In this article:
- Netflix’s new series The Watcher just surpassed Dahmer for the number-one spot on the streaming platform’s most-watched list. Both of these series were created by Ryan Murphy, who’s clearly been having a pretty good year.
- While The Watcher is incredibly dramatic and unbelievable, the premise of the show is actually based on a real series of events that occurred in Westfield, New Jersey, starting in 2014.
- The real-life family did, in fact, receive some creepy and threatening letters to their new home (many of which are quoted word-for-word in the series). However, other aspects of the series were completely fictional. Let’s look at what’s real and what’s not from the Watcher.
Netflix’s new mystery thriller series The Watcher recently took the throne at the top of the streaming platform’s most-watched list. This series, which was created by Ryan Murphy, just stole that spot from Dahmer: Monster – The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, another series created by Ryan Murphy. It’s safe to say that the month of October 2022 has been pretty good for Ryan Murphy, who was also a producer on the musical comedy-drama Glee, interestingly enough.
It’s clear that Ryan Murphy (in addition to his ability to create heartwarming sing-along comedies like Glee) has a real propensity for horrifying crime dramas. The Watcher is suspenseful, relatable, and very well-written. However, there’s no question that the success of this show is due in part to its outlandish storyline. But, how much of that storyline is true?
First of all, it’s important to note that The Watcher was “inspired” by a true story. Yes, a family that had recently moved into a massive house in Westfield, New Jersey, received some strange and threatening letters that ignited a multi-year investigation. However, many of the details of the real-life story were either heavily embellished or changed completely for the sake of the Netflix series.
So, in this article, we’re going to take a look at which elements of The Watcher were true to the real-life story and which details were entirely fiction. Regardless, if you haven’t seen The Watcher yet, it’s absolutely worth a watch.
A Family From Westfield Got Strange and Threatening Letters
The premise of The Watcher is absolutely based in fact. Ryan Murphy based the series off an article published by New York Magazine titled “The Haunting of a Dream House” by Reeves Wiedeman. The Broaddus family (whose name was changed to Brannock for the sake of the series) actually did move from New York City into an idyllic home in Westfield, New Jersey, only to receive a series of strange and threatening letters not long after.
In fact, the address of the home in the Netflix series, 657 Boulevard, is the actual address of where these events occurred. On top of that, many of the excerpts from the letters in the show are word-for-word what was written in the real-life letters.
The first letter came addressed to “The New Owner” and started off by welcoming them to the neighborhood. Then, things got creepy:
“657 Boulevard has been the subject of my family for decades now and as it approaches its 110th birthday, I have been put in charge of watching and waiting for its second coming. My grandfather watched the house in the 1920s and my father watched in the 1960s. It is now my time. Do you know the history of the house? Do you know what lies within the walls of 657 Boulevard? Why are you here? I will find out.”
These are the words written in the letter that the Broaddus family received shortly after moving in and they are quoted word-for-word in the recent Netflix series. Another direct quote from the real-life letters that appears in the show is:
“Do you need to fill the house with the young blood I requested? Better for me. Was your old house too small for the growing family? Or was it greed to bring me your children? Once I know their names I will call to them and draw them to me.”
So, yes, the letters in real life were every bit as creepy as they were in Ryan Murphy’s cinematic take on the events. However, after that, the similarities between real life and the big screen start to break down.
Jasper and Pearl Were Based on Real People… Sort Of
Two of the main suspects in The Watcher are a pair of siblings who live on the same block as the Brannocks named Jasper and Pearl Winslow. These characters seem to have been loosely based on real people— siblings Michael and Abby Langford.
In real life, Michael (who was a diagnosed schizophrenic) and his sister Abby had been living in their house with their mother since the 1960s. Initially, the Broaddus family believed that Michael might have been behind the mysterious letters, but a police investigation didn’t produce any evidence that connected Michael to the crimes.
Throughout the series, Jasper’s character (who we can assume is based on Michael Langford) repeatedly appears inside the Brannocks’ house uninvited and, most notably, inside of a dumbwaiter in the middle of the night. However, in “The Haunting of a Dream House” article, there is no mention of a dumbwaiter inside 657 Boulevard and there’s no evidence to support the idea that Michael Langford ever entered the house.
On top of that, the series fabricated the existence of a clandestine network of neighbors called the Westfield Preservation Society. In reality, Abby Langford (who Pearl’s character is presumed to be based on) was a part of a planning board that expressed concerns over trees being cut down and the historic facade of 657 Boulevard being changed. However, I would expect that this planning board was far more boring and far less maleficent than the Preservation Society in the series.
There Were No Secret Tunnels
Similar to the dumbwaiter inside of the fictional version of 657 Boulevard, there were no secret tunnels hidden beneath the real-life house either. While it is true that certain homes in New Jersey have secret compartments that were built for rum-runners during the Prohibition Era, 657 Boulevard was never endowed with such tunnels.
It’s worth noting, though, that the real-life house was first constructed in 1905 (about 15 years before the start of the Prohibition Era), so it is entirely possible that this house was used for the black market hooch trade.
While the tunnels in The Watcher were a fabrication, they certainly made for some amazing jump-scares. Seeing a shadowy figure running down an underground hallway leading to a dingy, makeshift bedroom certainly gave me the creeps.
Theodora and Karen Were Both Made Up for the Watcher
Sadly, Theodora Birch, the hard-nosed, beautiful, and brilliant sleuth (as well as pretty much everyone’s favorite character) from the Netflix series, was not a real person. The New York Magazine article about the Broaddus family did mention that the family hired a private investigator; however, it makes no mention of them being unthinkably stylish or having a terminal cancer diagnosis.
Karen, the fuchsia-clad realtor who drops “the C-word” in the final episode of the series, is also completely fictional. But, if you’re going to make a successful Netflix series, you need some drama. And Karen is the word “drama” in human form. Presumably, there was an actual realtor who sold 657 Boulevard to the Broaddus family, but I’d say they probably weren’t as chaotic or fun-to-watch (in a “trainwreck” sense) as Karen’s character was.
The John Graff Murders Were Based on Reality
Oddly enough, the character of John Graff and the murder of his family are loosely based on true events. And the Netflix series portrays these crimes with surprising accuracy. John Graff is based on a man named John List, who actually murdered his family in 1971. Just like in the show, List lost his job and then bled his mother’s savings dry. One day, he unexpectedly killed his mother and wife inside his home and then killed two of his children when they got home from school. He later picked his son up from a soccer game and then killed him when they got home. There is even a rumor that he made a sandwich in between the killings, just like in the show.
John List, however, never lived at 657 Boulevard. He lived in a different house about two miles away. After the killings, List went on the run and was never captured until he appeared on an episode of America’s Most Wanted. He was eventually captured in 1989 and given five life sentences.
There is no evidence that List ever returned to Westfield (as John Graff does in the show). List was discovered in Virginia after having changed his identity and remarried.