Ever wonder if there’s any truth behind urban legends? Documentary filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio did. Growing up on Staten Island, NY, rumors circulated of a psychotic murderer, maybe with a hook for a hand, named “Cropsey,” who was said to roam the woods around the ruins of Willowbrook Hospital. In its prime, the institution was the world’s largest insane asylum, but was later shut down after the brutal living conditions of its patients were exposed to the public.
The legend became a starting point for the new documentary, Cropsey, which co-director Zeman says “is about ‘legend tripping,’ that is, a thing younger kids do. You go to a local haunted house and it’s everyone’s test for their mental resolve, their fear factor. You go out, sit in your car and see if you can see the ghost.”
The documentary, which has begun screening at festivals worldwide to much acclaim, is set to have its Winnipeg premiere on Oct. 30 at a special “Devil’s Night Screening.” It should also represent something of a “fear factor” test for audiences in itself, with its unsettling atmosphere and lack of clear answers. The film investigates the rumors surrounding the figure of Cropsey, and connects it with actual abductions and murders of handicapped children that occurred on Staten Island during the filmmakers’ youth. Andre Rand, who lived in the woods around Willowbrook, was eventually convicted for some of the crimes.
Zeman claims that “a lot of what happened was scapegoated on Andre Rand. For me, in the film, his innocence or guilt is not in question. The film is about the urban legend and other people’s experiences [ . . . ]. Just by releasing the film, rumors about Andre Rand have taken off. The newer generation had forgotten Cropsey, so now we’ve almost strengthened it by bringing all of these strands together.”
Local filmmaker Kier-La Janisse, whose Big Smash! Productions is presenting the documentary along with CineMuerte, first saw the film at the 2009 Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX and was struck by how it worked more as a “whole movie instead of just a doc.”
“It’s about a true crime but it raises so many other questions, angles and perspectives on the myth.” Janisse said, “Satanists, ex-patients returning to the mental hospital — all these creepy elements. It’s so crazy that I had never heard about them.”
Although the film focuses on an urban legend, it also represents a larger examination of socio-cultural problems in Staten Island at the time. Indeed, it has been, at various times, home to the largest dump in the world, the largest mental institution in the world, and largest sanitorium in the world and once had the largest quarantine in the world, for sick immigrants coming into the country through New York City. As Zeman observes, “These politics, intentional or not, can’t not have an effect on people. It’s logical [ . . . ]. One by one these things were put down by the residents of Staten Island, pitchforks-in-hand in kind of a Frankenstein, not-in-my-backyard-type scenario. Andre Rand was a just Frankenstein, too, the culmination of an embattled communities’ fears and guilt.”
The Winnipeg premiere of Cropsey occurs on “Devil’s Night,” Oct. 30, at the 290 McDermot 5th Floor Warehouse upstairs from Ace Art & Urban Shaman. The screening begins at 8 p.m.