Most of us grew up with boogeymen in our neighborhoods. Whether it be the creepy old house at the end of the block or the undoubtedly-warped story of some long-ago-committed crime that has been blown far out of proportion, kids are often fearful of something just down the street or around the corner. Sometimes parents use that fear to their advantage, using it to play up the need for “stranger danger.” How many people have heard that if they cross the wrong track or go too deep into the woods they’ll end up like THAT story? For filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, the boogeyman was all too real. They have turned the urban legend that fueled the nightmares of theirs neighborhood’s children into a great documentary that plays not unlike Capturing the Friedmans meets Dateline NBC. Cropsey has investigative appeal that will make it riveting viewing for any fan of true-crime docs but also deep commentary on the origin of urban legends and the fact that, occasionally, a cautionary tale serves a purpose in that it keeps victims away from actual madmen.
Zeman and Brancaccio grew up on Staten Island, where it seems everyone has heard the legend of Cropsey. To keep the children from exploring the enticing grounds of the Willowbrook Mental Institution, parents told them the story of a former patient who still wandered the grounds and snatched up children who got too close. He reportedly carried an ax or possibly even had a hook for a hand. The terrifying thing is how much truth existed in the story of Cropsey, more than the filmmakers could have even imagined when they began to explore the origins of their childhood nightmares. With the well-known story of a 13-year-old girl who disappeared into the woods in 1987, they begin to link the stories of other missing children from the area and how they could be linked while also investigating the terrifying history of the mental hospital and the abuse of patients there. It turns out that the boogeyman of Staten Island was all too real.
To say that Cropsey is chilling is an understatement. The underground tunnels around Willowbrook may have been used long after they should have been abandoned and the filmmakers discover a world of unbelievable horror and brutality. If anything, it seems like the stories that Zeman and Brancaccio heard in their youth may have been understatements. No one understood the true horror of Cropsey. But the film is not a mere mystery as it also addresses investigative inadequacies in the area as so many children could go missing and it took movie makers to start connecting the dots. There’s also a story of a rush to justice in Cropsey and the doc also very interestingly details the dark side of housing the mentally handicapped. Finally, there’s the fascinating near-suggestion that we all gave birth to Cropsey; as if telling so many stories about the maniac down the street to children made him an actuality or that if we merely warned kids about the dangers in the woods than we wouldn’t actually have to catch the criminals making them real.
There are times when Cropsey feels a bit too much like something that could run on television in a very special 48 Hours Mystery but true crime fans shouldn’t miss it. But I like that Brancaccio and Zeman don’t offer any easy answers, merely throwing all of the many issues of the story of Cropsey into a melting pot of danger, terror, and secrecy that’s much more impactful than any horror story dreamt up by Hollywood this year.
Rating: THREE AND A HALF BONES