The Deal With Documentaries: One monster brought an entire community’s childhood fears to life

_Cropsey_ explores how a community changed after a folk tale took human form.

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Think about those scary stories you heard growing up. The tales of the bogeyman living in your closet, or monsters under your bed waiting for you to drift off to sleep before they snatch you up, never to be seen again.

Now imagine that these stories were true, that there was a bogeyman and all of your friends have started disappearing. This is the reality explored in the documentary Cropsey.

Filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio grew up on Staten Island in New York. As young children, and into their teen years, they always knew of local folk legend Cropsey. Every family had a variation of the tale, but the similarities were that Cropsey was an escaped mental patient from the nearby abandoned Willowbrook Mental Institution. He sometimes had a hook for a hand or carried an axe.

Cropsey would wander into the neighborhoods and take small children into the woods, who would then be forever gone. It was a tale that was used to make sure children were home on time or did not misbehave, because if they stepped out of line, Cropsey would be there to deliver a fierce punishment.

As these two grew up, the legend of Cropsey, was just that, a legend, until the summer of 1987. This is when a 12-year-old girl with Down syndrome named Jennifer Schweiger disappeared. After an intense search, Jennifer was found dead in the woods near Willowbrook. The legend of Cropsey started to become a reality. Over the next year, four more children would go missing. Some were found deceased; others just disappeared without a trace.

During the search for Jennifer, volunteers happened upon a makeshift living quarters. It was complete with a tent and freshly used razors. It was evident someone had been living there, and recently.

After the discovery of the campsite near the closed institution, investigators looked into the staff of Willowbrook. Their investigation lead them to Andre Rand. He was a custodial worker at the mental institution before it was shut down by the state. He had convictions in his past such as harming young children, primarily those with developmental disabilities. While there was not enough physical evidence to convict Rand of Jennifer’s murder, he was convicted of kidnapping in the first degree and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In 2004, Rand was yet again put on trial, this time for the 1981 disappearance of Holly Ann Hughes. He was then again convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

There are still three unsolved disappearances from the Staten Island area in the ‘80s, and while Rand is the main suspect in these cases, there is not enough evidence to convict him of these additional crimes.

Cropsey is the perfect documentary to watch this Halloween week, or any time you want to be spooked. The use of interviews of family members allows audiences to connect to the children who were lost. Everyone who lived on Staten Island in the 1980s had a sense of safety, thinking that their children could walk down to the store and make it home safely. Cropsey explores how this sense of safety and security was ripped away by one man, Andre Rand, who exploited their ignorance and blind trust, and in doing so grew into the monster the entire island feared.

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