There are plenty of solidly spooky horror movies that can be found on Netflix. But one of the the streaming service’s most terrifying titles is a documentary about a child-snatching bogeyman. And we’re not talking about Slenderman.
Before there was The Jinx or Making A Murderer, there was Cropsey, a 2009 doc which digs into an amorphous but persistent urban legend that has horrifyingly real roots. Named for the “maniac” prevalent in a plethora of New England scary stories, Cropsey explores a series of child abductions that occurred in Staten Island in the 1980s. Documentarians Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman grew up in the area, believing Cropsey to be a hook-handed madman who lurked in the wild woods of the Island, hiding in the ruins of abandoned hospitals and the subterranean access tunnels below. But truth proves stranger and more disturbing than fiction as the persistent pair investigate Andre Rand, the man believed to have kidnapped and killed at least five children.
Be warned: this is not a film for the faint of heart.
Early on, Brancaccio and Zeman reveal the horrifying history of the Willowbrook Woods, which once held an asylum for mentally handicapped children. Before being shut down for gross neglect of its patients, it was the subject of a Geraldo Rivera expose that shined a literal spotlight on “a dark corner where we throw children that aren’t pretty to look at.” The footage of kids naked, wailing, and covered in filth is so nightmarish that it seems pulled from American Horror Story. To a stricken 1972 TV audience, Rivera described the facility thusly: “It smelled of filth, it smelled of disease, it smelled of death.”
Eventually this hellscape that called itself a care facility was closed, but that left some former patients and employees lost. It’s said some returned to the shuttered facility, curling up in its hidden hallways for warmth and shelter. Little wonder the Willowbrook Woods became a stomping ground for adolescents eager to scare each other and test their mettle. But when Jennifer Schweiger, a 12-year-old girl with Down Syndrome, went missing in 1987, the Cropsey stories led search parties to those same forests, where they found Rand, a drifter who “looked like he was a killer.” Despite no physical evidence that connected him to Schweiger’s recovered corpse, this perp walk photo convicted Rand in the court of public opinion.
From the reveal of this image, Cropsey spins into a far more challenging and complex investigation. Was Rand a cold-blooded killer or a convenient scapegoat? Brancaccio and Zeman interview the survivors of his possible victims, the cops who worked the case, the volunteers who decades later still search for the lost children’s remains, and anyone who admits to actually knowing Rand before he was locked up. Much like with Serial, the documentarians’ wavering opinions are part of the narrative, building not only suspense but also unease. Without jump scares or creature effects, these filmmakers have made a terrifying tale by focusing on the great horrors people commit upon each other. “Maybe the reality that a person could kill a child is too much for us to bear,” Zeman suggests, “So instead we create our own monsters.” This chilling realization will linger as the documentary refuses any easy answers.
A father of one of these lost children admits with a heartbreaking huff, “You never get closure. That’s a bullshit word.” And so Cropsey denies us closure. Instead, Brancaccio and Zeman expose audiences to a wealth of information that poses the question: who is Andre Rand? Is he the ringleader of a band of homicidal homeless? A lackey for a Satanic cult in need of child victims for human sacrifice? A kidnapping killer who dedicatedly slaughtered “imperfect children?” Or a traumatized outsider who made the perfect scapegoat?
“Was Andre Rand convicted on fact or fiction?” Zeman wonders in the voiceover as he and Brancaccio exit the Willowbrook Woods. “The power of the urban legend is that it doesn’t claim to be the truth, but rather it says the truth is a range of possibilities, and it’s the audience that must decide. So pick one.”
One last warning: each viewing of Cropsey might change your answer. But every viewing will leave you with chills.