FILM– With the largest landfill on the planet, Staten Island acquired the reputation of being a dumping ground. This status was proven true when the Willowbrook State School (aka Willowbrook Mental Institution) was opened. Built near a tuberculosis ward, Willowbrook was one of the most populated insane asylums in America.
But in 1972, the true nature of the institution was exposed. Geraldo Rivera investigated the school, and inside he found a disgusting mess. Nude, waste-covered patient were heaped into small, dark rooms. Many were sitting in the fetal position, gibbering and screaming. This instigation lead to the closing of the mammoth asylum.
For some reason, mental patients will sometimes return to their old institution. No one knows the exact reason- maybe they look at the building as a parent, maybe it’s shelter, or maybe it’s just a familiar place- but this happens more than most people realize.
One of the returners became a local urban legend. Cropsey, the boogeyman. An escaped loon who lived in the utilities tunnels beneath Willowbrook, Cropsey was said to come out at night, only to steal children and bring them back to the tunnels with him. They would never be seen after that.
Filmmakers and local Staten Island residents Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio remember the stories as kids. They also remember all the missing children from their neighborhood. Cropsey wasn’t just a ghost story this time. This boogeyman was real.
After the disappearance of Jennifer Schweiger in 1987, police arrested an old orderly from Willowbrook, Andre Rand. The remains of Jennifer were found less than 200 yards from Rand’s campsite on the outskirts of Willowbrook. Without enough evidence to tie him to the murder, but enough eye witnesses to testify that Rand was with the girl just hours before her disappearance, he was sentenced to prison. His first parole hearing was set for 2008.
Zeman and Brancaccio set out to uncover the secrets still living around Willowbrook. During the filming, Rand was also charged with the Kidnapping of another missing girl from 1981. The two filmmakers, determined to get to the truth, begin a relationship with Rand via letters. He is smart, cunning, and playful. During the trial, Zeman and Brancaccio uncover disturbing coincidences about the missing children, dark secrets about Willowbrook, and rumors of involvement from a Satanic cult.
Every town has it’s grim cautionary tale. In Asheville, there’s the old VA Hospital that was closed down after a fire. Supposedly the fire started in the mental ward, and there are a number of ghosties and madmen that hang out around the building.
Or an even more truthful story, the murder of Kelly Lane Smith. The prostitute found dismembered and stuffed in storm drains around the rotting River Arts District (to people not familiar with Asheville, it’s nothing except a few studios, a brewery, and a BBQ shack famous nationwide- the rest is just lots of abandoned buildings and graffiti walls).
Yeah they think they got the guy who did it, but nothing has been official. I was 13 at the time of the murder, and every kid was warned about the area. The homeless that live there are not known to be very friendly people. Since then my friends and I have often aimlessly explored the condemned factories and buildings in the area. It’s amazing how creepy places like that can be.
Cropsey takes a local story and exposes what little fact there is behind it. The legend is presented, then the facts, and finally an investigation to find the truth. A very simple formula with very creepy results. There’s just something about abandoned places. They look malevolent, almost evil. And the tunnels under the complex are a thousand times worse.
The film takes the Dear Mr. Gacy route around the halfway mark, where the filmmakers contact Rand. At first he seems cooperative, as long as they play by the rules, but then becomes very odd. His letters focus on scripture and biblical quotes, and after a few weeks pass without the filmmakers returning contact, he begins to call.
What really impressed me was all the archive footage and documents. They have pictures, news reports, full spreads from the paper, and even court notes from the first trial. This is mixed with current footage (well from 2004) of interviews from outside the courthouse during the second trial.
There a news report with one of the children’s mothers begging for her return, and the detectives have noticed that a future victim was standing about three people behind her in plain sight. This one scene pretty much is synonymous for the entire film- nothing but coincidence and suspicion.
While Cropsey doesn’t solve the mystery (and who could honestly expect that), it does give enough background on the legend, insight about Rand, and pretty much all information there ever will be on the cases. It’s an exploration of childhood fears and urban legends that actually manifested into something much more, but in many ways nothing at all. Like I said, every town has dark secrets and whispered stories, but it’s hard to pinpoint the truth. Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio have done a great job with bringing the origins of their local demon to the surface, and the results are as fascinating as they are creepy. 9/10
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