When Real-Life and Horror Intersect

When I first started this blog, I had to decide whether or not to include documentaries. Aside from horror movies, those are my favorite genre to watch. I usually tend towards nature plus anything weird or morbid. One of my favorites is The Bridge, a documentary about the Golden Gate Bridge and how many people jump off of it and the effect it has on residents living near the bridge. It even has interviews with the few people who survived and footage of people jumping. I decided not to include documentaries because their aim was more to educate while entertaining instead of providing straight-up scares.
I changed my mind when my coworker lent me a copy of 2009’s Cropsey. I’d actually seen the trailer for this when I went to see The Human Centipede and I’ve been fascinated ever since. Especially because the events documented in the film coincide with certain events in my life.
Briefly, the documentary is about a series of child abductions that took place in Staten Island from the seventies through the late eighties. The abductions took an especially grisly turn when one of the missing children turned up buried on the grounds of the abandoned Willowbrook State School, an abandoned asylum for mentally ill and retarded children. When it was open, the asylum was at double the population it was built for and was notorious for the poor conditions its residents lived under. As far back as the 1960’s Senator Robert Kennedy was calling to fix Willowbrook. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that it was fully closed, several years after Geraldo Rivera did an expose about the terrible conditions.

One of the buildings of Willowbrook as it appears now.


Andre Rand, a former employee of Willowbrook was linked to the disappearances and eventually charged. These events are all tied by the filmmakers to the legend of Cropsey, a campfire story and urban legend that I heard of while growing up.
I was born in Staten Island in 1983 and lived the first six years of my life there, specifically in the Tottenville area. Afterwards, I moved to New Jersey with my mom and stepdad but lived on Staten Island every other weekend when I visited my father. Many people have a hard time imagining Staten Island as rural, especially now that it’s so built up but when I grew up there were woods everywhere. I lived on a dead-end street and there were woods right across the street from my house. Ok, they were full of burnt-out cars and rubbish, but it was a place to play and walk the dog. I just never went in after dark because the bigger kids said that Cropsey would get you.
Cropsey, I thought, was just the neighborhood boogeyman. In the stories the kids, and eventually my dad told me when we went camping, Cropsey was a caretaker at a mental institution. His family was killed and he was disfigured by an accident caused by some children. He seeks his revenge on children by hunting them down at summer camps and in the woods after dark. Stories like this have been apparently circulating up and down the Hudson valley for at least a century.
The stories became a reality when children started disappearing. The filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio set out to shed light on the child abductions/murders and discover that there are no easy answers. Andre Rand became the prime suspect although he was only charged with the death of Jennifer Schweiger and the abduction of Holly Ann Hughes.
Basically, the movie follows the filmmakers as they try to interview Rand and piece together the truth. I don’t want to give away everything about the movie, but I will say that there aren’t easy answers and, personally, I’m not sure if I can support the conviction of Rand. He was the neighborhood weirdo and looked like everyone expected a predator to look like when he was taken to court.

As a fan of urban archeology I love the footage of the abandoned buildings and the music is very eerie. There are a few shaky-cam sequences of them exploring at night that I could do without. I don’t have a lot of patience for that outside of The Blair Witch Project. And why do people always investigate scary places at night? It’s so overdone, especially if you’re really trying to get to the bottom at something. My other major complaint is that no one talks about Andre Rand’s mental state. I’m not saying that every drifter is mentally ill. There are people who drop out of society voluntarily. But the letters he exchanges with the filmmakers are very odd. They start of with an odd syntax and grammar, although that could be attributed to a lack of education. But then they start to take a word-salad type of feel, where words are strung together but don’t make sense, and there are tones of religiosity. I kind of hate armchair diagnosing but the writing sounded like the writings I’ve read from schizophrenics. How come no one talks about that?
The film is good but it becomes frustrating that, just like in everyday life, there aren’t readily available answers. The police and residents keep talking about Rand and possible cult activity, specifically satanic cults, but no one can provide any solid evidence of cult activity. I tend to be skeptical when people mention satanic cults as causes of crimes. It reeks of the satanic panic and the fact that there is no satanic crime conspiracy. I think it’s scarier that a “regular” person in the community could be responsible for the abductions.
Well, what’s my personal connection with Cropsey? I was four-years-old in 1987, when Jennifer Schweiger, a 12-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome was abducted and murdered. I was part of a dance school that year. The day of my recital, the parent in charge of taking my group offstage and to the correct waiting area took us to the wrong spot. More specifically, she just took her own children home and left me wandering around the parking lot. I don’t remember this at all but my parents told me about it. I was missing for several hours and my parents were terrified that the same person who took Jennifer took me. My dad was so pissed that he beat up the brother of the dance-school director. So that’s my brush with morbidity, where I could have been kidnapped but I wasn’t.

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About scarina

I like scary movies a little too much. I thought I'd share my obsession with you.
This entry was posted in 21st century, documentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to When Real-Life and Horror Intersect

  1. Fear Street says:

    I’ve been wanting to see this one for a while and after reading this, I have to get a copy.

    I cannot believe the woman just LEFT you!! Who in the hell leaves a four year old to wander around in the dark? Was she at all sorry?

    • scarina says:

      You should definitely watch it, even though there aren’t any easy answers.
      Seriously. I don’t know. I asked my mom about it and she said the lady was a little dotty. I don’t remember much about it, I just remember leaving the parking lot and going back into the building. It was really hard to cross the street.

  2. mainlyblue says:

    I just came across your blog, I have been studying Rand for awhile I am a self proclaimed advocate for the mentally ill, I have worked with populations with severe illness, have seen some violence but much less than most people think, probably along the same lines as the general population lets face it we are all here together things happen. Anyway I was going to write about the low instance of schizophrenics being the “candyman” but now I think I will change my focus to why does everyone assume he has to be mentally ill to commit these crimes, why go there 1st,,, thanks for the inspiration …….love your blog

    • scarina says:

      Thanks for visiting, I’m glad you found my blog helpful. :]
      Honestly, I do think that Rand is mentally ill, but I don’t think he committed the crimes. I’m not even sure if one person committed them, since Holly Anne Hughes wasn’t a special-needs child. She doesn’t fit the pattern. If the person is ever found, I bet they’ll seem normal since they’ll have to fit into society to get away with their crimes. Rand never did a good job of fitting in.

  3. MacGregor says:

    As a writer and publisher who has done an extensive amount of investigative research into cults I must tell you that satanic cults have existed for many centuries. There are different types: the teenage groups, the loners, the organized groups, etc. The most dangerous of all are generational (satanists for many generations inside a family) and the elite (they tend to be very wealthy or from various important professions). I have either had the good fortune or the bad luck to have crossed paths with some of these people. Investigating them is a seriously dangerous thing to do. Trust me, they are for real. Beware of some individuals claiming it is all “satanic panic”. They either are apologists for satanists or they are suckered into believing the apologists. Now ask yourself why some people would be apologists — the answer is that they are satanists themselves.

    • scarina says:

      As a writer and publisher who has done an extensive amount of investigative research into cults I must tell you that satanic cults have existed for many centuries. (Citation Needed) There are different types: the teenage groups, the loners, the organized groups, etc. The most dangerous of all are generational (satanists for many generations inside a family) and the elite (they tend to be very wealthy or from various important professions). (Citation Needed) I have either had the good fortune or the bad luck to have crossed paths with some of these people. Investigating them is a seriously dangerous thing to do. Trust me, they are for real. (Citation Needed) Beware of some individuals claiming it is all “satanic panic”. They either are apologists for satanists or they are suckered into believing the apologists. (Citation Needed) Now ask yourself why some people would be apologists — the answer is that they are satanists themselves. (Citation Needed)
      There, fixed that for you. I don’t doubt that there are people who worship satan. There may even be organized groups. As an atheist, worshipping satan is as imaginary to me as worshipping god. But as long as they don’t hurt anyone it’s their right.
      You paint people with a pretty wide brush. People claiming that so-called satanic murders are satanic panic are really satanists themselves? Well, how well organized is this? How far up does this conspiracy go? This would require cooperation from law-enforcement, the district attorney, judges. Does this go all the way up to the attorney general? Reductio ad absurdum. This would require an enormous amount of energy and cooperation from agencies with agendas that don’t necessarily mesh.
      Michelle Remembers, one of the books that is considered a foundation work of the satanic panic has been thoroughly discredited. There were no convictions obtained in the McMartin preschool trial. And the West Memphis Three were recently released–although the murder of those poor boys had nothing to do with satan. Lives can be ruined by these kinds of accusations though.
      Finally, I’d like to remind you of the Sagan standard, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. You’ve furnished some extraordinary claims with no proof. Your argument lacks parsimony. Remember occam’s razor–when faced with two plausible hypotheses, choose the one that makes the fewest new assumptions. We can either choose to believe that people do wicked things for reasons that are unexplainable or that they’re compelled to by some satanic worship. Kenneth Lanning, an FBI agent who’s researched the alleged connection between the occult and crime advises, “Bizarre crime and evil can occur without organized satanic activity. The law enforcement perspective requires that we distinguish between what we know and what we are not sure of.”

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  5. crazycanuck says:

    Watched this on Netflix last night and was quite disturbed, Geraldo’s footage will haunt me for a long time. I think he something to do with the disappearances, an accomplice at least. A lot of circumstantial evidence for sure; but he always seemed to be around the kids who vanished. I do agree that he seems mentally ill but that doesn’t exclude him from possible being the killer either. Fascinating case though.

    • scarina says:

      This is definitely one of the creepier “In real life” things I’ve seen.
      It’s true, him being mentally ill and being the killer aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m just not sure he has it in him to kill and hide all those kids. I’m definitely not sure we’ll ever get to the bottom of the case.

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  7. Carbonremedy says:

    I agree on the concern mentioned regardinh the status of Rand’s mental health. There was little concern in Cropsey exploring what exactly was going on with him (& clearly there was something going on with him physically and mentally). Although he’s mentioned as possible scapegoat, it kind of just illustrated Rand as the “local drooling oddball,” rather than reflect upon his developmental disabilities & mental illness. I’m no professional, but clearly the man showed symptoms of something like schizophrenia. Would a person in that state even be considered “deemed to fit trial” by today’s standards & having the chance to review police interviews would’ve been beneficial – if he was seriously out of touch with reality & fed info by the police, he could’ve said anything. This doesn’t justify the potential danger he posed to society & indeed probably should have been removed from posing harm to the public by placement into permanent custody of mental facility (& attentive guardian if released), but the system was not designed fairly back then (& still is heavily flawed).. So I don’t know – I just think his personal situation would have realistically been more helpful, but at the same time – TV feeds off ratings from emphasizing “evil” & “deranged” killers.

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