Directors: Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman
Producers: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Zachary Mortensen
Writer: Joshua Zeman
When you imagine the boogeyman, who do you picture? Perhaps you see what Tommy Doyle saw outside the window of his house one Halloween night—the dim shape of Michael Myers watching. Perhaps you envision the creature from the Black Lagoon, rising, steaming, from the swamp. Or maybe, like me, you’re compelled to dwell on the case of Jeffrey Dahmer (the famed serial killer who once, like me, lived outside of Akron, Ohio).
If you’re from Staten Island, the boogeyman is called Cropsey. The legend varies to some extent across the island, but common characteristics remain; Cropsey is said to have been disfigured in a children’s prank gone horribly wrong. Legend has it that following his disfigurement, he retreats and hides away in the pipe system beneath the island. By night, he lurks about Staten Island to steal away and slaughter children as revenge. The word ‘Cropsey,’ has become vernacular for any psychotic and violent criminal.
When Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio begin filming CROPSEY, they intend to explore the origins of the Cropsey legend. Both from Staten Island, they have grown up with the specter of Cropsey ever-present, their parents warning them away from the woods with grisly tales of Cropsey’s victims. The legend has prevailed for at least a century, perhaps since the first appearance of the surname ‘Cropsy’ in 1823, with the birth of Jasper Francis Cropsy, a former landscape painter and architect. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that legend and reality intersected in the sudden disappearance of Jennifer Schweiger, a little girl with Down Syndrome who was found dead and buried in a shallow grave 35 days following her disappearance. Her murder came to be linked with several other missing persons cases, all of them children who were wandering, unsupervised, on the streets of Staten Island.
Perhaps even eerier than the perplexing web of myth and reality that ensconces the disappearances of five children into the Greenbelt (a dense stretch of forestry) on S.I. in the seventies and eighties, are the similarities between the cases, all of which point to a particularly perverted killer. The suspect—and the man eventually convicted with kidnapping Jennifer Schweiger (the case against him for her murder relied too heavily on eyewitness testimony to eliminate reasonable doubt) and Holly Ann Hughes, another child who disappeared four years later under similar circumstances, is Andre Rand … formerly a custodian at the Willowbrook State School, a hospital for the mentally ill that was closed by the state in the eighties for its inhumane conditions …
Though the disappearances of the children seem almost to be solved—the evidence against Rand is certainly compelling—this is far from the case. Rather, as the documentary progresses, the questions grow more and more urgent. Is there a link between Andre Rand’s position at a mental institution—one accused of cruelty and abuse, no less—and the suspected killings, many of which involved children with intellectual disabilities? Were the children’s remains being used for the widespread Satanic rituals that were coming to light in the eighties across America? And what about the unsettling evidence of life in the pipe system below Willowbrook? Could Andre Rand be, in fact, the closest thing to a real incarnation of Cropsey?
Doubtless, Zeman and Brancaccio were faced with a challenge in the creation of CROPSEY. How on earth does one begin to document a legend that has been perpetuated and elaborated on for a century and, more so, how does one accurately portray the complex blend of urban legend and true crime that construes the story of Andre Rand? To their
credit, the documentary is gripping and comprehensible. They obviously clipped material where needed; the audience is primed on Jennifer Schweiger’s case in detail—and is more succinctly briefed on the disappearances of Hank Gafforio—a twenty-two-year old young man with an I.Q. in the seventies, described locally as “slow” (this was the eighties)—and the daughter of the other parents who were granted the satisfaction of a conviction, Holly Ann Hughes, but there is far less detail offered on the disappearances of five-year-old Alice Pereira and eleven-year-old Tiahease Jackson. The exploration of the pipe system where Andre Rand, along with many of Willowbrook’s former patients, may have squatted, is also disappointingly short. Still, they cover a lot of ground—literally and figuratively—taking audiences with them through the Greenbelt, providing footage of the disturbing exposé that first brought the horrors of Willowbrook to light, and recording the filmmakers’ correspondences with Andre Rand from prison.
There is, however, something lacking. The challenge of satisfactorily explaining both Cropsey and the purported crimes of Andre Rand (and his background) got the better of Zeman and Brancaccio in many ways. Their coverage of the legend of Cropsey zips by, largely consisting of clips of Staten Island locals summarizing what they know of Cropsey in a sentence or two—which results in a choppy, vague portrayal of what should be the film’s focus. Legend is always intriguing in its enigmatic nature, its changeability, its twisted origins. True crime, while grisly, is less flexible—depictions of criminal acts and their legal followings are not subject to interpretation, bound to fact and testimony, both of which are commonplace, droned on about night after night on the evening news. By the film’s end, I forgot for a few seconds the connection to the title—after the initial introduction of Cropsey, the legend is never returned to and the enormity of five missing persons cases weighs down the documentary and stunts the filmmakers’ creativity.
Though there is little in the way of crime scene photography to provoke disgust, the horror is in what remains unseen, including the fates of the three cases of disappeared children which are linked to Andre Rand, but remain unsolved.
As the story unfolds over the course of the film—and complicates further—the viewer grows more and more unsure of the outcome.
Documentaries don’t tend to be terrifying, but this one is haunting in the inseparability of fact and legend that it implies.
Intriguing, even with its flaws. You can’t watch it just halfway.
I watched CROPSEY for free on Netflix (instant stream) with a subscription. CROPSEY is also available on Hulu of free with a subscription, or you can rent it on iTunes starting at $2.99. You can purchase your own copy of CROPSEY at Barnes & Noble for $19.99 ($18.99 online) or procure a used copy from the B&N Marketplace, starting at $10.27.