In Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighbourhood is haunted. There are so many ghost stories associated with the place, in fact, that you might wonder why anyone bothered to build new developments there instead of just burning it all down, salting the earth, and getting as far away as possible.
But that’s all part of the point of the film. Cabrini Green has seen some things – murderers lurking behind mirrors, men luring children with candy, well-meaning grad students getting trapped in bonfires, and even, if you go back far enough, the horrific torture and murder of an artist – but capitalism has no respect for the dead, and anywhere can be gentrified if the price is right.
The film also situates its horrific events in a continuum of racist violence, drawing a line directly from the white mob who murdered the son of a slave in the 1800s to the white police officers who gunned down innocent black men in the 2020s – both fictional and real. DaCosta uses horror tropes to highlight real world horrors, and the message is clear: ghosts might be scary, but reality is even scarier.
There have been plenty of articles written about the film, delving into what it all means, with varying amounts of spoilers included (we’d recommend watching the film before reading too much about it!). But maybe it’s worth saying here that while there have been plenty of great horror films made recently that have been lauded for explicitly highlighting real world issues, the horror genre has always been about more than just ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. Horror functions as a kind of social commentary, drawing out the things we’re really afraid of.
George Romero’s zombie movies are a good place to start: the walking dead function as metaphors for society’s ills, while the still-human characters are trapped in microcosms of wider issues. The ending of Night Of The Living Dead (1968 – skip the 1990 version!) is still shocking today, while the way that the zombies flock to the shopping mall in Dawn Of The Dead (1978 – again, maybe skip the remake) takes on a whole new kind of menace watched today, as we attempt to navigate our lives in a post-COVID outbreak world.
Consumerism is the big evil in John Carpenter’s 1988 classic They Live, too, where a pair of specially made sunglasses allows Roddy Piper’s homeless drifter to see through the messages used by an alien race to control humanity. “CONSUME”, screeches one decoded billboard; others command people to “OBEY” and “CONFORM”. It’s not subtle, but it might just change the way you look at the next giant advert you see.
In Society (1989), Brian Yuzna depicts the wealthy elite as all-consuming monsters, feeding off the poor. Again, not a difficult metaphor to unpack, and a message that hasn’t aged at all badly. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) reads as a condemnation of McCarthyism as well as a warning against conformity; the 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland dials up the paranoia even further, depicting a rapidly-spreading contagion that strips people of their humanity. What do you do if you can’t even trust the people you love not to get brainwashed into a shadowy cult? The film’s final moments are still blood-curdling.
Further back, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) grapples with fears around female sexuality – in interestingly layered ways, as the film itself has to deal with the constraints of the Hays Code – and even in Universal’s original gothic horrors, Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) it’s easy enough to pull out the real-life anxieties fueling the creation of monsters.
We could go on, but it’d probably involve name-checking every horror film ever made. If you’re feeling a pull to the dark side as we head into spooky season, we’ll leave you with a couple of final recommendations: His House (2020) is a brilliantly scary depiction of the horrors faced by refugees arriving in the United Kingdom, while Under The Shadow (2016) sees an evil djinn plaguing a mother and daughter already struggling with the restrictions imposed on them in a war-torn 1980s Tehran.
And, of course, you should definitely see Candyman (2021). You can even book your tickets online if you’re wary of saying his name too many times…