I love scary stories. When I was a kid growing up in the mid-west, we would often terrorize each other with tales of escaped lunatics with meat hooks for hands. They were usually hiding in the local forest preserves, waiting for us to go exploring so that they could extract some bloody vengeance upon us for a past misdeed. These yarns would fuel our imaginations so much, that they would evolve more and more with each telling and before long, we would start to believe our own fiction.
One day (around Christmas time) a real-life horror story rocked my young world with the police discovery of over thirty corpses buried in the crawl-space of convicted mass-murderer JOHN GACY’S suburban Chicago home. I lived in a neighboring town and a few of his all-male teenage victims went to the same high school that I would later attend. It was very scary and it was all 100% real.
In the new documentary CROPSEY, filmmakers JOSHUA ZEMAN and BARBARA BRANCACCIO explore the parallels between an east coast urban legend, an abandoned mental institution and a real-life boogeyman named ANDRE RAND, who’s probably responsible for the disappearances of at least four children in Staten Island, NY. The results are very disturbing.
Along the Atlantic seaboard, kids have been scaring the shit out of each other around the campfires for generations now, with the tale of the deformed, escaped madman Cropsey. The horribly burned psycho, armed with a hook or an ax (depending on who’s telling the tale) is a “fictional” monster that preys on anyone stupid enough to enter the forest he calls home. The Cropsey legend is often told at many of the sleepaway camps located in the woods of upstate New York and you may remember a variation of the story that’s told in the 1981 slasher movie, THE BURNING. For kids growing up in Staten Island, the legend was incorporated into the very real abandoned mental institution known formerly as Willowbrook. This is where the movie really starts to work its creepy magic on the audience.
Back in the early 70’s a young, ambitious reporter named GERALDO RIVERA did an expose on Willowbrook. He uncovered some really terrifying footage of a facility completely overcrowded with mentally and physically handicapped children living in absolutely inhuman conditions. At one time the patients outnumbered the staff fifty to one. Not long after the RIVERA report, the state closed Willowbrook down and moved most of its patients out, but some would return and make a home in the woods and tunnels around the vacant institution.
In 1987, a 13 year old girl with Down Syndrome, named JENNIFER SCHWEIGER, was abducted and became the focus of an intense search through the woods of Staten Island. Her body was found on the grounds of Willowbrook and before long, a homeless man named ANDRE RAND, a former worker at the closed facility who was living in a nearby tent, was arrested for suspicion of her murder. He was convicted of kidnapping through mostly circumstantial evidence and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Many years later he was on trial again, only this time for the abduction of another missing girl named HOLLY ANN HUGHES, and there are at least three others that he’s suspected of being responsible for as well. There are also a lot of ambiguities as to whether he acted alone or if he’s just an innocent scapegoat for the police. Some even suspect a conspiracy involving the same Satanic church that the Son of Sam allegedly belonged to.
Many of the discoveries made by the filmmakers are downright bone chilling. One scene in particular shows JOSHUA ZEMAN and BARBARA BRANCACCIO finding an old piece of news footage featuring a local reporter on the scene for one of the missing kids. Over the reporter’s shoulder is a young man from the neighborhood mugging for the camera. He just so happens to be one of the future missing children that police suspect ANDRE RAND of abducting. Blood-curdling.
This is one of the few documentaries I’ve seen that follows the narrative of a horror film. It’s really very frightening at times and like most good true crime stories, there are more questions posed than solid answers provided, leaving the audience to come up with their own theories. It’s the unresolved mysteries that I found to be the most haunting part of this film.
I was lucky enough to do a podcast interview with co-director JOSHUA ZEMAN about CROPSEY, along with GRAE DRAKE for THE POCORN MAFIA. Click to listen HERE or check it out on iTunes. We discuss the movie, the case and one of Josh’s film influences, the highly acclaimed documentary PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS. Nerd out!