Day 298: Cropsey

"I've never seen a perp walk like that."

Those of us fortunate enough to call ourselves parents have a duty to prove to our children that certain things aren't real, chief among them the boogeyman. Every now and then, however, a case comes along that shakes our firm belief that there is no such thing as the boogeyman to its core. One such case is that of "Cropsey," a Staten Island urban legend from the 70s and 80s that was used to scare kids from straying too far from home lest they end up kidnapped by this mysterious figure said to haunt the woods near the abandoned mental hospital Willowbrook.

Cropsey, a 2009 documentary about this case by filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, sets out to get to the bottom of the truth behind the legend, or whatever truth they can scrape together in this maddeningly abstract case. In 1972, Geraldo Rivera released an exposé on Willowbrook, exposing the harsh and inhumane environment in which hundreds of intellectually disabled patients, particularly children, were residing. By the end of the decade, the hospital was closed down, with a number of patients being relocated to other facilities, but the vast majority simply being let out into society with no way to fend for themselves.

Accordingly, a number of them returned to the grounds of the now abandoned facility, and began living inside the elaborate tunnel system constructed underneath the hospital. A series of annual disappearances of Staten Island children with intellectual disabilities beginning in 1981, caused this legend of Cropsey to pop up, and he took many forms from a hook-handed, axe-wielding psychopath, to an escaped mental patient living in the tunnels under Willowbrook. 

The 1987 disappearance of Jennifer Schweiger, a seven year old girl with down syndrome, exacerbated the case and also began to lead authorities toward one man, Andre Rand. Rand was a former custodian at Willowbrook, and was known to live in the woods surrounding the hospital, helping him fit the profile of this urban legend. When a search of the woods near the hospital turned up Jennifer's body, Rand was taken into custody and charged with her kidnapping and murder. A conviction was handed down for the kidnapping charge, but the jury reached a stalemate on the murder charges, mainly due to the fact that there was nothing but circumstantial evidence tying Rand to her murder. Nevertheless, Rand was going to jail for at least 25 years, the legend turned fact.

If this is where the story ends, it's an unsettling one to say the least, but as police began looking into Rand's past, they began to wonder if he could be tied to these other missing Staten Island children. Though the physical evidence, again, was in short supply, the amount of coincidences linking these cases piled up quickly, leading prosecutors to charge him in the disappearance of six year old Holly Ann Hughes in 1981. The filmmakers began their quest to make this film during the 2004 trial of Rand, and what they began to uncover was an unsettling series of connections, tangential and otherwise, between Rand and a number of these missing children.

Perhaps the thing that is most effective about this documentary is the way it forces you to continuously reconsider the case against Rand. It seems fairly cut and dry at first, but as certain pieces begin to fall into place, it becomes obvious that there are no easy answers, no matter how much the victims' families and law enforcement want them to exist. Rand looks like a psychopath, he fits the mold, and his link to several of these children, as well as potential motives from his past is unnerving, but again, it's all circumstantial. Is Rand really a master criminal, or a puppet in a much more nefarious scheme involving everything from a network of people preying on intellectually disabled children to Satanic cults?

That the case came to light at the height of the "Satanic Panic" so prevalent in Ronald Reagan's America makes certain eyewitness testimony seem specious at best, and doubt begins to creep into the audience's mind. However, as the filmmakers begin a correspondence with Rand, it becomes clear very quickly that the man they're dealing with is a master manipulator, again throwing the audience for a loop, and making them question exactly what they should believe. In that regard, it is one of the most effectively balanced documentaries to be released in a long time. 

It's clear that the filmmakers have constructed the film this way for maximum impact, despite the fact that you can tell certain information was withheld until the final moments of the film to make it seem more balanced, but that's only an afterthought of a complaint. As it plays out, the film is terrifying, suspenseful, and unsettling in all the best ways, despite some ham-fisted narration by Zeman throughout that wouldn't seem out of place in a first semester philosophy term paper. 

Cropsey is one of those rare documentaries that will make you believe in monsters if for no other reason than the fact that sometimes, they really do exist. There's no other explanation for it. The film is impeccably edited and weaves together a horrifying story in the vein of the very best murder mysteries, and the only sad thing is that there's no real closure, but merely a number of possibilities from which the audience is left to pick which version works best for them. That's what great documentary filmmaking is all about.