‘American Murder The Family Next Door’ is Haunting, But Not Just Because It’s True Crime

Published on October 1, 2020

American Murder The Family Next Door is the latest in a phenomenal list of Netflix true crime documentaries to hit the streaming service this year. This film, however, is quite different from its predecessors. Usually, these documentaries consist of new footage and testimonials mixed in with first-hand video and evidence. American Murder The Family Next Door, however, consists entirely of first-hand video footage. The footage is compiled from social media posts, body-cam footage, and police interviews. There are also some news clips and text messages interspersed throughout.

The Case

The documentary covers the tragic case of the Watts family. A pregnant woman, Shanann Watts, and her two daughters, Bella and Cece, disappeared on August 13, 2018. A friend of Shanann reported them missing after she failed to show up for a scheduled OBGYN appointment. She did not return any calls or texts. Authorities launched an investigation and discovered that the case was, in fact, a murder case. Authorities found, tried, and convicted the murderer. It is tragic, but unfortunately a pretty common case in the true crime world. Gruesome violence, mostly against women, is a hallmark of the genre, and this documentary is no different.

The Format

While the case is horrifyingly familiar, the format is quite different. It takes American Murder The Family Next Door to a whole new level. The documentary contains no professional footage. All of the videos that the creators used in the film are home videos from the victim’s social media pages, or from police body cams and recorded interviews from the investigation. It gives the viewer a first-hand view of exactly what was happening as the case progressed. Viewers get to see exactly what the Watts family’s lives were like before the events of August 13. The video style is an effective storytelling technique and provides the viewer with a deeply haunting authenticity.

Beyond Just One Case

The home videos, all taken from social media, really brings up a deeper question, beyond just the facts of this case. How could a totally normal non-celebrity family have this amount of footage of their lives to show when tragedy hits? Do we all have this much content just out there that could be used as evidence if the worst should happen?

All of these filmed moments from this family’s personal life allows people to tear apart not just the facts of the case, but every single aspect of the family’s lives, including the victims. Because so much of their lives were filmed and public, even before the documentary was made, people had access to very personal pieces of their family dynamics. Observers picked apart Shanann Watts’ social media videos and photographs, often victim-blaming her and questioning her parenting.

This use of social media footage made for a compelling documentary. It also brought forth some thought-provoking questions about social media, modern technology, and privacy. While American Murder The Family Next Door and the Watts family case will strike a familiar chord for true crime fans, it will also engage in a brand new way.

Olivia Smith is a Staff Writer at Grit Daily. Based in San Francisco, she covers events, entertainment, fashion, and technology. She also serves as a Voices contributor at PopSugar.

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