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By Paul Costello • June 16th, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Glass Pictures

Original release: June 4th, 2009
Running time: 84 minutes

Directors: Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio
Writer: Joshua Zeman
Composer: Alexander Lasarenko

Cast: Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio


Every street in every town in every city all over the world has its own urban legend. A shared local mythology that’s passed down from generation to generation, spoken of only when circumstances dictate, the details conjuring up unsettling imagery of maniac killers and terrible deeds. Maybe there’s a creepy old mansion, said to house an old witch… or the eerie woods that rests at the outskirts of the suburb where someone knew someone who disappeared one night… or the escaped mental patient who stalks the grounds of the now abandoned facility that he once called home.

You know the kinds of stories I’m talking about, because we’ve all heard them; be it the scary stories recounted to us by an older sibling or uncle or friend looking to scare us, or even by a parent looking to give us a good reason not to go wandering off on our own at certain times or in certain places. When I was growing up, my age still in single digits, I heard stories about a gang from the other side of the local park known as the Smilies. Word was that this gang got their name by catching people they didn’t like, making small cuts at the corners of their mouths and then doing something to make their victim laugh (tickling was the standard method), thereby causing these small cuts to tear into wide grins… pretty gruesome, right? And hardly the sort of thing a child of 8 or 9 should probably hear. But, you know what? You best believe I never ventured too far into that park on my own.

And there are stories like these all over the world. But as we get older, the vivid nature of these stories can fade, the apparent lack of evidence for their existence starts to erode the grotesquery of their detail. In short, we eventually stop believing them. After all, they are just stories. And the fact that everyone has their own variation makes them all the easier to dismiss as just stories.

For two filmmakers, Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, though they didn’t know each other growing up, the urban legend they shared through tellings in their own neighbourhoods was that of Cropsey. Growing up in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York, this legend of Cropsey is clearly a pervasive one. With their film, the pair dig past the shallow surface of a scary story to look into the deeply unsettling reality that helped feed this collective cultural nightmare, and how that would, in turn, feed back into the complex implications for the community living with the anguish of real horrors.


Amongst the people that Zeman and Brancaccio interview for the first 10 minutes of their documentary, they each recount some of the specific details that always stood out for them when first heard about Cropsey. “He was a doctor, had a knife about this big”, “He was supposed to have a hook”, “He was an axe-wielding madman”, “He wanted kids, he would chop ‘em up”, “Don’t go behind the Sherwood Bunks, Cropsey’s out there.” As recounted by an interviewed professor of folklore, “‘Cropsey’, for some reason, became the generic term for a maniac[…] so it would have made sense for a story of a maniac who was hiding out in the woods, and who abducted and killed little children would be called Cropsey.”

Zeman and Brancaccio build a great sense of location before getting to the heart of the film’s central preoccupation. Staten Island is described as a place of isolation, of space… perhaps too much space. Staten Island gets some level of infamy as “one big garbage dump,” where people dump garbage (the Fresh Kills trashpile was located here), and even bodies (“if someone needs to be disposed of, it’s like ‘let’s bring ‘em to Staten Island’.”). And it’s in this very unique part of America that we’re introduced to more specific locations… like a boy scout camp on the grounds of an old Tuberculosis ward called Sea View; the homegrounds for the poor known as the “Farm Colony”; or the infinitely more unsettling Willowbrook State School, a care facility for the mentally ill that was the subject of an exposè by a young Geraldo Rivera, reporting on the frankly horrific conditions therein. These places are put across as such ominous and eerie locales, the subsequent tales of horror that spring forth feel only too naturally drawn. Like any creepy old house anywhere, it practically invites the ghost stories.

Once the geography has been established, and the legend of Cropsey approached, we get to the film’s main focus: the “maniac” referred to by the professor – Andre Rand, a man accused of committing despicable acts against children in the wooded area of the island known as the CropseyGreenbelt, where Sea View and Willowbrook can be found. Over the course of the film, Zeman and Brancaccio track the investigation into the disappearances of several children with severe mental disabilities, and how each of these disappearances come to be tied, one by one, rightly or wrongly, to Rand.

However, the film doesn’t rest on simply recounting how events unfolded in Staten Island surrounding Rand and his alleged crimes. It follows several investigative shards that shoot out from the story, pursuing them to the point where the line between concrete fact and abstract fiction becomes interweaved to the point that they become near indistinguishable. Whether or not you ultimately come to believe in Rand’s guilt or innocence, it’s clear that the process of trying to make a case one way or the other is near hopelessly compromised by how much of the story becomes contorted in the memories of the community. Rand’s defence team make a point that prosecutors rest much of their case on the memories of former alcoholics and drug addicts recalled from 20 years prior.

It’s a terrible and difficult case from an outsider’s perspective. The crimes at the center of it all are amongst the most immediately emotive, since they involve the most vulnerable members of society, so justice is demanded by all, including us. The culprit presented to us – Andre Rand – Cropseyseems to tick all of the internal boxes as to how to we think a child killer should look, so we almost want instant justice to take place. But then we’re reminded by a few onscreen as to how flimsy the evidence is; how unreliable the witnesses are; and how easy it is to construct a narrative about events we have no knowledge of by filling in gaps with our own experiences, prejudices and bits of stories we heard when we were younger. It’s genuinely amazing at how many blind alleys and red herrings investigators can be taken down because people misremember or purposely lie to be part of the big story.

Cropsey is an almost perpetually unsettling affair, with each layer of the story being lifted up only to reveal something even darker and more disturbing underneath. One disappearance leads to several; a single crime becomes an overarching cloud cast over a community; and lives are ruined all over again as trials begin years after the fact. However, as horrible as the case may be, the film is endlessly interesting as a look at how legend can spawn from real life, and how that legend can loop over and affect how real life is perceived to allow people to deal with that reality.

Children are told stories about “Cropsey”, unaware of the real story that can rest behind it, unaware that the creepy fun of the campfire story is actually covering up something so much worse than that. So, I ask you, what do you really know about the scary stories you were told as a child?


Paul Costello

Paul Costello

Paul Costello is a critic, blogger and former film editor with a degree in filmmaking from the University of the West of Scotland. He’s been watching movies for as long as he can remember, and began the process of writing about every movie he owns on his blog: acinephilesjourney.blogspot.co.uk. He’ll be at that for a while. He’s also the resident film writer at TheStreetSavvy.com.

You can follow him on Twitter @PaulCinephile.

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