled. Her refusal to let the child go makes her dangerous and she becomes the 'bad' mother as in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960) or in Dressed To Kill (Brian De Palma, USA, 1980), who denies her child the 'necessary' transition to the Symbolic.15

The semiotic maternal can be found in the representation of abject elements that refer to the instability of the world of the Father by reverting to the 'unclean' and repulsive body. As described above, that body is inextricably linked with the repressed world of the mother, so that defilement rites such as the horror film visualize the frontier between the repressed maternal-semiotic authority and the symbolic Law of the Father as in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, USA, 1973), etc.16

In traditional conceptualizations of the genre, its fascination with blood, especially the bleeding female body (said to symbolize not only her own 'castrated' state, but also the possibility of castration for the male) points towards castration anxiety as one of the basic motives of the horror film.17 Barbara Creed, however, demonstrates that the representation of the monstrous-feminine in the genre could also be based on entirely different anxieties, situated beyond the phallocentric patriarchal order. Such dangerous femininity can be found in representations of the primal scene, of birth and death. It surfaces as the treacherous mother, the oral-sadistic mother, or as mother as primordial abyss; in images of blood, of the 'all-devouring' vagina, of the vagina dentata, and of the vagina as Pandora's box; in the representation of the monster as fetish of (or for) the mother and in the presence of the archaic, parthenogenetic mother.18

Over and over again, the horror film depicts "reworking[s] of the primal scene in relation to the representation of other forms of copulation and procreation."19 They center on the question of the origin of life, or - in its most extreme patriarchal form - the fear that the archaic mother could be the sole source of life. This conceptualization of the archaic mother presents a stark contrast to Kristeva's mother of the semiotic chora, who is a pre-Oedipal figure and can therefore only be theorized in her relationship to her family and to the Symbolic. The archaic-parthenogenetic mother evades this Oedipal logic and the controlling power of the patriarchal, phallocentric order.

She is always depicted as a negative figure, as abyss or monstrous vagina, which threatens to reincorporate that which it once birthed. Her manifestations can usually be found in a film's mise-en-scene as a representation of her phantasmagoric aspects as in the first half of Alien (Ridley Scott, USA, 1979); Creed writes:

Although the "mother" as a figure does not appear in [...] the entire film-her presence forms a vast backdrop for the enactment of all the events. She is there in the images of birth, the representations of the primal scene, the womblike imagery, the long winding tunnels leading to inner chambers, the rows of hatching eggs [...] She is the generative mother, the pre-phallic mother, the being who exists prior to the knowledge of the phallus.20
Because she concentrates solely on her reproductive function and is posited outside morality and the law, she threatens the patriarchal symbolic order and has to be negated and discredited.

Her negative representation is not based on castration anxiety, as it is in the case of the phallic woman, but on the subject's fear of being devoured, of the absorption into the initial oneness, signifying death. In contrast to female genitalia, the womb of the archaic mother can not be conceptualized as 'lack,' since it connotes 'fullness,' and can therefore not be defined by its relation to the penis. She represents total sexual difference and is no longer 'Other,' but serves as her own point of reference that cannot be incorporated and controlled by the patriarchal-phallocentric order.21 This posits her not only outside the Symbolic, but also beyond conventional representational systems, so that her presence can only be evoked in the mise-en-scene, or otherwise. Again, the image remains ambiguous because the devouring, reincorporating mother represents not only the "terror of self-disintegration", but also the "desire for nondifferentiation."22 She evokes the erasure of the self, and therefore remains strongly associated with death, the ultimate loss of physical boundaries.23

Horror films react to the threat of the uncontrollable archaic mother by reconstructing her as the mother of the pre-Oedipal dyadic or triadic phase (e.g. as the phallic woman). The total difference of the mother is negated by making her the subject's Other and by reinscribing her into an Oedipal scenario.24 Such a form of reconstruction can be found wherever the archaic mother is represented in her phantasmagoric aspects. Creed reminds us of the function of the fetish, which helps the boy to deny the threat of castration embodied in the woman by replacing the woman's/mother's missing penis with a fetish or acting as fetish himself.25

Following Roger Dadoun's approach she finds this form of 'male fetishism' in Dracula films, in which the archaic mother is evoked in the small secluded village, the winding path leading through an enchanted forest to the castle together with its cobwebs, the vault, etc. Out of this environment rises Dracula, a very erect figure, acting as ersatz phallus for the mother.

Feminist critics discuss a possible female fetishism in terms of Freud's theories on 'female' castration anxiety, which he conceptualizes as a woman's fear of the loss of love objects, especially her children. In order to delay or deny the imminent and eventually inevitable separation, she fetishizes the child by dressing it up, by trying to tie him/her to her, or by getting more 'little ones.'26 In the horror film this form of fetishism produces monstrous off-spring, preferably deranged psychopaths like Norman Bates, for whose development the mother, and the mother alone, is blamed. Creed describes the mechanisms behind this construct of the 'bad' mother in her discussion of Alien:

The notion of female fetishism is represented in Alien in the figure of the monster. The creature is the mother's phallus, attributed to the maternal figure by a phallocentric ideology terrified at the thought that women might desire to have the phallus. The monster as fetish object is not there to meet the desires of the male fetishist, but rather to signify the monstrousness of woman's desire to have the phallus.27
The total difference exhibited by the archaic mother is perceived as a threat, so that she has to be re-constructed as the pre-Oedipal mother, who is already inscribed in the Symbolic either as 'Other' or abject. This figure is far less threatening than the all-devouring womb of the archaic mother since she is firmly grounded in an Oedipal scenario. She can then be constructed as a negative figure through the depiction of the female fetish as monstrous, alien, etc. representing the mother's outrageous desire to either keep the phallus or to fight her own castration.

The combination of Kristeva's concept of the abject and Creed's figure of the archaic mother helps clarify the ideological strategies that the horror genre - itself product of a patriarchal, phallocentric society - employs to support its own symbolic order: it constructs the feminine as 'imaginary Other' that has to be repressed and controlled in order to maintain the social order.28 In light of the continuous discrediting of the maternal, Creed concludes that it is imperative to keep in mind, that it is not the mother herself that is monstrous, but only the patriarchal conceptualization of that figure. The very real power and lure of this figure still needs to be explored.

Candyman (Bernard Rose, USA, 1992) illustrates the ideological control mechanisms described by Kristeva and Creed, but it complicates them by intertwining supernatural elements, dreams and social reality to create a number of narrational levels that can never be entirely separated.

TriStar's official production information offers the following synopsis of the film:

For Helen Lyle, urban mythology is nothing more than an academic exercise. A doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois, she regards oral folklore and superstition with a skeptical eye, particularly one legend concerning a hook-handed killer who, it's said, can be summoned by chanting "Candyman" five times while looking in a mirror. When she learns that a signature murder in the Cabrini Green projects of Chicago is being attributed to the mythological Candyman, Helen sees a way of securing her scholarly reputation: Braving the dangers of the crime-ridden projects, she'll conduct interviews, gather data and write a doctoral thesis about this urban legend that will make her a star in academia. But as Helen begins her research, a terrible presence lurking deep within the scarred heart of the projects begins to sap her complacent belief in what is rational and what is possible, and she soon finds herself trapped by evidence that points towards her as a murderer.29
As this passage demonstrates, the universe of Candyman is clearly divided into semiotic and symbolic spaces. The Symbolic can be found in the (predominantly white) world of the University of Illinois and Lincoln Village, Helen's Gold Coast neighborhood. This middle-to-upper class world is flooded with light and perfectly structured: straight geometrical forms delimit the locations, mirrored in the clear hierarchies that define people's relationships to one another. 'Law' and 'order' are defined and upheld by male authority, as portrayed in Helen's husband-cum-supervisor Trevor, in Purcell, the detective and the psychiatrist. Emphasized by largely academic surroundings, this 'enlightened' sphere symbolizes light, science and knowledge.

Beyond the highway, the all-defining border of the film, lies Cabrini Green, a public housing project and notorious inner-city ghetto characterized in the film by its poor/disadvantaged/criminal African American inhabitants. 30 Darkness, filth and an overpowering stench dominate this space marked by its graffiti, broken elevators, corners and dead ends. It signifies anarchy, crime and superstition, conditions that seem to produce an incomprehensible presence: the Candyman. Cabrini Green is the semiotic space (full of abjects and abjection) that the symbolic world is trying to negate and repress.

Yet both areas are inextricably linked, as Helen finds out when she researches the history of the haunted ghetto: she discovers that her apartment's lay-out is identical to the Cabrini Green building and had originally been designed as a public housing project as well. It was converted into a fancy condo building after city planners had discovered the lacking barrier to the rich Gold Coast area. Poverty and crime were pushed back behind the border, i.e. the highway. In a very literal sense the Semiotic here becomes the blueprint or the foundation of the Symbolic. The highway not only separates the two spheres, but also links them inseparably and serves as 'umbilical' cord,' facilitating exchange.

This division of space in Candyman is very pronounced; the positioning of Helen Lyle in this scenario, however, is much more complex than the distributor's synopsis suggests. The film itself remains ambiguous about it by self-consciously blurring the boundaries between reality, dream and the supernatural. This strategy makes it virtually impossible to objectively judge or describe the events of the film. Rather, it suggests - much like the Candyman myth - different versions of the story that are sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary, linked by the Symbolic's precarious relation to the Semiotic.31

At first glance, Candyman appears to be a conventional entry to the horror genre following the traditional pattern of the disruption of a supposedly well-ordered and safe world by the uncanny.32 This encroachment of the Semiotic upon the Symbolic signifies the eruption and visual manifestation of the disturbing drives and taboos on which modern American society was founded (in this case: slavery, racism, the oppression of women, and classism) who return in the shape of a dead black man to haunt the lives and imagination of 'guilty,' white, middle-class America.

The positioning of a white woman at the center of the narrative, however, makes this movie, so engrossed in issues of race and gender, far more complex. The first part of the film follows Helen's illusion of being firmly rooted in the Symbolic. As a privileged graduate student and ambitious, 'pushy' researcher she is continuously associated with light and the world of knowledge. She starts out as the subject of the narrative, an active bearer of the look, her exploratory urge and manipulative skills initiating the plot. She expresses her assumed superiority in her knowing smile, the ironic and teasing comments towards her partner, her privileged social position and her self-assessment as an explorer finding 'truth,' when others are scared off by superstition and fear.

But her status as representative of the Symbolic remains severely compromised by her gender. As a woman she is constantly marginalized by the men surrounding her. The array of male authorities in Candyman deny her access to power, privilege and security. Her attempts to establish herself as subject in academic discourse fail: her husband ruins her plans to carry out an important survey for her thesis, Purcell treats her efforts with patronizing amusement and her research into the Candyman myth leads to her victimization through the hands of a real-life gang leader. The 'law,' in the guise of an older police detective, protects her at first, but finally arrests and even institutionalizes her, making her the helpless victim of the monster.

Out of the semiotic chora rises yet another man, a giant black boogey man out to haunt Helen's well-structured, 'normal' world. The Candyman is represented as a dark prince, revealing rotting flesh under his fur-hemmed coat, promising eternal life in death. Between these poles of the Symbolic and the Semiotic, Helen has to find her legitimate place. Significantly, she is the one who first crosses the 'border' rather than any of the men.

She enters the strange world of Cabrini Green (abstracted in the film into a place almost void of people, a war zone of crime and filth), explores empty hallways and rooms and finally enters the mysterious realm of the Candyman through the back of a mirror. When she later visits another forbidden space (a public latrine), to find out the 'truth' about Candyman, she encounters the supernatural for the first time, which seems to have a natural affinity to the crime and anarchy in Cabrini Green.33 The toilet is a site of abjects and abjection: the walls are full of graffiti, the seats destroyed and the stench is overwhelming. In the last stall she checks, Helen finds a broken seat filled with a pulsating swarm of bees, signifiers of the Candyman. In this repulsive environment, the first 'black' man appears and punishes Helen's transgression by striking her with a meat hook. As it turns out, however, that man, calling himself Candyman, is a real person of flesh and blood, a gang leader who has been terrorizing the neighborhood for some time. Helen survives and gets the criminal arrested by the authorities.

It is precisely at this point that Helen's position within the narrative begins to change. Significantly, this scene marks her first victimization. She has to experience her own (physical) boundaries as vulnerable and loses control over her life. Following a scene that illustrates her recovery, the mythical Candyman appears and now crosses the border between Cabrini Green and the University of Illinois himself in order to haunt her. He embodies the beautiful face of horror as an incomprehensible creature of the imaginary ("I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things I'm nothing"), who is associated with the Semiotic both through his iconography (hook, blood, fur hem) and his reverberating voice as well as the death threat he embodies. His representation plays on the dangerously luring aspects of death, the annihilation of the self, the ceasing of linear temporal structures, and the redeeming return to the oceanic world of the mother, all expressed in his credo: "Come with me and be immortal [...] Why do you want to live? It is a blessed condition, believe me, to be whispered about in street corners, to live in other people's dreams but not have to be." He is not the source, but the manifestation of that world, an agent who easily meets Creed's criteria for the fetish of the archaic mother.

He casts his spell over Helen and implicates her in a series of crimes (the kidnapping of a boy, the murder of her academic partner and of a psychiatrist). Helen seems to move from the position of active academic subject to the helpless victim of the Candyman and his defamations. As the narrative progresses, she loses her privileges, her apartment, her best friend, her husband, her credibility, her dignity and her freedom, until she has finally become an outsider to her own life as well as being an abject with this sphere. The world she once belonged to now considers her a murderous psychopath on a rampage.

Helen gets more and more engulfed by the Semiotic: when she first hears the third version of the myth, the logical transitions and temporal structure of the film start to disappear. The highway has been irrevocably crossed and loses its significance as a safe borderline. Helen is no longer seen driving from one world to the other, controlling her own (and the camera's) movements, but is transferred to strange worlds by means of montage and superimpositions. Seemingly unrelated shots are linked only by close-ups of her face and the rhythm and sound of Philip Glass' neo-Gothic score. Helen inexplicably finds herself in places and situations beyond her control and literally loses her 'distance,' her ability to draw the line or even to distinguish between 'inside' and 'outside'.

Finally, she discovers the heart of 'evil' in the Cabrini Green apartment building she had been exploring all along. Deeper and deeper Helen enters this particular (un)familiar place34 as she crawls through openings in the walls, feels her way through maze-like corridors until she eventually finds the Candyman and the baby boy he kidnapped. At this point her self-abandonment to the power of the Semiotic35 seems almost complete: Rose stages this final encounter between monster and heroine as romantic seduction (marked by soft-focus and an overtly romantic score), but repulsion wins over fascination and Helen resists. She is able to free herself and the (male) child from the chora's embrace. She sacrifices herself for the boy, gives her life for his, and thus enables his transition from the Semiotic to the Symbolic. This act makes her an abject herself, a monstrous victim of the flames and yet a necessary pre-condition of a successful patriarchal society as symbolized in the figure of the boy. As 'mother' to little Anthony, a position she explicitly desired at the beginning of the film, she remains in the realm of the Semiotic, in the mirror36 and in the image of the martyr in a sea of flames in the final shot of the film. She becomes an imaginary Other and changes from subject of the narrative to its object, from narrator to 'narrated', as she becomes part of the original Candyman myth (third version), whose stages she relives right up to her death on the pyre, until her image finally conflates with the painting of the original lover of the historic Candyman.

One possible reading of this ending is the punishment of the active female subject, who is transformed into a traditional passive object (of the narration, of the look of the spectator),37 as spectacle/image, so that the order she disrupted can be re-established. Stephen Heath describes this regulation of transgressive desire and behavior as follows: "If the woman looks, the spectacle provokes, castration is in the air, the Medusa's head is not far off; thus, she must not look, is absorbed herself on the side of the seen, seeing herself seeing herself, Lacan's femininity."38

Helen becomes absorbed in her own reflection in the mirror and in a patriarchal construction of femininity as castrating woman.39 This ending helps control the dangerous presence of the archaic mother, whose incomprehensible presence is made manifest in Helen, when she takes the Candyman's place as her fetish. This manifestation in the body of the 'biological' woman is then marked as abject (through close-ups of her hideously burnt face) to be eventually repressed. Having confirmed the symbolic through the 'delivery' of the boy she has to die. The fusion of 'biological' woman, the monstrous-feminine and an image of socially accepted femininity is highlighted by the programmatic "It was always you, Helen" at the end of the film.40

Such an interpretation is a two-fold demonstration of de Lauretis' now classic observation that "dominant cinema works for Oedipus."41 On the one hand, the menacing figure of the archaic mother as total difference is 'domesticated,' i.e. reinscribed into an Oedipal scenario, only to be discredited and destroyed. On the other hand, the 'biological' woman of the film, who usurped the traditional male positions of narrative agent and bearer of the investigative gaze, is punished and relegated to her 'proper' place in relation to the symbolic.

The film, however, offers a second, less conventional but equally potent reading of its protagonists, in which Helen is not denigrated to the object of the monster's desire, but instead establishes herself as the subject of the film's discourse and of the Candyman myth. In that case the Candyman cannot be interpreted as a representation of male fetishism, making himself the mother's phallus to deny her 'castration,' but as the manifestation of a woman's desire for power and subjectivity.

The connection between the Candyman and Helen is by no means accidental: she calls him into being. More importantly, a number of scenes in the film suggest that the monster and his deeds are actually her fantasies, making both the Candyman and Helen protagonists in the woman's dream. The movie underplays the importance of this structure by inverting the conventional ordering of a dream sequence: here, shots of the mythic Candyman are accompanied or followed (instead of being introduced) by close-ups of Helen's face, while soft focus and romantic music add a dream-like quality to these shots.42

As explained above, Helen's subjectivity is presented as fragile throughout the film, but it is most severely compromised when she is attacked by the gang leader: in a strange and unfamiliar place she is stripped off her privilege and dignity, physically hurt and forced to acknowledge her own vulnerability. The scene marks the first open act of aggression against the heroine by the male world. It is at this crucial point of victimization and objectification that Helen's desire for power and appreciation materializes in the shape of the mythic Candyman. Even though he claims "Helen, I came for you," the close-ups of her face, the score and her trance-like behavior suggest that the unfolding events and the Candyman might actually be her dream. The story ceases to follow classic narrative structures such as the division of scenes into action/reaction or cause/effect shots and the presentation of a linear narrative movement. Instead, stylized close-ups of Helen's face increasingly present the only connection between otherwise unrelated and segmented takes. This strategy helps the film to disguise and problematize the logic breaks and gaps in the narrative (those moments when Helen claims: "I blacked out."), that cannot be explained by anything but a quasi-subjective perspective. The opening of the film serves as a perfect example of this strategy and links the exposition (images of the bee invasion combined with Candyman's voice-over promise "I came for you" fading into a close-up of Helen' face) to the film's syuzhet.

When Purcell renders his romantic version of the Candyman myth, 'realistic' shots of Helen give way to romantic erotic close-ups (half-closed lips and flickering eyelids implying sexual stimulation) just when Purcell describes the "prone, naked body" of the black man. Here, the Candyman becomes the white woman's erotic fantasy, so taboo, that it can only be imagined as monstrous and forced, especially apparent during the 'seduction' sequence at the end of the film.43

A still of this scene serves as perfect narrative image of the film as a whole, as it conveys the idea of the protagonist's problematic relationship to each other and of the representational strategies employed by the film. Helen and the Candyman are seen in the classic pose of a perfect heterosexual romantic couple: the heroine barely conscious, her head tilted back, and the hero about to 'take'/kiss her (both bathed in a fantastically unreal blue light). This image of total (self-)abandonment, however, is severely compromised by a menacing swarm of bees settling on the woman's naked skin. They are used here (as throughout the movie) to at once displace and highlight the seducer's hideousness, a hideousness that will be revealed in the actual film scene.

Just as significant is the Candyman's role as Helen's tool. His presence helps her create a story that places herself at the very heart of the narrative. She can bridge her real-life powerlessness and vulnerability through the fetish of the Candyman. The more she is put under pressure, the more we see of the "hook man." When she is accused of murder in a psychiatric ward, she replies: "No part of me, no matter how hidden, is capable of that." With the words "I can prove it" she turns towards a mirror and calls the Candyman, who then kills the menacing psychiatrist, therefore exonerating Helen and setting her free. Significantly, this Candyman is a suspiciously hybrid figure, composed of the three independently existing versions of the myth. It is only in Helen's imagination that they are merged into one person, who is then forced on the other characters as a monstrous reality.44 And although the Candyman is supposed to kill the person who summons him, he never actually attacks her. He might then be seen less as a mythic presence forcing himself on Helen, but rather as a construct serving as a thinly disguised 'excuse' for her own murderous rage. It should also be noted in this context, that Helen's innocence cannot be established by the film: the actual slashing happens off-screen and her 'blackouts' make an objective assessment of events impossible.

From this perspective, the 'feminine' interiors of Cabrini Green appear as the actual inner world or the subconscious fantasy of the woman. This fantasy is used to disguise her own murderous impulses and make Helen the hero45 of a narrative in which she kills the monster and rescues the child. As the martyr who gave her life for a black child, she forces a myth on the inhabitants of Cabrini Green that places her at the center of gratitude and admiration. It is only consistent then, that her funeral is framed by two identical close-ups of the dead/sleeping woman in her casket, as if she herself were imagining the solemn procession of the black community paying their last respects. Helen becomes immortal and has reached her goal: she has replaced the Candyman and will from now on haunt the dreams of man forever enabling her to take revenge on her unfaithful husband Trevor in the final scene of the film, when he summons her up by uttering her name five times.

But even this reading finds her caught as Other in the imaginary world behind the mirror with her image frozen in the final shot of the film. The movie still concludes with the repression of femininity from the diegetic symbolic world. Again, femininity is inextricably linked to the body of the 'biological' female, sealing the fate of both. The point of view, however, has shifted, so that the punishment of the strong independent woman is re-framed within an emancipation narrative that hints at the power of the Semiotic and also allows for an interpretation of the final shot as an (albeit torn) representation of femininity triumphant instead of passive martyr.

It demonstrates a different strategy that narrative cinema uses to regulate the monstrous-feminine; this time the representation of a 'female' fetishism that points towards the urgency with which patriarchal culture has to define a woman's desire for power as monstrous in the figure of the Candyman.

Candyman follows that Oedipal construct, but by rigorously following it through to its logical conclusion (the conflation of monster and woman)46 it highlights the enormous fear of uncontrollable female desire. Whenever Helen looks into the mirror to summon Candyman, she is left staring at her own reflection. The only time we can actually see him in the mirror is marked as a re-presentation, as a "totally true" story (that happened to a friend of the narrator's roommate's boyfriend) told by a female student at the beginning of the movie. In the final scene of the film, Helen has taken the place of the Candyman. He has been dropped as construct and as fetish of the archaic mother, meant to disguise her actual power. The only thing left is a deadly femininity, slashing the male body in ecstasy. The erasure of the Candyman, or his remodeling into the figure of the dead and burnt Helen, reveals the analogy between monster, femininity and the sole source of the narrative. Helen finds the answer to the riddle she wants to solve, the source of the myth, in Candyman's 'cave': a portrait of herself as the original lover in a period costume, which is taken up again in the final image/painting of the film of her as martyr and triumphant woman, slashed in the middle, thus symbolizing the inconsistencies of the patriarchal construct of femininity.

The division of Candyman's diegetic world into a semiotic and a symbolic space is obvious, the positioning of the heroine, and the way all three relate, however, is rendered extremely complex by the self-conscious ambiguity with which the film blurs the boundaries between dream, reality and the supernatural. Barbara Creed's theory of the archaic mother proves a valuable framework for analyzing the relation between the Semiotic and the Symbolic or between Helen and Candyman. As can be expected from a conventional entry to the horror genre, the monstrous-feminine is linked to the body of the 'biological' woman to control her menacing presence by eventually destroying both. But while the film seems to cater to conventional genre expectations by transforming the female subject of the narrative into the object of the monster's abject desire, it undercuts these expectations by offering a fresh perspective on the old story, in which the woman establishes herself as subject by using the Candyman, now object of her desire, to rewrite the story and to make herself hero. In this case, her association with the world of the archaic mother, whose source she certainly seems to be, does not simply result in her punishment, but rather helps us to see through the patriarchal construct of the female martyr who discovers the power and lure of a femininity unleashed from Oedipal restraints that scares all the Trevors to death.


1 For a discussion of issues of race and class in Candyman see Mike Hill, "Can Whiteness Speak? Institutional Anomies, Ontological Disasters, and Three Hollywood Films," Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz (eds.), White Trash: Race and Class in America (New York/London: Routledge, 1997), 153-173, and Aviva Briefel and Sianne Ngai, "'How Much Did You Pay For This Place?' Fear, Entitlement, and Urban Space in Bernard Rose's Candyman," Camera Obscura 37 (January 1996), 70-91. For a discussion of the relationship between narration, representation and history see Laura Wyrick, "Summoning Candyman: The Cultural Production of History," Arizona Quarterly 54:3 (1998), 89-117.

2 Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia UP, 1982), originally published as Pouvoir de l'horreur. Essai sur l'abjection (Paris, 1980).

3 Barbara Creed, "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection," 1986, Barry Keith Grant (ed.), The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 44-45.

4 Kristeva, 72.

5 "Julia Kristeva," Ansgar Nuenning (ed.), Metzler Lexikon Literatur- und Kulturtheorie (Stuttgart/Weimar: J.B. Metzler, 1998), 287.

6 Creed, 37-38.

7 Unfortunately, Kristeva does not differentiate between the experiences of the male and the female child.

8 Kristeva, 4.

9 ibid., 4.

10 Creed, 37.

11 ibid., 37.

12 Kristeva, 9-10.

13 Creed, 46.

14 Creed also demonstrates how the horror film illustrates the work of abjection on at least three levels: it revels in abject images of gore, puss, mutilations and decomposing bodies, but also demonstrates "abjection at work" (40) in both a literal and a figurative sense. Watching horror films satisfies a desire for perverse pleasure through the consumption of repulsive-fascinating images of the abject and a desire for actual abjection, i.e. the desire "to throw up", to eject the abject. The concept of the border is crucial for the construction of the monstrous, since (a) transgression(s) of that border is usually the plot's point of departure and the decisive characteristic of the monster. These borders vary in nature, but their function is always the same: to set the stage for the encounter of the Symbolic with what threatens its stability, so that the manifestation of that threat can eventually be defeated and expelled (40-41).

15 Creed, 41.

16 For a detailed analysis of The Exorcist see Creed, "Baby Bitches From Hell: Monstrous Little Women in Film," 1997, (02.01.2000), and Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London/New York: Routledge, 1993), 31-42.

17 This anxiety can, of course, be experienced quite pleasurably in a masochistic scenario by the male spectator, as Creed in "Dark Desires: Male Masochism in the Horror Film," Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (eds.), Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema (London/New York: Routledge, 1993) and Carol J. Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (London: BFI Publishing, 1992) demonstrate.

18 Creed, 47.

19 ibid., 48; as Creed argues, this is particularly relevant in sci-fi horror.

20 ibid., 50.

21 ibid., 56.

22 ibid., 56.

23 ibid., 57-58.

24 ibid., 53.

25 ibid., 58-59.

26 ibid., 60-61.

27 ibid., 62.

28 Creed questions Kristeva's prescriptive definition of society and culture, in which the repression of the maternal/feminine is seen as the necessary precondition for any culture or society to exist. If read as a descriptive analysis of a phallocentric patriarchy, however, it provides valuable insight into the mechanisms of any such society, its cultural expressions and its representational strategies. For an extended criticism of Kristeva's body politics see Judith Butler, "The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva," Kelly Oliver (ed.), Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristeva's Writing (New York/London: Routledge, 1993), 164-178.

29 TriStar Pictures, Candyman: Production Information (1992), 1.

30 Since my focus in this essay is on the representation of gender, I cannot fully explore the film's investment in issues of race and class and the implied connotations of monstrosity that haunt American popular culture. For a detailed discussion of these topics see Hill, and Briefel/Ngai.

31 The first version of the myth is reported by a white student and involves a figure who magically appears whenever somebody utters his name five times in front of a mirror; he then gruesomely kills the person with his hook for a hand. An African American cleaning woman, on the other hand, tells Helen about a "Candyman," who terrorizes the notorious public housing project Cabrini Green, and has allegedly killed a woman there by breaking through the wall of her apartment. The third version is related by Purcell, who works on urban legends as well: his Candyman is a wildly romantic nineteenth century character. He is the son of an ex-slave who acquires considerable wealth, falls in love with a white woman, and fathers her child. When the woman's father finds out about it, he mobilizes a mob who saw off the man's hand, smear honey over his naked body and leave him to a swarm of 'hungry' bees, before they eventually burn him on a giant pyre.

32 The press release tries to create this conventional narrative image by describing the film's protagonists as follows: "Virginia Madsen stars as Helen Lyle, whose brilliant mind slowly erodes in the face of unfathomable horror, while Tony Todd is Candyman, the hook-handed specter who kills to perpetuate his own existence and to reclaim a romance denied him a century before." (1-2). The opening of the film sets up the audience for traditional slasher fare when a teenager is gruesomely killed for desiring (and preparing for) illicit sex.

33 The press release puts it rather dramatically: "In a hopeless community such as this, myth becomes an undeniable force" (3).

34 This notion of the unheimlich is produced by the film's house-within-a-house structure: the familiar Lincoln Village mirrors Cabrini Green, the interiors of which harbor the home of the Candyman.

35 Problematically enough, the semiotic is signified by the body of the black man, who becomes the site of erotic desire, but is at the same time presented as abject. This rather conventional stereotyping clearly expresses white society's problematic relation to ethnic difference: desire for the 'Other' has to be repressed to define a 'white' hegemonic position, or has to be demonized whenever it surfaces. This process of the subject 'being spoken by the abject/Other' is visualized in the movie when Helen literally climbs through a black man's mouth (a giant graffiti on a wall) to penetrate into the deepest layers of Cabrini Green.

36 This image elucidates the revolutionary potential of Kristeva's Semiotic that - in contrast to Lacan's Imaginary - always threatens to disrupt the symbolic order, to blur the boundaries and to threaten stability, as Helen demonstrates in the final scene of the film, when she appears as the monster in the mirror to kill her husband. For a discussion of the differences between Lacan's Imaginary and Kristeva's Semiotic see Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (New York: Cornell University Press, 1982).

37 This position has, of course, first been defined by Laura Mulvey in her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16:3 (1975), 6-18.

38 Stephen Heath, "Difference," Screen 19:3 (1978), 92.

39 It should be noted here that the fear of castration in Candyman is visualized in the tale of a former victim of the monster who obviously survived, but "they found it [the man's penis] floating in the toilet." The meaning of this 'fatal' emasculation is clear: "Can't fix that... Better off dead!"

40 This fusion of identities destroys any previous notion of distance, and therefore irrevocably excludes the woman from the Symbolic.

41 Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 155.

42 Briefel/Ngai, 84.

43 Here, the Candyman comes to represent a complex interrelated female desire as a signifier of power and as object of an erotic fantasy.

44 Briefel/Ngai, 82-85.

45 By claiming a heroic position within her own story, Helen turns the table on classic myths that marginalize the monstrous-feminine, as described by Teresa de Lauretis: "Medusa and Sphinx, like other ancient monsters, have survived in hero narratives, in someone else's story, not their own" (109).

46 Linda Williams has aptly described the strange affinity between monster and woman, the two 'Others' to normative male sexuality and desire, in classic and modern horror film in "When the Woman Looks," Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams (eds.), Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism (Frederick: University Publications/American Film Institute, 1983), 83-99.