The contents of this article may be a little disturbing as it deals with the dark side of humanity so please don’t read on if you think it will upset you.
While I am knitting, I often indulge in watching a bit of Netflix as it is quite easy to enjoy telly and craft at the same time, especially if the programme or the pattern is not especially taxing. Films, dramas, comedy – Netflix has the lot. But one of the things that I find the most gripping are their documentaries which can be the darkest of real tales.
American Murder – The Family Next Door is the most recent documentary that I have watched. You know how it is: you’re looking for something to pass the time and you’re in the mood for something new. The fairies at Netflix are recommending this for you as they know that you have a penchant for murder mysteries and you think, I’ll give it a go and if it’s rubbish, then it’s back to Murdoch Mysteries for me.
From the moment it started, I was gripped. I had originally planned to go thrift shopping but once I started watching it, I had to see how it ended and I LOVE shopping for bargains. You can tell how affected I was by it as I didn’t even make a cup of tea.
The title gives away what happens really. It is about murder in an American family, a family who appear to have it all. Shanann Watts and her husband, Christopher are happily married with two beautiful little girls, Bella and Celeste or Cece for short. Then Shanann disappears after returning from a work trip, her friend alerting the police the following day when she gets no reply from Shanann to her texts. There is also no sign of the girls but it looks like personal items that they would be attached to have gone too and so, all evidence points to Shanann having left with the girls. Christopher comes back from work and seems as surprised as everyone else that his wife cannot be found. She had left her phone too so it looks like she wanted to make a clean break, leaving this life behind.
The story of Shanann’s disappearance is interspersed with footage of the Watts’ life. Shanann has had a hard life – she was born without a lot of money but worked really hard to build herself the home that she always wanted. She truly was a self-made woman, a model American who believed that hard work and diligence would get you where you wanted to be. She also suffered with lupus, an autoimmune disease which causes your immune system to attack your own organs and tissues but she was determined to live a full life, continuing to work hard and be a good mother to her girls. She was very active on social media with posts on Facebook and Instagram, using these media to show how happy she was with Chris and her girls. In the documentary, she comes across as someone who knows what she wants, will fight to get it but like every “momma bear” type, would be fiercely loyal to her kids and have your back if you needed her.
Chris seems like the devoted husband – he fought hard to win Shanann over as she was wary of relationships, having been burned before and eventually, against her better judgement, she marries him and footage from their wedding video shows how happy her family were that they had found each other.
But in August 2018, Chris killed Shanann and Bella and Cece, burying Shanann in a shallow grave at a site where he had been working and his daughters, aged 4 and 5 were discovered in the oil tanks at the same site.
These events unfold during the programme and I have to say that this is expertly done. I think what works well is that all of the video used is actual footage from their lives, easy to access in this socially sharing society that we live in. We are given access to the police camera on the officer who first visits the house after being alerted; we see the Facebook videos of the Watts family baking with their kids in their family kitchen; we see texts that were exchanged between Shanann and her friends and Shanann and Chris; heartbreakingly, we see videos taken at the girls’ birthday parties and them rushing to hug their father at the airport when reunited after a trip.
What this footage does is give an immediacy to the story that a drama would polish and manicure – these videos and messages are a literal window into someone’s life. Netflix even has the messages being typed across the screen as if Shanann or Chris is writing them there and then, even keeping the typos.
So, when the policeman is asking questions of Shanann’s friend and Chris at the house on the first day that she has disappeared, we are privy to Chris’s initial reactions, to his feigned shock and worry. We are there at the very beginning of the investigation. At this stage, I didn’t know that he was the killer – I had read nothing about this in the media – so, like a detective, I was trying to glean from what I was seeing who I thought was guilty in the way that they were acting.
Gradually, the details of Shanann’s and Chris’s lives become evident through incidents that are revealed:
- Shanann is concerned about Chris’s lack of attention towards her – they are no longer intimate – and she is convinced that he is with someone else.
- She goes to visit her parents out of state for a prolonged period during the summer of 2018.
- She has fallen out with Chris’s parents and wants Chris to support her in this.
- She is pregnant again.
- Chris has lost interest in her and the girls and is working out a lot, sculpting his body with weights and giving this activity more attention than anything.
We are not told much about Chris until we start to see him being interviewed by the police through the actual tapes. He takes a lie detector test which shows that he is lying. He is plausible in his denial of what has happened to Shanann; he is calm and consistent, undeterred in his denial. He doesn’t act emotionally at all when interviewed and in this, you could argue there is a guilty man. It transpires that he has been leading a double life, having an affair with someone he met at work who he told that his marriage was over. We get to see pictures of him with this new woman, hiking, taking selfies and both in a state of undress with his newly toned physique.
But surely having a new woman is not a reason for killing your family?
The truth of this story would appear that Chris did indeed want a new life and that he wanted this life to be all encompassing, without the trappings of an ex and two daughters and a new son or daughter due in the coming months. Divorce would not rid him of the responsibility but their disappearance might. And then he could truly devote himself to what he has with Nichol, his girlfriend and all that that relationship has opened up to him, no longer the chubby family man – reliable, dependable Chris – who he had been up until then but the buff Chris with the sexy girl and a feeling of attractiveness and worth that he had never had before.
We all feel trapped by life sometimes and Shanann is a strong female, there is no doubt as proven by her rags to riches tale; she is determined with a strong sense of how she thinks Chris should act. And Chris seems to be controlled by the will of Shanann to an extent in their marriage. She certainly seems to be the more dominant partner from the footage. But is this really the truth? And if it is, can it EVER be considered a reason to kill someone? It might be a reason to find a voice, to stand up and show your feelings, to discuss and explain but to kill?
I can’t form in words the horror, disgust, fear that I feel at what Chris Watts did. It is trite to say that he killed them to escape them as the enormity of the crime is so much greater than the reason he committed it that my small brain struggles to even propose it as credible. I am sitting here shaking my head as I write this.
How can a man see the murder of his family as the only way out of a relationship? How could he have convinced himself enough that these people mattered so little to his happiness that he could eradicate them? How could he, without guilt, deny those girls the chance of becoming women? How could he have not wanted to experience that? How is this state of mind reached? Is it narcissism? Thinking yourself to be worthy of happiness over and above others whatever the cost? So many questions are thrown up. It is chilling and I can’t pretend to understand it.
American Murder – The Family Next Door is really quite harrowing. I think that there is the idea in the media now that extreme violence is probably the most frightening thing that we can be exposed to. I would argue that documentaries which deal with the utmost in family betrayal far surpass these in their intensity and their ability to unsettle.
Beware the Dark Netflix as it is indeed a scary place.