Urban legends at their best are fascinating glimpses into the unknown. They recall the human tradition of oral storytelling, a lost art barely sustained in modern times by fairy tales and dirty jokes. Aficionados of urban legend often speculate that a historic seed gives birth to legend, though that seed is often lost to time or so transformed to shock and delight that it may be unrecognizable to modern audiences. It seems the opposite is true of the urban legend of Cropsey, the supposed inspiration for the 2009 documentary by filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio.
In a film named “Cropsey,” it might be expected that a substantial portion of time to be spent investigating the urban legend, but this is not the case. In fact, approximately 5 minutes (I would say 4 minutes, thirty seconds) is devoted to the legend, with a half-hearted swipe at sussing out the origin. The ‘testimonials’ of those who discuss the subject, including that of Associate Professor Bill Ellis, Ph. D., hold none of the passion that stories of this type foster. Even the filmmakers’ own relations are weak, relegated to a few dull sentences.
Granted, transmission of urban legends is theoretically oral in nature, but since the beginning of the Information Age, catalogs of minutiae have proliferated to the extent that almost anything, in particular the paranormal and otherwise unexplained can be found on the internet. However, it is virtually impossible to find a mention of Cropsey that does not reference the 2009 film or the actual subject of the documentary, Andre Rand.
Rand was a once-employee of Willowbrook State School, a state-funded institution for the mentally deficient which was exposed in 1972 as deplorably inadequate. Over a decade later, the hospital was closed, and Rand used the abandoned grounds as a living space, camping on improvised equipment scavenged from the school. It was speculated that some patients of Willowbrook may also have returned to the grounds, to live in familiar surroundings once homeless.
During the investigation of missing 12-year-old Jennifer Schweiger, Rand was suspected and subsequently charged with her kidnapping and murder, though the jury would not convict on the murder count. Her corpse was found near one of Rand’s campsites. Sixteen years later, Rand was again convicted of kidnapping, this time of a girl missing since 1972 and sentenced to his second term of 25 years to life. As presented in the documentary, the evidence against Rand seems circumstantial at best, fabricated at worst. Almost no one interviewed presents as convincing or sincere, including the victims’ families, some of which seem to be clinging to the search for the children’s remains as a way to remain in the news.
If you have 90 minutes of your life you aren’t using, you can check Cropsey out for yourself on Netflix. You won’t come away with that delicious chill crawling up your spine that the tease of an urban legend should provide. You won’t even come away with a clear understanding of the Andre Rand case. If you start it, don’t stop, because you will never watch it again.