In many ways, the 2018 murders of suburban Colorado housewife Shanann Watts, her two small daughters Bella and Celeste, and her unborn son Nico seem too much like a standard true-crime trope to have become the national media sensation that they did — let alone the subject of Netflix’s gripping new documentary, American Murder: The Family Next Door.
After all, there’s very little mystery about who did the crime, why, or what happened. The case was solved in just a few days. And the murderer is exactly who any seasoned true-crime fanatic would expect: Shanann’s husband, Chris Watts.
But the elements that make the Watts case unique are also the elements that make the film mesmerizing, even if you’re already familiar with the case. And trust me: Between the mountain of video footage, the massive 2,000-page case file, and the huge amount of media coverage, it’s possible to be extremely familiar with the Watts case — especially if you’re a true-crime junkie like me. But despite knowing every beat that director Jenny Popplewell’s film was going to hit (and several more it sidestepped), I still found myself riveted by the retelling of a tale that’s by now sadly unsurprising.
That’s the hallmark of a good true-crime doc — and it’s all the more notable because Popplewell’s story hinges entirely around careful editing. American Murder consists solely of archival footage; there’s no narration, no new interviews, no solemn voiceovers. Instead, a family tragedy unfolds through glimpses of people, secrets, and dashed hopes, all caught on camera or captured via texts and DMs. And the full story behind this tragedy is a tale as old as time, updated with a chilling modern twist.
The Watts were the quintessential American family — until they weren’t
What American Murder makes clear from the start is how, in countless ways, the Watts family was the prototypical white, suburban, 21st-century American family. Chris, then 33, had met 35-year-old Shanann (pronounced “Sha-NAN”) through Facebook in 2010. The pair began dating and married in 2012, with Shanann quickly settling into what seemed to be her dream roles of wife and mother. Though the Watts family had financial struggles, they also had a five-bedroom house in a small Colorado town near Denver, and two playful daughters, 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste, a.k.a. Cece.
Shanann threw herself into balancing being a doting wife, attentive mother, and hard worker — she was a high earner for a multi-level marketing company selling Thrive diet products. And Shannan also had a large and active social group with whom she frequently checked in. Chris, who worked for a petroleum company, had recently gotten fit, just in time for baby No. 3. It all seemed nearly idyllic.
We know how much Shanann loved her life because she was constantly telling us so. Facebook, the thing that brought her and Chris together, was also the backdrop of Shanann’s daily life. She posted everything from daily videos of her kids to livestreams where she shared her thoughts on her husband and how grateful she was for his love and support. She had her camera always at the ready, and her Facebook and Instagram accounts essentially became her online diaries.
These “diaries” recorded events large and small, including some that now seem macabre. The most notorious of these moments is probably Shanann’s surprise announcement to Chris that they were having another baby, which she caught on video and shared to her social media. Later released by police, the video captures Chris with a stricken, near-panicked look followed by what seems to be a lot of forced enthusiasm.
In retrospect, this moment may have been the beginning of the end.
Chris and Shanann’s relationship had spiraled. Then she disappeared.
Chris began drastically distancing himself from Shanann not long after she told him about her pregnancy. A baffled Shanann told friends repeatedly that he’d never behaved like this before. Partly as a cooling-off period, Shanann took the girls to visit their grandparents in North Carolina over the summer of 2018. Throughout the five-week visit, she noted that Chris rarely called to check in, and wondered if his silence was due to her fighting with his parents. (In fact, Chris had been having an affair.)
Right after Shanann returned home from North Carolina that August, she took a long weekend trip with friends to a work conference. The morning after she came back, she had a doctor’s visit scheduled.
If you read through the court documents in this case, you’ll find witness after witness telling police what a great dad they thought Chris Watts was — how he was always making time for his wife and daughters. “My daddy is my hero,” Bella sings on camera at one point. (The documentary makes a point of noting that it’s not clear if Chris ever watched that particular video.) By contrast, Shanann — who was the primary caretaker of the kids, despite also battling Lupus and constantly hustling for her MLM job — was repeatedly described as bossy and controlling, even by good friends.
It’s in this moment, I think, that we see what a lie that narrative is. While Shanann got framed as demanding and frigid even by her own friends for things like controlling her kids’ diets, Chris received praise for doing the bare minimum it took to be perceived as a good father: taking his kids to the park, keeping their photos in his wallet, telling people that he loved them.
But the reality is that on August 13, 2018, the morning Shanann Watts disappeared, Chris Watts was such a “good” husband that he hadn’t even remembered his wife had a doctor’s appointment. Thus, he wasn’t expecting her friend Nickole Atkinson to show up at his house, alarmed when Shanann hadn’t gone to her appointment, and call the cops when she couldn’t locate her friend.
Police bodycam footage, later broadcast all over tabloid media and around the internet, captured a fidgety, nervous Chris awkwardly walking police through his empty house, then fumbling and stuttering when his neighbor showed them security footage. The neighbor’s camera caught Chris mysteriously loading something into his truck earlier that morning, then heading off to a job site. There, buried next to two deserted oil rigs, authorities would later find the strangled body of Shanann Watts. And there, authorities would find the smothered remains of Bella and Cece Watts, their bodies crudely jammed into a small hatch at the top of the rig.
Following Shanann’s disappearance, Chris Watts alternately played clueless for the media, dodged police questions, and briefly claimed Shanann had killed the kids herself. Ultimately, however, he confessed to all three deaths and was given five life sentences in what Weld County judge called “perhaps the most inhumane and vicious crime that I have handled out of the thousands of cases.”
American Murder is a scrupulously edited portrait of disintegration
You probably know the basic contours of the Watts family’s story: A man fatigued by his nagging wife and his responsibilities as a parent steps outside of the marriage, has an affair, struggles to support his family financially, and decides he’d had enough of his old life. It’s a path we’ve seen numerous family annihilators like Chris Watts take, from Scott Peterson to Josh Powell.
What makes the Watts case so simultaneously mesmerizing and heartbreaking is that Shanann, even as she’s in the middle of that story, doesn’t know that’s the story she’s in. How can she? Even as she’s panicking to her friends that Chris no longer loves her, she’s making plans on social media for their baby’s gender reveal party. She’s recording videos about how much she loves her husband and her family. Her marriage may be rocky, but in Shannan’s mind, her story is clearly still that of a loving family that is stronger together. The life she portrays on her social media accounts is clearly the one she believed in. What isn’t clear is how much of that story was ever real at all.
The irony of these competing narratives, combined with their ultimate horrifying conclusion, practically guaranteed that the Watts case made national headlines and tabloid covers for months. Unlike many cases where facts are in short supply, the Watts case produced a deluge of information — both before the murders, thanks to Shanann’s detailed video logs of their lives, and during the investigation, which produced hundreds of witness statements and countless media reports.
The Watts case was both a content gold mine and a chilling example of social media operating simultaneously as a journal, an evidence vault, and a memorial. It’s perhaps reductive to say that Shanann Watts’s online persona was a lie, or that her bubbly image masked the truth about her life — but in fact, despite her many videos, the clues to her fate weren’t nearly as obvious from her many social media posts as you might expect them to be.
Here is where American Murder has an advantage over what the average person might have learned from spending hours following an internet rabbit hole of media information and footage connected to the case. American Murder’s editor, Simon Barker, seamlessly takes all of that overwhelming content and two competing narratives of a marriage and constructs a wholly unique telling of the case. The documentary stands alone as a portrait of gradually escalating family dysfunction, and a woman unable to understand that her husband had, with the barest of pretexts, fully given rein to his own narcissism.
American Murder unfolds at a methodical pace, weaving gradually back and forth across the timeline, interspersing Chris’s erratic behavior after Shanann’s disappearance with clips and texts from before the murder. Shanann’s family also provided additional footage and information to the filmmakers that the public hasn’t seen, like footage from their wedding. It’s all set to a stirring score by composer Nainita Desai, and remarkably never drags, even through long sequences of footage that’s already been widely available — such as Chris’s excruciating police interviews.
Perhaps because American Murder plays out entirely through archival footage and transcribed texts, there are some juicy details of the case that the documentary doesn’t include — like, for example, the part where Chris’s mistress searched the internet to learn whether Scott Peterson’s mistress ever got a book deal. There’s a much more salacious, tabloid-ready narrative around this case that largely did play out through tabloid media, where gawkers hotly debated whether Shanann was “a bitch,” as one clip in the documentary argues, while playing up Chris’s bodily transformation from dud to stud.
The documentary’s strongest moments lie in its steady countering of this type of petty victim-blaming. It’s not often that we so clearly get to see and hear the voice of the victim after the fact, but throughout American Murder, the power of Shanann’s own voice is overwhelming. It’s loud, strong, and utterly blameless. On camera, we never hear Shanann raise her voice to her kids or her husband. Instead, we see and hear her say, over and over again, how much she loves and misses her husband, how sorry she is for angering him, how eager she is to win him back, and how much she loves her children.
American Murder centers itself around Shanann as fully as any true-crime documentary has ever centered itself on a victim. It’s impossible to come away from it feeling that Shanann was anything but a strong woman trying to navigate marriage with a husband who lied to her, cheated on her, guilt-tripped her, ignored her, and ultimately tried to blame her for her own murder. Once Shanann and the children are dead, Chris is immediately out of his depth and floundering, with no clue how to cover his tracks. If anything, you’re left with the impression that without Shanann’s “controlling” nature steering and guiding her family, Chris’s narcissistic personality traits probably would have surfaced even earlier.
Crucially, the documentary doesn’t concern itself with digging deeper into Chris Watts’s persona, with mythologizing him or probing for underlying motives in his behavior. Nor does it waste its time, for example, on showing you any of the legion of fan letters he received in prison, some of which were also included in the publicly released case file.
Instead, American Murder does the opposite, breaking with a number of recent true-crime documentaries that have been fascinated with their killers. Popplewell frames Chris as neither compelling nor intriguing in the slightest; instead, he is entirely mundane. The Watts case may have been one of the most well-publicized crimes of the last decade, but the documentary never loses sight of the fact that once you take away the social media elements, the hype, and the tabloid speculation, there’s nothing special about Chris Watts. This is a typical American family with all-too-typical emotional abuse, ending in all-too-typical domestic violence. The documentary’s subtitle, The Family Next Door, plays into the true-crime cliché that it could happen anywhere — even here!
But American Murder reminds us that this story isn’t isolated, nor is it random: The factors that drove Chris Watts to kill his family are as common as the American dream itself — and “here” is everywhere.
American Murder is now streaming on Netflix.
Help keep Vox free for all
Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .