Interview with Cropsey Director Joshua Zeman: Creating a Horror-doc Crossover Hit

Every town’s got one.  The creepy house at the end of the block, the eerie clearing in the woods, the quiet old man with a dark secret—it’s the hair-raising story told by your friend’s older brother, the tall tale whispered on playgrounds, the chilling rumor spread between classes.

You’re not sure where you first heard it, but you remember imagining the gory details of the tale, and the thrill/dread when you and your friends, armed with flashlights, made a late-night trip to the spot where it all went down. Thinking of it now you crack a smile—just an old campfire tale …

Or was it?

Where did that story actually come from? Could there have been some truth behind it?

When filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio started asking questions about an urban legend from their childhood on Staten Island, the answers turned out to be more terrifying than the story itself. Cropsey, which documents their investigation, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009 and was one of Roger Ebert’s top ten documentaries of the year. And like a good legend, it’s taken on a life of its own—Ryan Murphy revealed last year that the doc was one of his main inspirations for American Horror Story: Asylum, the show’s very disturbing second season, and Zeman recently made a Cropsey-influenced documentary special, Killer Legends, for Chiller TV about the truth behind some of our most popular urban legends.

We got the chance to sit down with Zeman to discuss the still-very-much-alive legend of Cropsey, urban myths, and creating a horror-doc crossover hit.

Check out Cropsey on Viewster (only available to American and Canadian viewers) and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. What’s your town’s urban legend? Know if there’s any truth behind it? (Warning: after watching Cropsey you may not want to).


V: I think everyone who sees this film thinks back to their own hometown urban legend.  What are your first memories and experiences of the Cropsey story?

JZ: My first memory was going to camp, very close to these abandoned buildings, and our counselors telling us that’s where Cropsey lived.  The buildings were a sanitarium, where they brought patients who had tuberculosis—so there were all these empty rooms with rusted beds and old equipment, and files that showed all the people who died there.  That was the proof, in a way, that something had happened there.  Then our camp counselors, of course, would embellish the story and say that Cropsey was an escaped mental patient, or the guy who lived in the basement of these buildings, and he would come out to snatch you.  And they would even make it more real by dressing up, and literally getting an axe, and going around chasing all the kids.

Interestingly enough, they brought in a lot of other urban legend elements that they had heard—camp elements, because the Cropsey story originally came from a camp in upstate New York. And there are always urban legends about escaped mental patients.  So it was just a conflux of all of these different urban legends, these stories coming together in this one area. But of course, what we didn’t know, is that it would eventually become real.


V: When did you realize that you had to make Cropsey?

JZ: When I first met Barbara (Cropsey Co-Director) we had talked about memories from our childhoods on Staten Island, the story of Jennifer Schweiger disappearing.  We went on a hike back to the area, and it was amazing because literally everything was still there.  I didn’t think it would be, but there in the woods was the abandoned playground, and there were the trays.  And I realized that we could still tell the story, even though it happened so long ago, with these very physical elements.  We kicked around the idea, but it was when the district attorney of Staten Island decided to re-indict Andre Rand for the disappearance of a different little girl that we had the impetus of, why are we telling this story now?  We had the trial, which gave us the backbone of the story, and then we had all these … props, if you will, or these locations that allowed us to bring in the creepy stuff.


V: The film succeeds at being many things at once—a true crime investigation, a study of urban legends, a portrait of a community.  How did those different narratives play out over the filmmaking process?

JZ: It was always about examining the man, Andre Rand, who was supposedly the boogeyman of our childhood.  Originally it was going to be more of a legal documentary—more about the physicality of the crime and whether Rand was really guilty—but we knew we wanted to tell it with some sort of urban legend tinge.  We realized, however, it was much more interesting to tell the fiction—to hear all the stories the community told itself and all the urban legends it had made up—rather than only the facts. In a lot of ways the community didn’t care about the facts; they had created this urban legend, and that urban legend was going to play itself out.

One of Cropsey’s many suspected victims.

V: The film is, in some ways, about how a community is haunted, very literally, by these two horrible events—Willowbrook and the disappearances. How have they affected Staten Island over the years? Were people willing to talk about them?

JZ: Well, there were wounds that had not healed.  These people felt, in a lot of ways, that they were in their own horror film, and they really wanted to tell their story, their experience of what happened back then, so once they got talking it made it very easy for them to continue talking about what had happened.


V: A lot of people online say that the film is scarier than any horror movie they’ve seen, and some of the archival footage is especially horrific.  Were you familiar with Geraldo’s expose (Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace) before working on the film?  What did you think when you first encountered it?

JZ: I knew of the footage, and I knew it was horrific in a way that wasn’t like the horror films that I was seeing—this was social horror, this was horror that’s very real.  It just presented the idea that there are other horrors out there, that it’s not always the boogeyman.  That was something that I really wanted to push—that this footage is scarier than any horror film. Ryan Murphy actually used it for American Horror Story—it was that footage, along with some elements of Cropsey, that he saw and kind of fictionalized in the second season of the show.


V: Rand really became much more than just the perpetrator of these crimes, he became larger than life—a true boogeyman, a monster.  Can you talk a little about that transformation?

JZ: Everybody asks me, do you think he’s guilty? I think he did something.  I don’t think he did everything.  But at some point, he became the catchall boogeyman for a lot of crimes that had been happening on Staten Island. I think it was the collective guilt of the community—when people saw the Willowbrook footage they said, how did we allow this stuff to happen in our neighborhood? I think Rand became the scapegoat for all these horrific things—they put their guilt on him.

And part of what drove Rand crazy was being around those atrocities at Willowbrook … that’s where it gets very interesting.  The community has this collective guilt about what’s happening, he is emotionally effected by what’s happening, he’s already a little mentally unstable … and so I think that’s how you get this theoretical messiah complex, which may or may not be part of the reason for why he did what he did.


V: Has Rand seen the film?  If not, how do you think he’d react to it?

JZ: That’s probably the last chapter to this story. I’ve encouraged him to see it, but he doesn’t want to. We even spoke to the warden of the prison he’s in to try and get him to see it.  I wonder if seeing the film—and his story being presented in the way that it is—if he’d go into the same catatonic state as he did when he was questioned previously. I think the film is slightly sympathetic towards what happened, and so I really do wonder whether or not, by showing him the film, we might get some more information.

Andre Rand (Cropsey) is taken into custody.
Andre Rand is taken into custody.

V: Have you had any further contact with Rand since the film?

JZ: We’ve received letters from him.  He had heard about the film through other people and he was upset with the way he felt he had been portrayed.  He was upset with the way the trial went, and felt that we didn’t ask the right questions or cover the right issues … although he doesn’t quite know what we did cover.  I’m very interested to have him see the film and find out what he thinks.


V: There’s the sense that you only grazed the surface with regards to some of the occult or satanic culture on Staten Island. What’s going on there?

JZ: We definitely uncovered a lot of other information about bad things that were going on in Staten Island at the time that I wish we could have put in, but the film had to stay on Rand. I would love to, at some point, go back in and look at the other things that were happening, so maybe that’s going to happen in the future.


V: Would you ever consider re-visiting the story, like the Paradise Lost films?

JZ: I would definitely love to do that—for sure.


V: How did Cropsey influence your current film, Killer Legends?

JZ: Based on people’s reactions while we were going around and showing Cropsey we decided that it might be fun to make another film about the source of other urban legends.  Everybody would tell us about their hometown urban legends, and so many of them had similar elements.  So we went in and we looked at four other, very popular urban legends that have some form of truth behind them. That just came out a couple of months ago on Chiller, and will be online soon.


V: Is the Cropsey legend still alive for young kids on Staten Island today?

JZ: That’s the funniest thing—the Cropsey legend had been something that was very insular for just our generation, but I think the film has really sparked a whole new chapter in the history of this story. We tried to stick to the facts in a lot of ways, and we tried to look analytically at that place where the facts and fiction meet.  But since the film has been out there’s been so much other fiction, so many other embellishments, that have been added to the story—it’s interesting to see all the ways in which people, again, take those facts and add on their own story, just like those counselors had done to us.  Now a new generation of kids is doing that for the next generation.


Watch Cropsey on Viewster

(only available to American and Canadian viewers)


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