“American Murder” Explores Crime in the Age of Social Media


Chris Watts confessed to the murder of his wife and two daughters in 2018. (Courtesy of Facebook)

Horror films can be deeply unsettling. Yet, in a twisted way, they can bring a sense of unexplainable entertainment, like a car crash that you can’t draw your eyes away from. In the rubble of reality shows and comedies, horror movies provoke a deeper reaction. Netflix’s newest addition, “American Murder,” illicits this unsettling feeling.

The story of a family next door’s eerie demise branches away from the fictional horror movies I know and love. The events leading up to the husband’s brutal killings in 2018 are carefully stitched together to capture every last haunting detail in this thrilling documentary.

The film, which was released at the end of last month, captures the story of the Watts family: pregnant wife Shan’ann, husband Chris and daughters Celeste and Bella. The film begins with a phone call from a concerned friend. Worried when she can not reach Shan’ann. Having seen Shan’ann the night before and the now-empty household leaves the friend frantic. It was unlike the Watts family to be entirely silent on a weekday afternoon. Chris rushes home from work to discover the magical disappearance of his family. 

As a viewer, we are brought to the scene when the police arrive through the small cameras attached to their uniforms. We witness Chris’s attempt to react to the news with a concern that he manifests so easily. All of Shan’ann’s belongings, including a lonely wedding ring, sit on the bedside table. Having just returned the night before, Shan’ann would not have had time to pack her life away and move out after Chris left for work. Chris knows just as well that the timelines are not matching up. 

To provide background on the Watts family, we are presented with limitless media content ranging from posts on social media to text messages between everyone involved in the case. Shan’ann’s facebook posts capture nearly an entire documentary of her life, from vacation footage with the kids to daily vlogs around the household. Through short videos, we watch Shan’ann narrate her quiet suburban life, while at times revealing flaws such as her challenges with relationships, her battle with Lupus and the struggles of raising two toddlers while pregnant. While these struggles are consistent with any ordinary narrative, they fail to reveal the darker secrets of a crumbling marriage and Chris’s second life. 

Supplementing the narrative with media content caters strongly to younger audiences, but begins to feel incredibly invasive when we are presented with Shan’ann’s text messages. The main use of these messages is to uncover the disintegration of Chris and Shan’ann’s marriage and the rising suspicions she develops while leaving Chris at home during her travels. Texts between Shan’ann and her friends expose the realities of an empty sex life, dulled down conversations and a lack of honesty between the two. Texts between Shan’ann and Chris only validate the tensions and frustrations rising in the household. 

We know that social media masks flaws, typically overshadowing the realities of our not-so-perfect lives. In the Watts family’s case, the scandals that existed behind the smiling family photos could not have been more hidden. We quickly learn that Chris began an affair only months before the disappearance of his family. His hidden life was unbeknownst to family and friends, but quickly became Chris’s main focus. As Shan’ann demanded more from her husband, Chris began pulling further away. The prospect of starting a new life, one free from the constraints of marriage and his kids, began to outweigh any desire of being a better husband. 

The next sequence of events escalates quickly, beginning with Chris’s confession of his affair. The cold truth validated Shan’ann’s suspicions and she was quick to demand Chris leave the household. A fight breaks out between the two. Through the footage documented in the interrogation rooms, we see Chris begin to change his original story when he recalls this argument. After failing multiple lie detection tests, the investigators work tirelessly to force out the truth. With time, Chris breaks.

It is an emotional journey to watch Chris play the role of doting husband and father over social media and later learn the villainous details of how his family disappeared. In a matter of moments, the humanity we saw in Chris fades away, and we are fearful of the evil man that sits before the jury.  

I was hesitant to watch the movie when I first came across it on Netflix. What’s even more haunting than the murder itself is the franchise that surrounds stories like this one. I found the most troubling aspect was the need to cater to this documentary towards younger audiences by using Shan’ann’s private messages and posts that appear in a tech-savvy, Gen Z style. It feels like I have intruded on a horrific story that was never meant to be told. The brutality of the murder is depicted as an afterthought to the story of Chris and Shan’ann’s shattering relationship. Only at the end, when we learn of Chris’s callous way of killing his wife and daughters, do we recognize how horrifying this narrative is, and we may regret engaging with it at all.