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.
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.