Dir. Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio
(2010, Not Rated, 84 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Cropsey is a fascinating true-crime documentary strongly reminiscent of the Paradise Lost films, and it’s fascinating in many of the same ways. It opens with the story of “Cropsey,” the name Staten Island children gave to an urban legend about a man who took local children into the woods and butchered them. In some versions he had a hook for a hand and in others he wielded an axe. It’s the kind of story children tell each other around the campfire, until you could swear that was a hook you heard scraping against a nearby tree — Cropsey’s coming to get you!

What’s interesting is when the urban legend works its way up to adults, who are not kids around a campfire but police, parents, witnesses, attorneys, reporters. When they start to fear the boogeyman, god help you if they start to believe it’s you.

Missing Persons

The same thing happened in West Memphis, Arkansas, when three young boys were murdered in the Robin Hood Hills. A local teenager liked to wear black and listened to rock music, so he and two of his friends, one of whom suffered significant mental impairment, were branded Satanists and convicted. The physical evidence all but exonerates them, but they remain in jail, though a new hearing was ordered this month by the Arkansas Supreme Court to consider DNA evidence.

The scapegoat in Cropsey is not as clearly innocent as the West Memphis 3. His name is Andre Rand, and he may in fact have committed the crimes of which he has been convicted, though evidence probably had little to do with the juries’ decisions. But the crux of the film isn’t the question of Rand’s guilt or innocence, per se. It’s the reaction of the community around him. The crimes in West Memphis took place in an isolated rural community, a far cry from urban New York City life, but human nature runs the same course.

Before Rand became a drifter, he was an orderly for the Willowbrook State School, a mental institution that was condemned after an exposé by Geraldo Rivera revealed the deplorable conditions there. When a young girl with Down Syndrome disappeared and was later found in the area buried in a shallow grave, evidence pointed to him — but not physical evidence, only circumstantial evidence and questionable eyewitness testimony. He very well might have murdered her, and other children, whose disappearances were all quickly placed at his feet, but there’s no incontrovertible proof, and where there is an unshakable mystery, especially when it involves the exploitation of children, people tend to fill in the blanks.

Directors Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio interview the investigators, neighbors, and witnesses, and the interviews become more and more bizarre and less and less plausible. The narrative about Rand evolves from a mentally disturbed drifter to the ring leader of a group of deranged Satanists who kidnap children for use in their black masses and sacrifice them at the altar of devil worship. The interview subjects are utterly certain of their beliefs, including a retired detective who volunteers the most outlandish speculations, rattling off details about cult ceremonies with tremendous detail and not the slightest bit of supporting evidence.

Andre Rand

Human communities — or perhaps specifically American communities — seem to behave like overactive immune systems. Upon the deaths of children, the most vulnerable and beloved among us, we identify the person or persons most unlike us and attack them like foreign pathogens. In West Memphis, they went after the goth kid. In Staten Island, they pointed the finger at the homeless drifter. Stories of devil worship spring up, and the stories themselves are horrifying, but they’re also comforting; they allow the community to join together in a common purpose, while also insulating them from the more horrible possibility that the perpetrator looks and sounds like them, or even lives among them. There’s safety in the belief that the threat comes from outside, not inside, from Them and not from Us.

Zeman and Brancaccio interview an old acquaintance of Rand, who I think points to a fundamental truth about the nature of group-think. He looks at a picture of Rand and explains that you could make up any story you want and others would look closely at the picture and say, yes, you can tell just by looking at him. The evil is right there in his eyes — of course he murdered those kids. Or, you could look at the same picture and say, yes, you can tell he’s a good man — of course he saved those people from the burning building. Human suggestion is so powerful that we can convince ourselves of things without even meaning to.

Rand was tried and convicted twice. The first time was in the 1980s, without direct physical evidence, and the second time was just a few years ago, with even fainter proof. I think the second jury might have reasoned that it’s better to keep the weirdo in jail than to take the chance that maybe, just maybe, he really is the boogeyman. And then they’d feel safe.