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Voices Fall-Winter 2006:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Good Spirits column, “Cropsey at Camp” by Libby Tucker here.
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Voices FW2006


Volume 32

Cropsey at Camp by Libby Tucker

Almost thirty years ago, Lee Haring and Mark Breslerman wrote an article called “The Cropsey Maniac” for New York Folklore (1977). Their subject was the development and meaning of a legendary character who had terrified campers at a number of different sleepaway camps in New York State. According to the Cropsey legend’s usual plot line, Cropsey was a respected community member who lived near the camp with his son. When a couple of campers accidentally caused his son’s tragic death, Cropsey went mad and swore that he would get revenge. Running off to hide in a shack in the woods, he waited until the anniversary of his son’s death. Then he randomly chose a camper to attack with an axe. The unfortunate camper died instantly. If I were a counselor telling this story to a group of campers huddled around a campfire, I would end the story with its usual clincher: “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!”

Does the Cropsey maniac still terrorize New York campers? Anyone who has access to the Internet will quickly learn that the answer to that question is “yes.” A number of camp web sites include fond—or not so fond— reminiscences about nights spent waiting for Cropsey to arrive with his axe. Other questions, however, are not so easy to answer. Is Cropsey a living maniac, or is he a ghost? And does he still represent the same kind of threat that he represented thirty years ago? I will offer a few examples of Cropsey variants, and let you draw your own conclusions.

My first example comes from Maureen Berliner, who posted her recollections of Cropsey stories on the popular web site KidsCamps.com (www.kidscamps.com) in 1997. Her earliest memories of Cropsey scares date back to the mid-1970s. Berliner remembers that the first camp she attended, Camp Orensika Sonikwa, had a framed article hanging on the wall: a copy of the original newspaper piece about Cropsey. This piece of proof seems to confirm that Cropsey is a real person, but Berliner questions his identity. She asks, “Is Cropsey his real name? I don’t know, but that is the basic true story.” Her commentary ends with the typical warning for Cropsey story audiences: “Don’t kid yourself, this stuff is real, so don’t screw around, or he will get you.” On the Internet, as well as at camp, this warning generally comes at the conclusion of Cropsey’s story.

Another example comes from an oral narrative collected two months ago from Sam, a nineteen-year-old male alumnus of Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, New York. Sam explains that when counselors at Surprise Lake Camp take campers out for a hike on the Cornish Trail, they tell their charges about a tragedy that took place on the Cornish estate long ago. One day a man who lived there went crazy and killed his entire family—a wife and several children—with an axe. Since he tried three times to kill his wife, there are three notches on a certain rock by the side of the trail. If campers pee on the rock, they can neutralize the peril of coming close to it, but that doesn’t mean they can avoid all danger. The morning after a hike on the Cornish Trail, campers who find red leaves under their pillows learn that they will die soon.

Sam’s narrative suggests that the maniac may have supernatural dimensions: anyone who can be temporarily deterred by campers peeing on a rock does not fit the profile of human horror figures. Even more clearly, a recently collected narrative from Ashley, an eighteen-year-old alumna of an unnamed camp in New York State, indicates that Cropsey is a ghost: not the ghost of a man, as we might expect, but the spirit of a little boy who died after swinging from a bunk’s rafters and was buried under the floorboards. The bunk was closed for a few years, then reopened. One day after activity period, a girl in Cropsey’s bunk found a red X on her pillow. She died, of course. Now, if you say Cropsey’s name three times, a red X will appear on your own pillow—then Cropsey will kill you.

Ashley’s Cropsey story shows the influence of other oral legends and the mass media. According to the widespread Bloody Mary legend and ritual, calling Bloody Mary’s name a number of times in front of a mirror will make her appear and launch an attack. In the popular movie Candyman (1992), repeating Candyman’s name five times leads to a brutal assault by an angry ghost intent upon getting revenge for his early, unjust death. Why, we might ask, would anyone want to summon such a ghost? In the movie, the two central female characters can’t resist flirting with danger. They want to test the boundaries of supernatural peril and succeed in doing so. After a long series of hair-raising, bloody attacks, both women die horribly.

In “The Cropsey Maniac,” Haring and Breslerman suggest that Cropsey legends promote campers’ solidarity and support counselors’ warnings to stay on the camp grounds instead of wandering off into the woods. These assertions work well as explanations for the earlier and more recent Cropsey legends. There is, however, another key ingredient: insistence that the listener may be targeted for death within a certain period of time, just because he or she has lived in Cropsey’s domain. The growing number of stories that identify Cropsey as a ghost seem to suggest that he is ever-present and inescapable. Adolescents test their bravery by talking about him; even adult camp alumni shiver slightly when mentioning his name. Does Cropsey’s ghostliness reflect increasing concern about shadowy perils in our culture of fear, or is it just another aspect of the old “axe-man” story? No matter how you answer that question, I suggest that you think carefully before deciding to spend a night in Cropsey’s bunkhouse.
Good Spirits


Photo of Libby TuckerLibby Tucker teaches folklore at Binghamton University. She is the author of Campus Legends: A Handbook (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005). Her next book, Haunted Halls, will investigate college ghost stories.

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.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 32, Fall-Winter 2006. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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