a Black man in a beanie holds his hands up in fear or curiosity
Universal Pictures

“Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman.” The repetition is a summoning spell which repeats the past in the present. Horror is a sound you can’t stop saying.

Bernard Rose’s 1992 film Candyman repeats its summoning spell as an echo that turns words into sounds and back again. Set around the Chicago housing project of Cabrini-Green, the movie features protagonist Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a white anthropologist studying urban legends. She becomes fascinated by the story of Candyman, a Black artist in the 1890s who painted the picture of a white woman, fell in love with her, and was duly murdered. His hand was cut off and replaced with a hook and his genitals smeared with honey and exposed to bees. 

Candyman supposedly haunts Cabrini-Green, which stands on the ground where he was killed. If you look in a mirror and say “Candyman” five times, he appears, whispering loving, terrifying promises. “I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom.” Tony Todd’s incredibly sensuous voice drips with honey and blood. To say his name is to summon forth a sweetness of sound and terror; the pain, as he says, is “exquisite.”

Philip Glass’s soundtrack for piano, pipe organ, and chorus mirrors the repetition in the summoning spell. His iconic minimalist iteration, sketching the same figure over and over like images in glass, forms a backdrop for the boxes of Cabrini-Green, stark identical apartments and identical apartments stacked. Glass’s insistent, stark hum collapses, at key moments, into the white noise buzz of massed bees, the carefully ordered divisions of space and sound pressed together into a single trauma crawling on the rib cage, an iron hook dragged through a honeycomb.

The most famous theme from the film is “Music Box,” in which Glass’s characteristic repetition mirrors the tinkling loop of a child’s toy. “Music Box” is introduced early in the film; it’s the background music for one of Helen’s interviews, in which an informant tells her the story of Candyman. 

Per the informant, a woman was babysitting when a lover came over. The babysitter tells him the story of Candyman, the story in the story culminating in the repetition of the name and the wet sounds of death. 

Glass’s music is a theme for the baby. But its maddening loop is also an auditory mirror of the loop of story which is also the loop of history. The past is a story repeating in the present. Horror is a sound you can’t stop saying.

Nia DaCosta’s 2021 Candyman sequel/reboot is scored by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. His incidental music is influenced by Glass, holding up a kind of buzzing electric mirror to Glass’s crystalline compositions. 

Lowe does reproduce one piece from the original score, though. Glass’s “Music Box” theme is used in a scene that reprises and retells the events of the previous film. 

In a flashback sequence told through artist Kara Walker’s eerie shadow-puppet cutouts, we see Helen Lyle start to investigate Candyman and then go insane. She makes snow angels of blood and throws a child into a fire. 

Glass’s music tinkles and chimes as the words grind on, echoing the horror story campfire tale of the first movie. The story the shadow puppets tell here is garbled, though; in the “real” events of the first movie, Candyman, not Helen, was the murderer, and the baby lived. To reflect this, Lowe adds ambient hiss and echo. The music box fades toward white noise buzz, space and sound collapsing into a single trauma, a bloody hook dragged through a honeycomb.

The “Music Box” theme has a final, clearer rendering at the end credits of the 2021 film. By this point we’ve walked again through the razed, gentrified landscape of Cabrini-Green. The baby rescued in Candyman, artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), has become ensnared in the story, learning to his sorrow that Candyman isn’t one ghost, but a genre, or a hive. A Black man who moves into a house in the wrong neighborhood; a Black boy executed for a crime he didn’t commit; a Black man accused of putting razor blades in candy—they all die and are born again as a story of death. Racist violence repeats in a predictable path, like a bee following a scent trail. 

Kara Walker’s puppets reprise each story in a ritual of dark and light as the music box repeats its unending theme. The movie is the music is a sound is a story is a word. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Horror is a sound you can’t stop saying.

The Sound Issue