Here’s the story of how the filmmakers wrangled 200,000 very real honeybees.
Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how they shot the bee scenes in the original 1992 movie Candyman.
Even if you haven’t had the unspeakable pleasure of watching 1992’s Candyman, there’s a good chance you know about the bees.
Directed by Bernard Rose, the movie transports its distinctly British source material (Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden”) to the chilly public housing of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Homes. There, a grad student named Helen (Virginia Madsen) attempts to piece together the urban legend of the Candyman (Tony Todd) for her thesis. But when she digs too deep and flaunts a little too much skepticism, the legend reveals itself to be all-too-real.
While they save their most jaw-dropping performance for the film’s final act, Candyman‘s tiny striped insects hum, just off-screen, for the entirety of the film. They are inextricably linked to Candyman’s mythos: swarming the lynched Daniel Robitaille/Candyman after he is coated in honey and stung to death for the crime of loving a white woman. The concrete tombs of urban housing bear a striking thematic resemblance to beehives. While ironically, bees themselves have become a rarity in the cold, artificiality of the urban jungle.
However, Candyman‘s iconic tie to bees isn’t merely due to metaphorical beats — however powerful and evocative they may be. No, no. The way you burrow deep into the conscience of horror audiences is by imprinting an unforgettable image into the back of their skulls. An image, for instance, of bees pouring out of a man’s gaping mouth.
The bees in Candyman
Helen is at her lowest point: she has escaped from a psychiatric hospital only to find Trevor, her husband, shacked up with one of his students. She was committed for a month. And in that short time, he moved on. It’s as if she were dead and buried. Trevor was the last thing tethering Helen to her former life, to her sense of normalcy, to her sanity before she became engulfed in the violent grip of myth. He treats her like a dangerous animal — a madwoman loose in his apartment, capable of all the heinous acts she has been accused of.
With nothing left to lose, Helen makes her way to Cabrini-Green to rescue baby Anthony, the infant whom Candyman is holding hostage in exchange for Helen’s love.
When Helen confronts the boogeyman, he offers her the immortality of becoming a legend, laying her down and opening his coat to reveal an exposed ribcage swarming with bees. The winged insects begin to fall out of Candyman’s mouth as he leans down for a kiss.
How’d they do that?
Long story short:
A lot of real bees, pheromones, and patience.
Long story long:
The bees used in the film were specifically bred for on-screen use. To clarify, they weren’t genetically engineered or anything so audacious. Rather, their breeding was more so an effort to make use of specific physiological stages in a bee’s life cycle. The insects you see on-screen were only 12 hours old. At this age, the bees appeared mature while wielding less powerful stingers.
The bees were controlled with pheromones, which kept them docile and convinced them that the actors were their queen. In the public lavatory scene, where Helen happens upon a toilet bowl filled to the brim with bees feeding on some unseen mass, pheromones were applied inside of a non-functioning, waterless toilet.
Director Bernard Rose hired entomologist Norman Gary after seeing him covered in bees playing the clarinet on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. You can spot Gary’s insect wrangling skills elsewhere in My Girl (1991), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and of course, The Deadly Bees (1966). As Daniel Schweiger wrote in issue #117 of Fangoria magazine, Candyman used over 200,000 real honeybees, employing numerous cautionary measures on-set to keep cast, crew, and bees as safe as possible.
One of the things most people know about the Candyman bee scenes is that Todd made an absolute killing. As the actor explains in an interview with The Guardian:
“I negotiated a bonus of $1,000 for every sting during the bee scene. And I got stung 23 times. Everything that’s worth making has to involve some sort of pain. Once I realized it was an important part of who Candyman was, I embraced it. It was like putting on a beautiful coat.”
Yep. A beautiful coat made of bees.
In addition to agreeing to cover his face in buzzing insects, Todd signed on for a shot in which Candyman spews live bees out of his mouth. Now, if writing this column has taught me anything, it’s that the Venn Diagram between practical effects and sexual health products is a circle. Sure enough, a crucial element in achieving the “mouthful of bees” shot was a dental dam that stopped the insects from sliding down Todd’s throat. It reportedly took half an hour for Gary to put all 500 (!) of the bees into Todd’s mouth. (By the way, Gary holds a Guinness World Record for holding 109 bees in his mouth for 10 seconds.)
Again per Fangoria, Todd recalls being “tranced out” when he opened wide and let the insects pour out. And when Todd says “tranced” he really does mean it: Rose employed a hypnotist on-set to achieve Madsen’s spacy reactions to Candyman. And if Clive Barker is to believed (bee-lieved?) in his interview in issue #12 of The Bloody Best of Fangoria, Madsen was also hypnotized during the pivotal bee scene to calm her nerves. Maybe Todd got in on the hypno-action.
During a virtual 2021 Wizard World panel, Todd explained that the bees had their own trailer. And he recalled Gary’s insistence that he meet them prior to the shoot, and he made a point of assuring him that they were just babies. Todd recalled that Gary spoke to the bees and that he found this reassuring.
For the setpiece in which Candyman reveals the bee-filled ribcage, bees were placed in a special body appliance filled off-stage and strapped to Todd’s chest.
The shots in which swarming bees fill the screen were accomplished via optical effects, which were supplemented with in-camera shots of — say it with me — bees. To achieve the effect of bees shooting out towards the camera, a specialized vacuum was deployed with a reverse suction. This was then superimposed over the in-camera and optical shots to achieve the overall effect.
Now, those of you with keen memories might remember that Todd isn’t the only one who has to contend with the fuzzy little rascals. “When [director Bernard Rose] was first asking me to do the role I said, ‘Well, I can’t. I’m allergic to bees,’” Madsen told HorrorNewsNetwork. In the end, Rose promised Madsen that paramedics would be on set, which was apparently enough to convince her to do the scene — that, and learning that she was more allergic to wasps than bees.
Gary instructed Madsen that staying calm was of the utmost importance. You know? How you stay calm when you’re absolutely covered in bees? The actress recalled to HorrorNewsNetwork:
“When they put the bees on me it was crazy because they have fur. They felt like little Q-tips roaming around me. Then you have pheromones on you, so they’re all in love with you and think you’re a giant queen.”
According to Madsen, the longest part of the process was removing the bees, which required the use of a tiny bee vacuum. Reportedly the process took 45 minutes, during which it was very hard to sit still.
What’s the precedent for the bees in Candyman?
When you’re talking about covering people in creepy crawlies, you have to talk about 1976’s Squirm, a film that truly lives up to the promise of its title. Directed by Roger Corman with special make-up effects by Rick Baker, Squirm tells of hundreds of man-eating worms wreaking havoc on a small town in Georgia.
Half of the worms in the film were made of rubber. But the rest were live sandworms and bloodworms that were electrified in order to move (according to issue #123 of Fangoria). Reportedly, after the production wrapped, newspapers reported that the film caused a worm shortage that impacted the local fishing industry.
Another notable moment in “bugs in horror history” takes place in the final segment of the 1982 anthology horror film Creepshow. In the story, the penthouse suite of a cruel mysophobe is overrun by cockroaches. The live roaches (which supposedly numbered around 20,000) were partially provided by the American Museum of Natural History. As George A. Romero relayed during an event at 2015’s Fan Expo Canada, the insects were the most expensive part of the film.
As we’ve previously discussed in our breakdown of the locust scene in Days of Heaven, Humane Hollywood’s guidelines are very thorough. And this level of detail does not exclude our tiny, insect friends. Indeed they have their own chapter that includes a litany of stipulations — including guideline 8-49, which specifies that bees are not to be frozen during filming.
Insects have a long history of not being treated great in horror films. And all told, it is refreshing to read about the gentle treatment of the bees on the set of Candyman. Save the bees, indeed.
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