In 1972, Geraldo Rivera exposed Willowbrook. For those of us who watched that report on ABC, it was an unforgettable experience: young, brash, and righteous, Geraldo led his camera operator into the State School on Staten Island, where they found patients in all states of disarray, neglect, and abuse: they rocked, lolled, screamed, and cried, their rooms and clothing were filthy, their bodies bent and broken.
Tragic and infuriating, Willowbrook: The Last Disgrace was also the beginning of the end for the institution. Public outrage led to its closing in 1987, but the horrific images in Geraldo’s report lingered. Even as viewers could point fingers at officials and workers at Willowbrook, the exposé also hinted at a broader culpability: this “dumping ground” for unwanted children was symptomatic rather than deviant, reflecting a culture that discards people — vulnerable, sad, and “unsightly” people. Like Bedlam or the looming houses in Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this lurid asylum was both too real and unimaginable.
As such, Willowbrook — or better, the Geraldo report — is the perfect entry point for Cropsey. Opening at New York’s IFC Center on 4 June and airing Friday, 13 August, on Investigation Discovery, Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman’s documentary — smart, self-reflexive, and aptly elusive — considers the story of “Cropsey,” a Candyman-style urban-legendary child killer. Both Cropsey and Willowbrook haunted his childhood on Staten Island, Zeman narrates, reminders that, “In reality, every community has a seedy underside, every suburbia has its secrets.”
The two stories came together in the form of Andre Rand, a former orderly at Willowbrook, found guilty of abducting Jennifer Schweiger, a 13-year-old with Down’s Syndrome who went missing in 1987. The case attracted media attention, landed Jennifer’s face on milk cartons, and inspired dread and rage. A team of volunteers led by Donna Cutugno (founder of “Friends of Jennifer”) found her body on the abandoned Willowbrook grounds. Interviewed at the time in what looks like a diner, Cutugno tearfully describes the nightmarish discovery: “An arm and a leg sticking out from a shallow grave.” Today, she takes Zeman and Brancaccio along as she “still digs around Willowbrook, hoping to find evidence of the other children.”
These “other children” also went missing in the area over a period of years; four of them “slow” — in the phrasing of the day — and linked to Rand, by rumor and seeming circumstance. “To this day,” Zeman narrates, “their bodies have never been found.” The last of these cases, that of seven-year-old Holly Ann Hughes, was brought to trial in 2009, 28 years after she disappeared. Now, the film proposes, some sort of truth might emerge. Though Rand has been in Sing Sing for 17 years following the Schweiger conviction, he has remained a troubling and mostly silent enigma, maybe nefarious and calculating, maybe a victim of mass hysteria. Now, Zeman and Brancaccio imagine, they will interview Rand and get to the bottom of… something.
That this something is undetermined is its own point in Cropsey. Whether by design or accident, the documentary is more about storytelling than on conclusions. The film is structured as an investigation of sorts, as Zeman says, “We may get the chance to uncover the truth behind our urban legend.” But the truth of Cropsey (and Willowbrook) won’t be found in Rand, whose correspondence with the filmmakers by letter turns increasingly bizarre. Instead, the documentary considers the mix of truths and untruths that continues to swirl around Rand, with particular attention to the media uproar that went into overdrive when a newspaper photo showed him drooling and handcuffed, led by detectives down courthouse steps.
The image generated and also mirrored a font of collective anxieties. As John O’Brien, a reporter recalls, “This guy going around allegedly picking off these kids… The media have painted him as a fucking monster.” The lack of evidence in both the Schweiger and Hughes cases (for the latter, there was no body at all) was no match for the need to have answers. Stories about Rand have him leading a Jim-Jones-style cult, collecting children for ritual murders committed by someone else, and/or determined to rid the world of the impure individuals he used to see at Willowbrook. The filmmakers, not allowed inside the Hughes case courtroom, wait outside to interview witnesses or other storytellers: one Martha Hinton asserts, “He was a creep.” Asked why by Brancaccio, she continues, “Because he looked like he was her killer. I just said what I had to say and that’s it.”
Whether they’re interviewing so-called experts or casual observers — or even reading from Rand’s letters — Zeman and Brancaccio confront fear, disappointment, and hope, again and again. When they head out to the Willowbrook grounds to see how spooky it is, their method seems both sincere and cynical, drawing from horror movies and personal experiences, collective beliefs and personal investments. Their camera pitches through the darkness, they gasp and giggle at unseen noises, and at last run into a group of teenagers, out looking for thrills and reasons to feel scared. As they look at the teens, flashlights creating tight frames in the night, the filmmakers see themselves reflected. And you might see yourself as well, when one girl explains why she’s out here: “You hear stories,” she says. “You just want to find out, I guess.”