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Cropsey (2009), a documentary film by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, looks at the version of the infamous urban legend specific to Staten Island. As it is pointed out in the film the legend of “Cropsey” is local to the Hudson River areas that stretch from one end of New York to another. Every town and every community therein has their own version of “Cropsey” whose story is told at campfires and sleepovers.

In first minutes of the film Cropsey the filmmakers cover the uses and origins of these types of urban legends. Often a figure like “Cropsey” is used to warn kids and keep them out of areas that could be hazardous. But it doesn’t take Zeman and Brancaccio long to discuss the other motivating factor behind such myths, which is to explain or account for a tragedy so unthinkable that it is beyond a community’s reasoning. A sort of communally imagined figure and narrative is invented to ease the trauma of a community. In Cropsey that community is Staten Island and the “boogeyman” in question is child abductor and murderer Andre Rand.

From the seventies and through the eighties Rand abducted and murdered children, most of whom were living with a disability. For the better part of a decade Rand’s crimes went unsolved by the police and Rand was allowed to move freely through the community. Yet, even more so than Rand, the abandoned Willowbrook State School became an epicenter of community trauma. Rand once worked at the Willowbrook institution and continued to live on its grounds long after it had been shut down. He was a child snatcher living at the site of Hell on Earth.

Cropsey tells Rand’s story in the traditional true crime idiom while simultaneously exploring the ramifications of the revelations regarding Willowbrook in Geraldo Rivera’s televised exposé of 1972. Cropsey proposes that the state’s failures at Willowbrook and the community’s culpability in those failures were collectively transferred to the “Cropsey” myth and to Andre Rand. As Zeman collects the testimony of witnesses he cuts to juxtaposing images of Willowbrook in the 2000s with images taken from Rivera’s report. The viewer takes in the eerie images of an abandoned hospital and then must process the terrifying history of that space as it was recorded by Rivera.

Zeman and Brancaccio put themselves in the center of the investigation into the phenomenon of urban legends as the de facto main characters and audience surrogates. Cropsey invites to viewer to root for these documentarians in a manner more traditionally befitting a fiction film. Cropsey, by design, is meant to function as a kind of mirror version of The Blair Witch Project (1999). As Brancaccio and Zeman navigate the underground tunnels of Willowbrook the audience feels that they are in danger because the shaky-cam images evoke the cinematographic style of The Blair Witch Project. The Blair Witch Project took the horror film and moved it into the stylistic sphere of documentary and Cropsey takes a documentary project and moves it into the stylistic sphere of the found footage horror movie.

There are few definitive answers in Cropsey regarding Willowbrook, Rand or the “boogeyman”. Instead Cropsey charts how the fiction of urban myth finds its surrogate in factual realities only to then metamorphose to incorporate those truths back into the fiction. After Rand was captured the legend of “Cropsey” on Staten Island essentially became a stylized telling of Rand’s crimes. Cropsey is a film recording of an urban legend taking on a new shape.