The Dark Saga of Christopher Watts: A Suburban Dad Who Murdered His Pregnant Wife and Children
The new Netflix documentary “American Murder: The Family Next Door” examines the Watts family murders, wherein Colorado’s Christopher Watts massacred his entire family.
Every day, millions upon millions of people post photos and videos of themselves, families, and friends to Facebook, sharing their routines, funny moments, triumphs, grievances, and frustrations in a now-familiar act of online disclosure and communion. Far from random, these status updates are deliberately curated by users, who disseminate clips and snapshots as a way of presenting a certain version of themselves to the world—which means that, while it may often be authentic, an individual’s social media presence ultimately tells us less about who they are than about who they want to be, and how they want to be seen.
Such was the case with Shanann and Christopher Watts, who along with their two young daughters Bella and CeCe lived a rather nondescript life in Frederick, Colorado, the details of which Shanann frequently broadcast via Facebook videos. Those brief uploads form the backbone of American Murder: The Family Next Door, Jenny Popplewell’s Netflix documentary (now streaming) about the tragedy that befell the clan on Aug. 13, 2018, when Shanann (15 weeks pregnant) returned home from a business trip and was promptly never seen again. Neither were her two daughters, which compelled Chris to work with police to find his missing loved ones. With no signs of forced entry or a struggle in the house, nor any overt indication that she’d run off—though her wedding ring was left behind on the bedroom nightstand—initial leads were scant. And the fact that a neighbor’s outdoor video camera showed no one coming or going from the Watts home save for Chris (when he left for work early the next morning) only further complicated the question of what had taken place.
Director Popplewell’s film hinges on this central mystery, but its real hook is the means by which it tells its story—namely, through pre-existing material shot by Shannon and shared on Facebook, body-cam footage of investigating police officers, surveillance and interrogation-room feeds, and Shanann and Chris’ home movies, family photos, and text messages with each other and close friends. It’s a whodunit filtered through our new non-stop digitized reality. The self-portrait painted by Shanann on social media is a common mixture of the cheerily upbeat and the confessional, vacillating between amusing scenes of her kids playing with their dog and Chris (in one, he’s seen doing push-ups with them on his back) and to-the-camera monologues about how she met Chris, he accepted her after her first divorce, and her struggles with Lupus. As so many others do, Shanann used her social media platform as a vehicle for self-definition.
Given that she disappeared without a trace—and that the title of this film is American Murder—it’s clear that Shanann wasn’t publicizing her full domestic picture. Director Popplewell kicks things off with Shanann’s social media activity but recounts her tale in largely chronological fashion, picking up with Chris as he returns home to greet Shanann’s worried friend Nickole Atkinson and the police officer Nickole called to check on Shanann. Bolstered by footage from that cop’s body camera, we witness the first search of the Watts residence, as well as a subsequent visit to the home of a neighbor whose outdoor camera picked up Chris leaving for work that morning. Once Chris is out of the house, that man confides to the officer about Chris, “He’s not acting right at all.”
Despite earnest pleas to TV news cameras that he doesn’t know what’s happened to his wife and daughters and desperately wants them back, suspicion quickly falls on Chris. A once-hefty man who’s transformed his body through obsessive exercise, Chris comes across in Shanann’s posts as a fun-loving dad and husband, as when he reacts with shock and joy to the unexpected news that they’re going to have a son. While he admits that he and Shanann had a heated conversation upon her return home, he states that it wasn’t a particularly noteworthy quarrel, and he denies that he was having an affair (or had gotten in shape to attract the attention of other women). In terms of outward appearances, he seems like a stand-up guy concerned about this puzzling state of affairs.
Just as social media posts deceive, however, so too do digital correspondences expose the truth, and it’s not long before Chris’ back-and-forths with Shanann—and, more crucially, her exchanges with friends—reveal a marriage teetering on the brink as a result of his lack of sexual desire for her, his apparent disinterest in his kids, and tensions between Shanann and Chris’ parents. All of this suggests that things were coming to a head, which leads detectives to question Chris in a pointed manner, and then to subject him to a polygraph test to ascertain the reliability of his story. From that point, everything unravels.
American Murder lays out its saga clearly and poignantly. And in its utilization of Shanann’s social media conduct—and, also, the fact that other online users played amateur sleuth by poring over that content, much to Shanann’s family’s chagrin—it taps into 21st century life as a constant act of exposure and projection. That gives it an eeriness that’s hard to shake, since so much of what it depicts seems typical of the stuff that zooms across our timelines each morning and night, providing us with alternately engaging and tedious windows into the experiences of those we know.
Unfortunately, though, the Watts’ sad story doesn’t have much actual suspense to it, since there’s only one obvious explanation for Shanann and the kids’ whereabouts, and it has everything to do with Chris, who eventually confessed to the murders (and having a mistress). For all of its flip-flopping between the immediate police inquiry and Chris and Shanann’s prior interactions, American Murder never suggests deeper, thornier bombshells to come because, quite frankly, there aren’t any. Its treasure trove of found footage provides a particularly voyeuristic jolt of you-are-there immediacy, which undoubtedly is what drew armchair snoops to fixate on the case. But in the end, the conclusions to be drawn from this horrible tale—that social media can’t be trusted as an authentic expression of reality; that when wives and children go missing, the husband is usually to blame—are short of surprising.