The Burning (1981) – WTF Really Happened to This Horror Movie?

The new episode of WTF Really Happened to This Horror Movie looks at the true story behind the 1981 slasher The Burning

The episode of WTF Really Happened to This Horror Movie covering The Burning was Written and Narrated by Andrew Hatfield, Edited by Mike Conway, Produced by Lance Vlcek and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

Urban legends are mostly just that, the stuff of legends. They can inspire some people to do horrifying things and create urban legends of their own. Very often, these stories get the movie or show treatment whether they hue close to anything factual or not. One of the most famous examples of this urban legend which has a serial killer acting out some of the most famously told tales. Often movies that use the “inspired by” tag don’t have much to do with their source material like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being merely inspired by Ed Gein. What happens when a legend inspires a movie and then the real story comes out years later? Cropsey was a Staten Island folk tale that made the rounds scaring kids and a camping variation of it inspired a 5-page treatment that would become the cult classic 1981 film The Burning (get it HERE). While it was inspired by folklore, how much did it end up mirroring a real convicted criminal? Don’t look in any abandoned rafts as we find out what REALLY happened to The Burning.

At the turn of the 80s, Harvey Weinstein was looking to get his foot in the door in the movie business and he and his producing partner Michael Cohl were looking at horror as their key. Low budget horror like John Carpenter’s Halloween and Tobe Hopper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were wild successes and so Weinstein recounted the urban legend of The Cropsey Killer to Cohl who thought it would make a great movie. The 5-page treatment was turned into a script by Harvey’s brother Bob and Peter Lawerence, and it actually had an effect on two other movies. With it being called The Burning, it forced a title change for another movie with that title now being called Don’t Go in the House, one of my personal favorites on the video nasty list. If you know the plot of Don’t Go in the House, it actually makes more sense to be called The Burning. Madman had to change its story around completely and would be pushed from a 1981 release to 1982.

Weinstein would only be a writer for one other movie, Playing For Keeps in 1986, but of course would go on to have one of the most successful production companies of all time and unfortunately have his name tainted forever by controversy. The other writer in the film, Peter Lawrence, would have a much longer writing career, especially in the realm of TV. He would write a ton of episodes for kids cartoons like Thundercats, Peter Pan and the Pirates, and the 90s iteration of Jonny Quest. Director Tony Mylam was chosen based on some of his concert films and he would have a long career after, highlighted by the action sci-fi classic Split Second starring Rutger Hauer. The other behind the scenes talent of note are composer Rick Wakeman of the band Yes doing the score, editor Jack Shoulder, who would go on to a nice directing career on his own, and make up effects master Tom Savini who turned down Friday the 13th Part 2 to work on The Burning.

The Burning (1981) – WTF Really Happened to This Horror Movie?

In front of the camera is an odd collection of talent that includes TV and stage royalty as well as Oscar winners. You have Ned Eisenberg, Leah Eyers, and Larry Joshua who were all dependable character actors but also Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter in a blink and you’ll miss it part, and Jason Alexander. That’s an interesting group of people who didn’t do a lot of horror before or after. It’s the only horror for Stevens besides one episode of late 90s anthology The Hunger. Alexander did a few more with a couple very small roles in forgettable horror movies but also did an episode of the early 2000s Twilight Zone, that’s the Forest Whitaker hosted one, and was a minor role in all-time great Jacob’s Ladder. Hunter didn’t do much either though she did make Copycat which came out in the mid 90s glut of thrillers.

The movie opens with some of the kids of Camp Blackfoot plotting to play a trick on Cropsey who is the camp janitor and apparently a bit of a bully to some of the kids who has been getting away with transgressions for years. They place a disgusting skull with maggots near his bed and when he wakes up, its scares him so much that he knocks over flammable liquid that ignites him, his bed, and his whole cabin. Cropsey stumbles out of the cabin and is eventually taken to the hospital where after 5 years of failed skin graphs and treatment he is released to the streets where he kills his first victim, a prostitute who was willing to sleep with him, at least before she sees him without his hat and wrappings.

(Factometer 10%) Ok in my notes to the editor, I’m giving this a 10% on our factormeter scale and if I’m being honest, that may be the highpoint of discussing this movie with the urban legend and true story that it’s based on. First and foremost, they use the name Cropsey which is what the actual name of the urban legend that Weinstein based his draft off of. He was supposedly the Boogeyman of Staten Island that children were taught to fear. They were told if they were bad or went out at night, Cropsey would take them to his endless, abandoned tunnel system under an old sanitorium. He was an escaped mental patient who allegedly had a hook for a hand and the sanitarium he dwelled under was a former tuberculosis hospital. Some of the variations had him scarred from a fire, so points there too, and others were about a man who went crazy after his son dies. The origin seemed to start in the early 70s after some real-life kidnappings happened.

The movie moves us over to Camp Stonewater where we get a new set of kids and camp counselors doing camp stuff. During a camp baseball game, we see that Cropsey is at the camp and ready to take out some unsuspecting kids. We follow them through normal camp shenanigans discussing sex, goofing off, and enjoying the camp life. There are relationship dynamics, bullies, and counselors that don’t really know what’s going on. If you caught this chunk of the movie without context, it could be a version of Porky’s or a rip off of a John Hughes movie. A bunch of the kids go on an overnight trip in canoes and at night they tell the story of Cropsey. The whole thing is set up like Friday the 13th Part 2 or later Madman and the tale is exactly what we saw with some of his crimes mixed in for good measure. Of course they embellish some with him screaming out that he will have revenge and that he is still out here to feed. The obligatory jump scare then ends the evening.

(Factometer 0%) Well, there isn’t a lot left here based on anything real so we should probably jump into what turned out to be the REAL Cropsey. Frank Rostum Rushan was born on March 11th, 1944. He and his sister grew up mostly without a father as the man died when Frank was just 14 and according to his sister in the 2009 documentary Cropsey, neither were abused in any way by the father before he died or the mother. The mother was later institutionalized, and the siblings would often visit her. While there was no abuse there, that was certainly a hard and traumatic childhood. Frank kept many jobs including custodian, hey that’s kind of like the movie, orderly, and therapy aid for the Staten Island Therapy Center. While he never terrorized a camp, his criminal activity started when he was 25.

The Burning (1981) – WTF Really Happened to This Horror Movie?

A couple of the overnight crew go swimming but cancel before things get too hot and heavy and the boy leaves his girlfriend alone in the lake. This is where Cropsey takes his first camp victim and comes quite a while after his first when he left the hospital. The next morning the boyfriend is accused of something nefarious when his girlfriend and all of the canoes go missing. They decide to send a small party on a handmade raft back to the main camp to get help. This turns fatal when the group comes across one of the canoes only to be brutally murdered in the films most famous set piece. Cropsey uses his signature shears and cuts off fingers, slices foreheads, impales teens, and generally causes a pretty bad time. After that he doubles back and kills two other people who snuck off to have sex in the woods.

(Factometer 0%) Again, nothing to see here in terms of the truth. While the slayings are stylized, brutal, and horrible in the movie, in real life Frank was a special kind of monster. He was first arrested for trying to sexually assault a 9-year-old when a police officer found them both naked in his car. He pleaded guilty to the charge and served 16 months of his 4-year sentence. When he got out, he legally changed his name to Andre Rand but would continue his bad streak with admittedly more minor crimes like burglary. He would make many more questionable choices between 1972 and 1987 and would be in and out of both trouble and prison multiple times during that period.

The movie has bodies being found, including the raft massacre, and the head of the camp being notified to get the authorities. While that is happening, two of the remaining people, Todd and Alfred, are stuck being hunted by Cropsey. They are chased around an abandoned part of the camp before Cropsey takes Alfred inside an old mine shaft. He pins him to the wall before Todd comes in to save him. Armed with an Axe, he goes up against a flame thrower wielding Cropsey who looks for the perfect revenge as Todd is revealed to be one of the campers who pranked him on that fateful day. They are able to use a combination of the Axe, Flamethrower, and Shears to take him out and the burning body fades to a campfire where his legend is told all over again to a new set of campers.

(Factometer 5%) The last bit of the story where the tale is told to the next generation is a great nod to what the Cropsey Legend began as, a cautionary tale of a monster, but the rest was all made up. Rand was eventually confirmed to have killed two victims and suspected of more than 5 others. Sadly, many of these were younger children and he has spoken at length about his sexual assaults of all his victims. Police think that he may have been involved in a cult satanic sacrifice of young children which is why he targeted them. He is currently serving a sentence of 25 years to life but could be paroled at the age of 93.

The movie is a classic for a reason. Once it gets going, it has all the classic slasher elements we have come to know and love. For an in-depth review of the movie itself, check out the boys at Movie Dumpster on YouTube. If you want to see a chilling and interesting documentary on both the man and the urban legend, check out Cropsey from 2009. The movie isnt anything like the real story but does a great job setting up a camp based urban legend, perfect for what it was initially based off of.

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Really Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To check out the other shows we have on the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel, head over to the channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.