One of the scariest documentaries in recent memory tells the legend of Cropsey through the eyes of the people who lived through the nightmare of an urban legend come to life. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, mentally handicapped children systematically started going missing on Staten Island and no one knew what was happening to them. At least, not until the police were able to track down a man named Andre Rand, a vagrant and former custodian at the Willowbrook State School, who they believed was responsible for the disappearances.
The 2009 film by Staten Island locals Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio is an examination into the fear of a boogeyman monster named "Cropsey" that follows kids through their youth and how in many ways that fear is entirely warranted.
If you enjoy true crime documentaries like Dear Zachary (2008), then you'll be glued to the edge of your seat throughout Cropsey as it attempts to unravel the mystery of a group of missing children and exposes the truth behind a gruesome urban legend.
The opening of the documentary explains who Cropsey is: a shadowy figure described as an escaped mental patient who lives in the tunnels beneath the former Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. He comes out late at night to snatch children from the streets. Depending on who you ask, Cropsey has a hook for a hand, he carries a bloody ax, or he's a literal ghoul who haunts the woods at night in service of Satan.
Though the story mutates throughout the documentary, the initial presentation of the frightening Cropsey urban legend portrays the realistic fear residents of Staten Island - old and young alike - experience.
On July 9, 1987, Jennifer Schweiger, a 12-year-old girl born with Down syndrome, went missing from her Staten Island neighborhood. The last person she was reported being seen with was 43-year-old Andre Rand, an alleged mentally ill drifter. After an intense 35-day search through the woods near the Willowbrook State School, Jennifer's body was found in a shallow grave.
In Cropsey, the audience actually sees the size of the search for the girl, and it's immediately apparent how much Jennifer's disappearance affected the borough. Jennifer was the fourth known missing girl, and the small island community banded together to help the girl's parents in the search. Mr. Schweiger commented: ''I really can't fathom the amount of support, civilian and official."
In 1988, the monster of Staten Island was finally brought to life when Andre Rand was arrested in connection with the disappearance and passing of Jennifer Schweiger. Throughout the film, Rand is described as being a mentally unstable transient. He was allegedly seen with Jennifer before her disappearance, and her body was found near a place where he slept in the woods.
After his arrest, Rand was suspected of having lured other children away, but no one was able to actually provide evidence that he was complicit in the disappearances. Most of the people who testified against him claimed that he just looked like he was someone who would take their children.
Rand was only convicted of abducting Jennifer. The murder charge was dismissed because jurors couldn't agree on whether he actually took her life. He received a sentence of 25 years to life. Then, in 2004, 23 years after Holly Ann Hughes's disappearance, Rand was charged due to no statue limitations. He received an additional 25 years.
In the mid-1960s, Rand worked as a custodian at the Willowbrook State School, putting him in the middle of one of the ugliest blights on Staten Island and giving him direct access to mentally disabled children. In 1970, Rand reportedly pleaded guilty to assaulting a 9-year-old Bronx girl and paroled in 1972.
In that same year, a young Geraldo Rivera filmed an exposé on building number 6 of the Willowbrook institution, which had formerly housed a large group of mental patients. What he found was deeply disturbing to the public. The building had been filled with severely neglected children living in squalid conditions.
After filming in the institution, Rivera noted that the hardest thing to describe was the institution's smell. It would take until 1987 for Willowbrook to shut down after Rivera's exposé, and while some patients were transferred to units where they could be looked after, many were abandoned without care or supervision. It's believed that they simply stayed at the institution because that was the only life they knew.
Among these transient squatters included Rand, who had taken up residence on the institution's grounds.