Cropsey, which is dubiously advertised as a “horror-documentary”, is a film by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio. It examines a series of disappearances of children on Staten Island in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The film begins with a discussion of urban legends, common throughout the Hudson River Valley, about a character named Cropsey, who murders children. Zeman recounts being told stories about Cropsey by counselors at a Boy Scout camp on Staten Island. In these stories, Cropsey lived in the abandoned buildings of the Willowbrook State School. This was an institution for the mentally retarded that was closed down in the 1980’s, after Geraldo Rivera did an exposé on the inhuman conditions there. (Yes, Rivera was once a serious journalist, believe it or not.)
From urban legends the film proceeds to reality. In 1987, a little girl with Down’s Syndrome disappeared on Staten Island. After an intensive search, her body was found in a shallow grave. The police eventually arrested Andre Rand, a homeless man who camped near the grounds of Willowbrook, where he once worked. Rand was eventually found guilty of kidnapping, but the jury could not agree on a verdict for murder. Since then, some people have questioned whether Rand was guilty. No physical evidence was found to connect him to the murder. The case against him relied entirely on eyewitness testimony. (The filmmakers correctly point out that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, a point that is often ignored in our criminal justice system.) The filmmakers interview police officers and others who were involved with the case, as well as Rand’s defense attorneys.
From there the film proceeds to a discussion of the community’s reaction to Rand’s arrest and conviction. Shortly after Rand’s arrest, stories began to go around that Rand was the leader of a Satanic cult that would have meetings in the abandoned Willowbrook buildings. To this day, rumors abound that Satanists meet at night in the buildings. In a questionable act of bravado, Zeman and Brancaccio go to Willowbrook at night to see if there is any truth to these stories. There, not surprisingly, they fumble around and manage to spook themselves. They begin to seem like an inept version of Scully and Mulder from The X-Files. They don’t find any Satanists, but they do come across a group of teenagers, doing the silly things that teenagers do in a place like that. These kids solemnly tell the filmmakers that the stories about Satanists are true, even though they’ve never seen any themselves.
During the filming of this documentary, Zeman and Brancaccio corresponded with Rand and spoke with people who knew him. From these letters and interviews, a portrait of Rand gradually emerges, and it turns out to be more disturbing than any urban legend. It prompts the filmmakers to suggest the disappearances of the children were in a way connected with the inhumanity of what went on at Willowbrook.
Cropsey is a rich, multi-layered documentary that touches upon issues such as what urban legends say about us, the reliability of our criminal justice system, the sensationalism of the media, the way our society treats the mentally handicapped, and the question of whether we can really know the truth about past events.