Cropsey (2009)

Back in junior high in Norfolk, Nebraska, the other kids used to talk about how the old mental asylum was haunted. Never mind, the building was still operational and remodeled. It was on the edge of town, back in the woods and, well, seemed creepy. One fall night, we got into an older kids car and drove out there to look for ghosts. I remember being a bit scared. At the time, I read a lot of haunted house books and was really into it. Amityville Horror was my favorite book. I got twenty feet from the car when an older kid jumped out and scared me, I might have spent the rest of the evening in the car. Nobody even got close the the hospital.

I’m not really sure. Memory, especially mine, is a fuzzy affair. I don’t even know where the legend that the mental hospital was haunted and why. I never got any details on the story. I probably made up a few new details.
Every town has haunted spots filled with legends and mis-remembered ‘facts’ about why it’s haunted. It’s just in our nature to fill in the blanks in our knowledge with something, anything.

Cropsey is a documentary about an urban legend that becomes real then spins back out into folklore.

Staten Island is a dumping ground—for NYC’s garbage, for mob bodies and for a short time in the 70’s and 80’s for mentally challenged dead children.

Parents used the all-purpose boogeyman Cropsey to keep kids away from Staten Island’s wooded areas and abandoned buildings. Cropsey took kids. Teenagers ran with the story and Cropsey became a man with a hook or a mental patient or homeless man. He may have set any number of fires or belonged to the Satanic Church. A local boy scout group spread the legend up and down the Eastern seaboard. A lot of towns have their own Cropsey legend, but few have an actual person to pin the legend on.

Albert Rand was picked up in 1987 in connection with the disappearance of Jennifer, an adorable 10 year old girl with Down Syndrome. Suddenly, Albert Rand, a homeless man who lived in the woods near Willowbroook, an abandoned mental institution for children, suddenly became the real Cropsey. There was never any physical evidence tying Rand to the girl, but there were lots of stories. And when Jennifer turned up dead, after he was in custody, Rand eventually went to prison for kidnapping (but not murdering) the girl. And Cropsey’s legend spun out to the disappearance of up 12 other children, mostly mentally handicapped, over a 15 year span. And Rand became tied to many of them, even though there was no physical evidence.

The documentarian couple who originally set out to research the Cropsey legend then turned their focus to trying to find out the truth against a real life man. Quickly, their problem became evaluating what is true and what is not. And it’s a problem that just never will be solved. Too much time has past, people’s memories change, too many people have worked on the various missing child cases and they all have their own ideas, ideas that become facts to others and still, there’s just nothing concrete. Plus, Albert Rand isn’t helping, he’s bananas, both proclaiming his innocence, but using the power he obtained from pretending (or actually having) the secrets of the case.
During the filming, just two years ago, Rand is brought up again on a missing girl case. Once again, it’s all thirty year old witness testimony from alcoholics and drug users and no physical evidence. I won’t tell you the results, but it’s not surprising.

To the documentarian’s credit, they don’t come out fully for or against Rand. This may be frustrating for the crime docu junkies where guilt (almost always) or innocence is spelled out in a tidy 48 minutes. Admittedly, at the end of the movie, I felt a bit gypped by the “you decide” stance on Rand’s guilt or innocence. There was no bombshell. In fact, their exclusive jailhouse talk with Rand fell through. But that’s the way life just is sometimes. You just can’t know. And that’s the real point of the film, you sometimes just can’t know.

I certainly can see why many parents would want to hang the disappearance of their child on Rand, but the truth is, they’ll never probably know the truth. It’s heartbreaking.

I’m fascinated by how people fill in the gaps in their knowledge and then how they justify this gap as actual truth. Urban legends are fueled by this line of thinking. As is religion. And politics. And emotions.

Technically, the documentary is a mix of the straight ahead crime docs you see on basic cable mixed with a few touches of the more personal, documentarian as participant-style of most indie documentaries. Narratively, the movie is a bit scatter-shot, casting a wide net to emphasize the broadness of the urban legend and Rand’s case. The effect is that there always seems to be something left out, some piece of tying information that would bring the case in sharp focus. Sadly, there just isn’t. There is just interview after interview of people speculating what they think actually happened, much of which just plain has to be untrue because of all the inconsistencies and errors in the case and other people’s stories. Someone could easily come along, omit a bunch of testimony, and make a movie proclaiming Rand a Satanic worshipper who sacrificed children or as a completely innocent man.

One of the most interesting parts of the film was clips from a 1972 Willowbrook documentary from a young rising star, Geraldo Rivera. The shots of the severely mentally handicapped kids, naked and covered in their own shit, warehoused in a gigantic crumbling facility were downright haunting. It was so bad that when Rand was shown the tape (he was an intern there in the ’60’s), he becomes practically catatonic. I guess I have to give Rivera a pass next time he does something sensational and stupid.

Cropsey is on Netflix Streaming and while it has a few narrative flaws is an interesting look at a time and place and how emotion and circumstantial evidence can become accepted truth, how the nightmare duel of urban legends can ignite with some spark of real life.

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