In a Dark Room on a Bed He Kissed Them All
We all have ghost stories we told each other when we were younger. Parents threatened their children’s misbehaviors with vengeance by a hook-handed maniac or a blood-drenched witch who took bad kiddies off into the woods where they were never seen again. The same urban legend lurked in shadows up and down both coasts and in the hinterlands between. Countless horror films are based on the campfire tales and babysitter squeals we were taunted with as wee ones. Most of these stories are rooted in folklore or some fact; there really was an Ed Gein who cut up people and ate them. The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast, which the Blair Witch filmmakers pirated their idea from, tried to do a fake documentary to scare up audiences. But filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman took this a step further. They actually dug up the roots of their very own lurking madman Cropsey. While parents whispered warnings of wandering around Staten Island woods after dark in the late 1970s, a maniac was actually taking children from their homes and making them disappear for real. What resulted was a harrowing and fascinating account of the real-life boogeyman and how legend can lead to lynch mobs and frenzy. Cropsey is a thought-provoking and horrifying documentary about how monsters get made.
Staten Island was New York City’s dumping ground, whether that was garbage, mob killings, or those who could not take care of themselves. It’s ripe for horror, an isolated suburban island that surrounds a huge wild woodland. Within the grounds of these woods are both an abandoned summer camp and a broken-down mental facility that up until the end of the last century still held hundreds and thousands of incapacitated humans. A disturbing expose by a burgeoning investigative reporter showed the deplorable conditions of the Willowbrook Mental Institution which led to its closure. As the filmmakers wander the facility, even during the day, showing the graffiti walls and torn-up planks, discussing the warren of tunnels running beneath the property, you can actually feel why Brad Anderson wrote Session 9.
When Brancaccio and Zeman were just kids in the early ’80s, they remember reports of a young disabled girl named Jennifer Schweiger disappearing. She was snatched off the street by her home by an unknown person or persons, which led to a manhunt. Parent groups, calling themselves Friends of Jennifer, took to the streets, combing the island, trying to find any sign of the missing girl. While inspecting the woods, they came across abandoned shanty campsites — tarps draped over bedframes harvested from the abandoned mental facility — which led them to suspect a local drifter Andre Rand. Rand, a former employee of Willowbrook, had a reputation around town of hassling children. Portrayed as a drooling indigent as he was dragged into custody, Rand was about ready for release when the parents group combed the woods just one more time and found the shallow grave where Jennifer was buried. Even with circumstantial evidence, Rand was tried and convicted of the murder and remanded to jail where he would be eligible for parole in 2008. And that might have been the end of it. If that was the only missing child.
The documentary does an amazing job of investigating the case, following the search for five more missing children, all showing some form of mental disability, going back as far as the 1970s. Rand stands in for the boogeyman; though he professes his innocence, he becomes the monster that will get children. In 2002, prosecutors believe they have enough evidence to pin yet another of the missing children on Rand, and so the film follows the trial. It becomes about a community seeking closure by lynching a local miscreant. Allegations of occult activity, cannibalism, and tribes of homeless cults running around the tunnels beneath Staten Island all come bubbling to the surface. The Friends of Jennifer has never stopped searching for hints that bodies are buried, the mother leading the way hugging her two disabled children before she goes off with a shovel some twenty years later. The paranoia of the community and the desperation to find closure is breathtaking.
My only real issue with the film is that we don’t really get much about Cropsey. The legend itself is kind of vague. Cropsey might have been the hookhanded killer or he might have carried a bloody ax. He haunts the woods in some versions, in others he wanders Willowbrook. We don’t really find out about Cropsey, because he’s been subjugated by the real specter of Rand. As the documentarians wander the halls of Willowbrook at night, they shine flashlights over graffiti scrawled with the name Rand. The teenagers they interview affirm there’s definitely satanic cults on Staten Island, performing sacrifices and waiting to kill them. Then they laugh.
Ghost stories will always endure. Because there’s always something waiting in the dark to get you. It might be the vengeful spirit of Andre Rand when he finally dies. It might be the REAL killer or the people who helped frame Rand for the murders while they took more children. Cropsey does an outstanding job of turning the flashlight on the audience. Because lurking somewhere in the shadows is a monster that we made.
You can watch Cropsey on On Demand until August 12th and judge for yourself.
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