No one seems to know where the moniker came from, but it sure has a dismal way of taking hold in young imaginations: At best, “Cropsey” sounds like Peter Rabbit’s ominously undiscussed sibling, hidden in the attic. It’s definitely a good name for a boogeyman.
And so any movie of that name, even a documentary, must be of the horror variety. Not quite an investigative triumph but definitely a grabber, Cropsey explores the woods-roaming-madman legend with which Staten Island kids — including filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio — used to freak each other out in the ’80s. That’s when the rightly horrifying Willowbrook State School for mentally disabled kids finally got shut down, years after Geraldo Rivera’s career-launching exposé on its appalling conditions, and when the cops tied a spate of missing-children cases to homeless former Willowbrook employee Andre Rand. By the time Zeman and Brancaccio get to their spine-tingling footage of a dazed and drooling Rand being hauled into police custody, it’s as if to say: So is this the Cropsey we’ve all been waiting for? Later, a Rand acquaintance holds up another photo of him, saying, “I can take a picture of anybody and I could say, ‘This man is a mass murderer.’ And you’d say, ‘Yeah, I can tell! I can tell!’ Or I could say, ‘This man rescued six people from a burning building.’ ‘I can tell! He’s a good man!'” What’s especially unsettling is that it’s partly from wondering whether the presenter of this experiment is himself on the level that his point is so well-taken.
Ultimately the most damning thing Cropsey implies about Rand is that working at Willowbrook might very well have broken his mind. For added context, the filmmakers make several forays into the sylvan gloom of Staten Island, here described more than once as a dumping ground. They leave some mysteries unsolved, but these matter less than the truly eerie revelations about how horror-flick vernacular affects our view of the world — how we cope with, and cultivate, the unthinkable.