Cabrini-Green: The True Horror of ‘Candyman’

by Rob Caprilozzi

In 1992, the film Candyman introduced horror fans to a new type of killer in a brand-new setting.  While most slasher-esque films focused on white teens in white neighborhoods, Candyman would shatter that stereotype and feature a film with an African American antagonist in an urban backdrop; horror moviegoers would be introduced to a bloody hook and the projects of Cabrini-Green.

Years before the movie, in September of 1987 to be exact, journalist, Steve Bogira, wrote an article in The Chicago Reader, a weekly newspaper in Chicago, titled “They Came in Through the Bathroom Mirror.” The piece tells the story of Grace Abbott Homes resident Ruthie Mae McCoy’s mental health problems and her tragic death. The Grace Abbot Homes were one of many housing projects in Chicago and located just a few miles from Cabrini-Green. On the night of April 22, 1987, McCoy made a frantic 911 call to police saying that someone had thrown her cabinet down and came through her bathroom. Sadly, the dispatcher couldn’t quite understand what Ms. McCoy was saying and labeled the call as a disturbance with another neighbor instead of a break-in attempt. Several minutes later gunshots were heard, and another neighbor phoned the police.

What happened next is truly tragic – as police arrived on the scene, there was no answer at McCoy’s door. The police called the project office to get a key for her apartment, but unfortunately it didn’t fit the lock. With no other option, besides breaking down the door, they decided to leave. Two days later, police entered McCoy’s apartment to find her dead – shot four times.

Crime was not an unusual in the Grace Abbot Homes, Cabrini-Green and other Chicago housing projects, the Chicago PD would respond to numerous calls per day originating from them. Many of the crimes would receive national attention including an incident that occurred on Friday, July 17, 1970. Two officers, Patrolman Tony Rizzato and Sergeant James Severin were working a volunteer “walk and talk” shift (created by the police in hopes of improving relations with the residents of at Cabrini-Green) when they were both shot and killed from an apartment window. Four people were rounded up and the two shooters were sentenced to life in prison. The reason given for the shooting was to seal a pact between two rival gangs in the housing project.

Things continued to get worse at Cabrini-Green as in 1981 violence in the projects skyrocketed. Three months saw 11 murders. In addition, there were many reports of rapes, robberies, and assaults during that time period. Something had to change, and in an effort to make that happen, Mayor Jane Byrne decided that the best option was to move into Cabrini-Green herself to show the citizens Chicago’s commitment to making the projects safer.

Byrne, along with her husband and security guards moved to Cabrini-Green for about three weeks. While she was there, the police upped their presence and raided the buildings arresting criminals, seizing weapons and more. After an Easter celebration she departed the projects to focus on other issues at the time.

On October 13, 1992, just three days prior to Candyman’s release date, a 7-year-old boy, Dantrell Davis, was murdered on his way to school. The bullet, shot by a sniper, was meant for a rival gang member. The shooter was found and sentenced to 100 years in prison. The death of Davis made national headlines and helped unite the people of Cabrini-Green and even lead to a gang truce which lasted several years. It is important to note that this senseless killing is considered to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. In 1996, the federal government rolled out a new program called HOPE VI, which was intended to revitalize high-crime housing projects into mixed-income developments. Cabrini-Green was one of the sites selected to be demolished due to the severity of problems with crime, drug trafficking and more.

One final despicable act made headlines from Cabrini-Green. On the morning of January 9, 1997, a 9-year old girl walked from her friend’s apartment to her grandmother’s apartment, which was just 4 floors up.  Unfortunately, the girl, who became known as “Girl X”, was raped, choked and had roach spray poured down her throat. The girl survived but is now confined to a wheelchair and can’t see or speak; her attacker is spending the rest of his life in a federal prison for the heinous act.

How did Candyman wind up filming in Cabrini-Green, you may ask? In a 2015 interview with AIC, Candyman directory Bernard Rose said that he went on a research trip to Chicago because he felt the film “would be much better done in the US.” The director was shown Cabrini-Green by members of the Illinois Film Commission and he “spent some time there and I realized that this was an incredible arena for a horror movie because it was a place of such palpable fear.” Rose thought Cabrini-Green to be a perfect place to film because “people were actually afraid of driving past it. And there was such an aura of fear around the place and I thought that was really something interesting to look into because it’s sort of a kind of fear that’s at the heart of modern cities. And obviously, it’s racially motivated, but more than that – it’s poverty motivated.”

In the film Candyman, Virginia Madsen’s character, Helen Lyle is researching urban legends and learns of Candyman. Helen and her friend Bernadette Walsh, played by Kasi Lemmons, learn that Ruthie Jean, a Cabrini-Green resident may have been killed by the Candyman. Obviously, the name Ruthie Jean was chosen to be as close as possible to Ruthie Mae, who was killed near Cabrini-Green in 1987.

Helen and Ruthie take a trip to Cabrini-Green to try to find out some additional information and take some photos. Upon walking up to the housing project, they are scoped out by residents of Cabrini-Green and hassled for being there. The duo take the stairs and eventually stumble upon Ruthie Jean’s apartment and find out that the mirror in the bathroom allows passage into the adjoined apartment. When entering, Helen finds a bizarre space with graffiti of Candyman and a bag of candy loaded with razorblades. She takes numerous photos before running out of film. Shortly thereafter, the duo meet Ruthie’s neighbor Anne-Marie McCoy (see what they did there?) and her baby Anthony.

Helen would return to Cabrini-Green and meet a young boy named Jake, played by DeJuan Guy, who gives Helen a tour of his neighborhood. One of the places he shows Helen is an abandoned bathroom where Candyman attacked a young boy. Helen enters to take photos and as she goes to leave several gang members enter the stall, one of them holding a hook in his hand. This gang member has adopted the persona of Candyman and leads in the beating and robbing of Helen. This particular scene adds to the unnerving feel of the movie as there is never a true “safe place”.

In the end of the film, some of the residents of Cabrini-Green, led by Jake (DeJuan Guy), come together to set Candyman on fire. As Candyman dies inside of the bonfire structure, Helen musters up her courage for one final heroic act by crawling out of the fire with baby Anthony, reuniting the baby with his mother. The scene offers new hope for residents of Cabrini-Green as they will no longer have to live in fear of Candyman or his impersonators.

Cabrini-Green and other Chicago housing projects suffered many unfortunate injustices causing them to be ostracized from the rest of the city. Many of these projects were underfunded and allowed to seep further into decay due to poor maintenance and repairs. In Cabrini-Green, the lawn was even paved over with concrete to save on upkeep costs.

Things really were brought to an alarming level during the recession of the 70s when jobs became scarce. Because of the tough economic times, many businesses in the area of Cabrini-Green shut down, with over 100,000 industrial jobs lost since 1972. Tenants in public housing seemed to be hit the worst as poverty rose and drug use spiked.

With a lack of funding and a lack of options, the residents of public housing, and in this case Cabrini-Green, suffered, especially the children. At one point, 70 percent of Cabrini-Green residents were 16 or younger. With the lack of opportunities, it led some kids to join gangs or to get involved in the drug trade.

It was with perhaps some of these kids that Candyman director, Bernard Rose had to make a deal with to ensure a safe working environment while at Cabrini-Green. Some gang members and local residents were included in the movie in the latter half of the quid pro quo.

Candyman was a success on multiple levels. In a genre dominated by mostly Caucasian actors, Candyman delivered an African American slasher who would stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow slasher stars like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.  It also delivered a more realistic type of film as it blurred the lines of fact and fiction – using Cabrini-Green as it’s backdrop. Even more, it proved that horror was a universal thing not pertaining to any one race, location or gender.

Click here for more on the Candyman franchise.

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