Chilling horror documentary proves some urban legends are real
Directed by Barbara Brancaccio & Joshua Zeman
While the name “Cropsey” may not ring any bells with New Mexico natives, we’re at least familiar with the concept. Cropsey is an urban legend centered in Staten Island, N.Y., but spreading throughout the Eastern seaboard. According to tales told mostly around the campfire, Cropsey was the name of a mental patient (or maybe a mad doctor) who had a hook for a hand (or did he carry an ax?). He lived in the tunnels under an abandoned hospital, and he would come out at night to prey on unwary teenagers who happened to wander into his neck of the woods. It was—as they always say—a true story, because the teller of the tale heard it directly from a cousin who heard it from a friend who knew the cop that was involved. Every place has a story like this, a cautionary tale designed to keep kids away from dark woods and dangerous buildings (or in the case of New Mexico’s La Llorona, overflowing ditch banks).
Growing up on Staten Island, filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman (who co-produced The Station Agent and Mysterious Skin) heard the legend of Cropsey many times. In the mid-’80s, however, something unusual happened. A series of child disappearances in the New York borough led to the arrest of one Andre Rand. Rand was a “drifter” who had worked as an orderly in the Willowbrook Mental Institution back in the ’70s. Willowbrook became infamous after a documentary report by a young Geraldo Rivera exposed the heinous living conditions within. Young residents with severe mental handicaps were kept in deplorable, unsanitary and frequently unsupervised situations.
Shockingly, it took more than a decade before Willowbrook shut down for good. (Due more, perhaps, to President Reagan’s gutting of the mental health industry than to any official outrage over the facility.) Deprived of a job and a place to live, Rand took to dwelling in the abandoned tunnels underneath Willowbrook. (Just like the legends said.) In 1987, Jennifer Schweiger, a 13-year-old with Down syndrome, disappeared from her nearby home. A massive search was undertaken by police and concerned citizens alike. Eventually, her body was found. On the grounds of the old Willowbrook Mental Institution. Rand was arrested for the kidnapping and murder of Schweiger and later implicated in at least four other child abductions in the area. Suddenly, the urban legend was real.
Reminded of these tragedies by the upcoming trial of the long-incarcerated Rand for another kidnapping, Brancaccio and Zeman mount their own investigation. What they end up creating could be called the first real-life horror documentary.
Slow and methodical, Cropsey first examines the myth, then details the real-life murders—all the while circling tighter and tighter in on the madman behind it all. It’s the most compelling crime story since Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills. Brancaccio and Zeman hunt up some vivid archival footage (including Rivera’s 1972 exposé) and interview a dizzying range of witnesses and police detectives, all of whom have kept the crimes sharp in their memories. More elusive, though, is Rand. A series of jailhouse letters indicates a manipulative, complex and possibly unhinged mind at work, but the actual man remains just outside the camera’s view. Continually, we wish for a clearer image of this alleged serial killer. Was he insane? The leader of a Satanic cult? A pawn in some larger game? An innocent scapegoat?
As Rand’s second trial draws to a close, the film inevitably begins to feel frustrating and unfulfilling. This is real life; and in real life, justice is by its very nature inconclusive. Unlike TV cop shows, killers rarely give dramatic last-minute confessions. Even if the perceived “bad guy” is sent to jail, the victims are still dead, the survivors still scarred. “Closure” is an abstract concept, not a concrete fact, as one of the aggrieved parents soberly points out. Fortunately, Cropsey isn’t about solving a crime. Though questions linger about the investigation, Rand has far too many connections to these crimes to be coincidental.
Where Cropsey succeeds best is as a freaky confirmation of urban legend. As the film progresses, the filmmakers—Staten Island natives, mind you—convincingly construct a portrait of Staten Island as a favored dumping ground for society’s sins. Garbage, industrial waste, mob hits, poor people, the mentally ill, the bodies of murdered children: All have ended up hidden back in the woods of Staten Island. It’s an eerie testament to the fact that we create our own monsters and a chilling reminder that sometimes the bogeyman is real.