‘American Murder’ Is A True Crime Documentary So Terrifying That It Almost Feels Fake

The tale of Chris Watts murdering his wife and young daughters is so chilling, it feels like a horror movie.

American Murder: The Family Next Door

There’s no denying that Netflix are great at pumping out some good true crime documentaries.

Over the last year alone, we’ve seen the baffling adventures of one of Canada’s worst murderers, Luka Magnotta in Don’t Fuck With Cats, then we watched the harrowing journey of Cyntoia Brown in Murder to MercyNetflix even released the Unsolved Mysteries docu-series a few months ago, which gave us six bite-size true crime stories to sink our teeth into.

However, none of these true crime thrillers match the horrific nature of the latest true crime doco, American Murder: The Family Next Door — a true story that is so chilling it almost feels more like a horror movie than a documentary.

CW: Discussion of murder, child abuse and violence. Also… spoilers.

The Story Of Chris Watts

American Murder tells the story of Chris Watts, and the horrific 2018 murder of his pregnant wife Shannan Watts, and his two young daughters Bella (four) and Celeste (three).

The documentary details how after shedding weight, gaining confidence and striking up an affair with a co-worker, Chris Watts told his pregnant wife that he didn’t love her anymore before strangling her to death.

Watts then proceeded to load his dead wife into his truck, along with his two then-alive daughters as the family drove the remote oil field he worked at. Here, Chris Watts buried Shannan in a shallow grave and smothered his two children before dropping them into an oil tanker.

Worried that her friend wasn’t responding to texts and had missed a few appointments that day, Nickole Atkinson called the local police and reported Shannan, Bella and Celeste missing. After Chris was alerted, he left work and was greeted by police, Nickole and a concerned neighbour once he arrived home — which started the father’s eventual downfall.

While an undeniably sad story, American Murder is primary composed of raw bodycam vision, news reports on the event and interrogation footage — including the failed polygraph test and Chris’ eventual confession — to show just how chilling the whole saga was in real-time.

Unlike most true crime documentaries that are told with voiceovers and interviews, American Murder uses footage from Shannan’s own Facebook page and private text messages between friends to support the story — making it all that little bit more unsettling.

Demonstrating just how unsuspecting Shannan and the girls were, personal videos show how much Celeste and Bella loved their father and how excited Shannan was for the birth of her first son. But through these text messages to friends, it was clear that Shannan suspected Chris was cheating on her, but never thought that it would lead to her murder.

While footage of Chris Watts interrogation and the body cam footage have been available online since 2018, the documentary is the first time that these deeper glimpses into Shannan and Chris’ life have been seen. Finally being able to understand and hear exactly how Shannan felt before she was brutally murdered is what makes American Murder so eerie — to the point where the whole thing almost feels like a work of fiction.

American Murder is presented in its rawest form with no narration or post-crime analysis, leaving the viewer feeling like they just watched a movie plot instead of a true crime documentary.

So, Why Is Everyone So Haunted By American Murder?

At the time of writing, American Murder: The Family Next Door still sits firmly in the Top 10 titles on Netflix — and for good reason.

Stories of murder are never a good thing, but when innocent children and pregnant women are involved it gets even worse. Yet we have a strange fascination with real stories of sad events — regardless of whether this obsession is ethical or not.

So, while followers of the Watts family murder case are already familiar with all the public footage available, American Murder’s deeper look into Shannan’s point of view in the lead up to the murder makes the whole thing even more enthralling. Then for those who have never heard of the murders, seeing all the events laid out in a way that almost feels like a horror movie makes it hard to look away.

But regardless of who you are, reading text messages between Shannan and her friends, and seeing video that was once only available to her friends and family immediately thrusts you into the world of the Watts family. You instantly feel strangely connected to Shannan, and sympathise with her as wife just trying to rekindle the romance with her husband.

Then at the same time, we watch Chris Watts lie through his teeth to try and get out of a crime we already know he’s guilty for and it’s expectedly infuriating. Between begging for the safe return of his children in the press to falsifying the story that Shannan killed the children as a way to protect himself, every decision that Chris makes prior to and after the brutal murders are sickening, yet you can’t help but feel somewhat attached to all the events unfolding.

Really, American Murder is a more personal that most true crime documentaries. Instead of being a dry re-telling of how someone committed a crime, American Murder is a sad insight into the realities of domestic abuse.

Chris Watts could have easily divorced his wife if he was unhappy in his marriage. Instead he decided to slaughter his entire family to start fresh. But Shannan Watts was a good woman with even better friends, who knew that something was wrong almost immediately — and without the quick thinking of Nickole Atkinson and the Watts’ neighbour, Chris might have gotten away with the atrocious acts he committed.

As sad as it is, American Murder: The Family Next Door is a chilling reminder that the brutal murders that seemingly only happen in horror movies and in fiction novels can easily occur in real life too.

American Murder: Family Next Door is currently streaming on Netflix.