An early scene in the new supernatural slasher film “Candyman” finds the lead character, Anthony McCoy, standing on a barren field in an otherwise overcrowded section of Chicago. The Gold Coast of the city’s expansive downtown rises just over his shoulder. Something used to occupy this huge tract, it’s clear, but all that’s immediately visible now is a boarded-up church that looks like anything but a sanctuary. McCoy, a visual artist with a camera dangling at his chest, heads over to a set of row houses, the remnant of what was here before: The Cabrini-Green Homes, a series of public housing apartment buildings and towers built in the mid-20th century. The high-rises housed nearly 15,000 people before the last of them was torn down in 2011.
McCoy has come to the area to research Candyman, which, according to local legend, is the apparition of a former Cabrini-Green resident who was killed by police in the 1970s. McCoy draws his camera but can’t seem to train his lens. He realizes, as does the audience, that he’s standing in a ghost town. The vanished properties only intrigue him — prompting him to investigate what, exactly, happened here.
What happened, without giving away plot twists, was gentrification. The death of the Cabrini-Green community, a real-life event referenced in the film, is the fundamental origin story of the film’s vengeful spirit. Gentrification is not the slasher here, carving up characters and leaving them in lakes of blood. But it’s the force that conjured it.
The real-life creation of Cabrini-Green was racist by both design and outcome. It was mostly Black people who lived there in the end. They could live in few other neighborhoods in Chicago, due to racial covenants, job discrimination and lack of income. And it was mostly Black people there who were first frozen out of their homes, due to the city’s withdrawal of services, and then driven out when the city decided Cabrini-Green had become too much of a blight. Cabrini-Green, which was just one of 11 major public housing complexes that Chicago has since taken down, is now considered one of the largest losses of affordable housing stock in U.S. history.
“White people built the ghetto and then erased it when they realized they built the ghetto,” McCoy’s girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright, explains at a dinner party. The erasure is hardly figurative: The church McCoy encounters on the vacant field is the Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church, once a hub of the Cabrini-Green community. A mural on its facade, painted in 1972 by the Black Chicago artist William Walker, bore the likenesses of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Gandhi and Anne Frank. It is now covered over with white paint.
Candyman, the audience learns, is the spirit of the racial violence sparked by slum removal, urban renewal, urban transformation, public safety and all of the other euphemisms used to describe the displacement and death of Black bodies and properties. With a swarm of bees and a rusty hook for a hand, Candyman terrorizes new residents of what used to be Cabrini-Green, particularly white characters.
“Candyman isn't the only ghost in this show,” says Stanford Carpenter, a cultural anthropologist based in Chicago. “The other ghost is Cabrini-Green. In both cases, the thing that makes them scary is that they were made that way by white systemic racism.”