Written by: Emma Lin, Naia Williams, and Elyn Porter
Picture this: it’s 2018 and you’re driving through a quiet Colorado neighborhood, it’s American suburbia personified. Kids are playing touch football in the streets, families are taking their dogs on their daily walks, lawns are being mowed, and neighbors wave at one another in passing. Every house going down Saratoga Trail looks the same until… You come across a house wrapped in yellow police tape, and news trucks swallowing the street. The Netflix Original documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door follows the case of the Watts family and the tragic murders of the mother, Shannan, and her three children: the two daughters, Bella and Celeste (Cece), and her unborn son, Niko. All of their lives ended at the hands of the husband and father, Chris Watts. This 83 minute documentary utilizes images and videos from Shannan’s Facebook account, focusing attention on the victims rather than glorifying their killer. The documentary also gives the viewer an inside look at the family through unedited and unfiltered text messages taken from Shanann’s phone, which supplies a different picture than what is portrayed through her popular Facebook page. In this short post, we’ll be analyzing how the use of personal images, footage, and the recreation of text messages being sent impacted the viewer’s perspective and overall watching experience.
With almost 3,000 friends, family, and followers, we could tell that Shanann Watts was an avid Facebook user. Her life was presented in perfect little snippets that were uploaded to her account. Pictures of the girls, personal vlogs about her battle with Lupus, and multiple loving posts she made about her husband, Chris, fill her page. The documentary relies heavily on personal pictures and videos from Shanann’s Facebook to get viewers emotionally attached. We really see Shanann, Bella, and Cece take front and center in this documentary which is a refreshing deviation from the norm. In the True Crime genre of today, we can’t seem to escape the killer-based narrative. Can you name any of Ted Bundy’s victims? What about victims of the Night Stalker? John Wayne Gacy? Very few people can and that’s where the problem lies! So much focus is put on the killers and the romanticization of them, which results in the victims falling between the cracks, forgotten. However, this documentary strives to bring the victims to the forefront. The countless videos and images of Shannan and the girls pull the viewer’s eyes to the victims rather than their murderer. The Facebook footage is something which carries on throughout this documentary, maintaining a victim-based lense. This point of view incites heavy emotional responses from the viewers. From the beginning we are connected to the victims by watching their happy family life, the girls playing with their father, and the love in Shannan’s eyes for her husband. Then suddenly, the man at the center of their happiness ends their lives. Immediately a mix of sadness and anger rushes through the body. We feel like we knew the victims, like we were close to the Watts girls, and now they’re gone. Shanann’s Facebook is what connects us to the victims at the surface level, but once her text messages are shared with us we are really able to see behind the picture-perfect Facebook account.
So much can be said through a text; emotions can be conveyed through a single emoji and the letter “k” can carry more weight than a paragraph ever could. This documentary uses text messages directly from Shannan’s phone to give viewers an inside look at what went on behind the smiling faces seen on Facebook. The usage of the text messages serves two purposes: to make the watcher feel like a part of the conversation and to humanize Shanann. These text messages move the audience’s mindset away from the documentary and put them into a space where they feel as if they’re a part of the conversation. Text messages are so personal and intimate, they allow deep connections to be built between Shanann and the watcher. The more involved an audience feels, the more emotionally attached they become, and that’s exactly what the creators of this documentary want. They want viewers to emotionally latch onto Shanann, Bella, and Cece. They want audiences to feel as much anger towards Chris as possible. They want, for once, for the bad-guy to be chastised and not glorified. The second purpose of the inclusion of these texts is a simple one: to humanize Shanann. Much like the creative choice to add in material from Shanann’s Facebook page, the choice to add her text messages shows that she is a real person and forms a link between her and the viewers. No longer is she categorized as a victim, instead she has her flaws just like anyone else. You are able to see her typos, her excessive use of emojis, and when she contemplates sending a text but ends up not sending anything at all. We all have had moments like these, that’s what makes us human! This is the closest we can get to Shanann telling us the story herself, and that’s how, through this documentary, watchers are able to connect and resonate so well with Shanann. Not only are we able to see her multiple dimensions as a person, but we’re able to see ourselves within her. We see her struggle with her seemingly fairytale-esque marriage and we see her confide in friends during times of hardship. We see her try her best to fix what’s been broken, but all she received in return was betrayal from her husband who promised to have and to hold, but just couldn’t wait until “death do us part.”