The Legend of Cropsy
So, just who – or what – is Cropsy? Obviously, we know that the fictional Cropsy in THE BURNING is a camp caretaker, horribly disfigured by a prank-gone-wrong. However, as I have already mentioned, the spark for the film was tales told around the campfire that captivated a young Harvey Weinstein. It also was the original basis for the slasher MADMAN.
The Cropsy of THE BURNING – who is essence becomes a boogey-everyman – was one created purely for the film. Tony Maylam mentions this on the film’s commentary. However, was there ever a real Cropsy?
As with all good urban legends, the origins of the Cropsy legend are shrouded in mystery. It is tempting to believe that this particular urban legend has its basis in truth, but, surprisingly, there seems to be relatively little written about it (there’s not even an entry on Wikipedia). This despite the fact that it has been a popular camp fire tale in New York State since at least the 1930s.
One particularly arresting take recalls campers getting spooked by howls from the dark woods that surround a campfire, which dates back to 1935. Even with this version the Cropsey Maniac appears to already be part of an established urban legend. It includes the immortal line, “This would be simply a nostalgic recollection of a campfire evening of the ‘30’s if it wasn’t for what happened fifty years later - the night the lesbians stayed late.”
There is one unifying theme in all the variations of the Cropsy Maniac legend – and that is revenge (therefore perfect fodder for a slasher movie). As with many urban legends, the process of ‘Chinese Whispers’ and endless retellings over many decades has led to regional variations. In some he has a perchant for boy scouts (especially cutting off their heads); in another he chops off his girlfriend’s head, who campers find but only realise she is dead when they remove her scarf and her head falls off! Both tales have the aura of childlike, ghoulish glee about them – which is telling.
In many he was the victim of fire (although this may have more to do with the THE BURNING being assimilated into the tale). In one tale, Cropsey (note the variation of the spelling, it is also sometimes spelt Kropsy) was a respected member of society whose son died because of the actions of a couple campers; on each anniversay of his death he reurns, axe in hand, to claim the life of one unlucky camper. This, of course, is the basic plot of FRIDAY THE 13TH, as well.
Libby Tucker, writing about the legend in the Fall-Winter issues of Voices (The New York Folklore magazine), ends by describing what camp counselors will tell their charges: “Cropsey is still out in these woods. Tonight is the anniversary of his son’s death, and he may pay a visit to your bunk at midnight. Good luck!”
In the same article she ponders as to whether Cropsey is real or imagined (he is sometimes alive and sometimes a ghost). Of course, the great likelihood is that it is a tale designed – inadvertently or otherwise – to keep kids in check when at camp. I mean, who's going to go creeping off into the woods, or otherwise misbehave, if Cropsy is waiting to chop them into itty-bitty pieces with his axe?
Obviously, the key to the success of any urban legend is that it ‘really happened’. One camper in the 1970s at Camp Orensika Sonikwa says that she remembers a newspaper clipping about Cropsey pinned to the wall. Her recollection is almost impossible to verify, but the illusion of truth is enough to lend the tale the air of legitimacy it needs to thrive. The merest hint that it might have really happened is enough to send minds racing and everyone imagining something none-too-pleasant lurking in the bushes ready to pounce.
The name Cropsy – or more specifically Cropsey – has been on lips recently because of the new documentary of that name that is, at time of writing, in limited theatrical release. Filmmakers, Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, grew up on Staten Island and remembered the stories of the Cropsey Maniac – an escaped mental patient who lived in the ruins of the abandoned Willowbrook Mental Institution. In keeping with the shifting sands of the urban legend, they said he sometimes carried an axe and sometimes had a hook for a hand (yet another separate urban legend) and hunted the local children.
However, something very strange happened. Children really did vanish, and a man was eventually arrested for the disappearance and murder of four local kids. Zeman and Brancaccio's documentary appears to link the real crime spree with their local legend. I haven't seen the film (as it's not out in the UK yet), but, of course, coincidences aside, this is not the 'real' Cropsy. As I have already mentioned, the Cropsy legend dates back to at least the 1930s. Actual events, however, have at the same time made legend flesh to some degree. Given the nature of urban legends it is likely that, in time, this aspect is likely to become 'truth' and will further fuel the Cropsy Maniac legend for decades to come.
Whatever the truth may be, one thing is for certain: Cropsy Lives!