This Shocking Netflix True Crime Documentary Plays Out Like a Found Footage Horror Film

American Murder: The Family Next Door is a truly scary watch. As the title implies, the documentary chronicles a case involving a family that could easily be your next-door neighbor, or mine. The ordeal depicted within doesn’t unfold in an unsavory part of town or involve hardened criminals. This is the story of a very typical family in an upscale Colorado neighborhood that had their lives turned upside down by a senseless act of violence. And that distinction makes the proceedings all the more shocking. This case reminds us that evil comes in many shapes and sizes and often shows up where we least expect it.  

American Murder, which chronicles the murder of Shanann Watts and her daughters Bell and Celeste, is presented a bit like a found footage narrative feature. The proceedings are cobbled together from social media posts, recordings taken from police interrogation tapes, body camera footage, newscasts, and numerous clips pulled from Shanann’s phone.  The events chronicled within the doc unfold much like a Hollywood whodunnit, leading up to a sickening revelation regarding the killer’s identity.

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One of the most challenging aspects of the doc is seeing the way Shannan was dragged through the mud following her untimely death. To question what kind of partner she was to her husband or whether or not she posted too much on social media is irrelevant and insulting, considering she is not here to defend herself. But people lost sight of that and launched into posthumous attacks and victim blaming. That shows a complete lack of empathy and a level of detachment that’s nothing less than frightening. 

The doc takes care to chronicle the knee-jerk reaction many people had to Shannan’s eccentricities and also provides an in-depth picture of who Shannan actually was. We see some endearing footage of her and get to see those that knew her best speak to her character. But director Jenny Popplewell isn’t slanted or one-sided in her presentation of the evidence. While we see Shannan’s humanity and how much she loved her kids, we also see her at her worst. Most importantly, we see that she recognized her shortcomings and even took care to acknowledge them. The doc allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions regarding who she was. It doesn’t editorialize or attempt to sway the viewer, more so than merely presents the audience with the evidence and allows us to make a call for ourselves. 

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Even more difficult to stomach than the online backlash against Shannan is the moment the identity of the killer is revealed and that person’s motivations for committing the crimes come to the surface. That the perpetrator was driven by such selfish gains and had such little regard for human life, including the lives of two children is mind-boggling. It gives me cause to question how well we can ever really know another person.

As much as I would like to think I would be able to recognize evil in my presence, this documentary gives me pause. Very rarely do people close to the killer in a case like this seem to have had any inclination of what was coming. And that makes it all the more harrowing to reconcile. It makes you wonder if almost anyone is capable of murder. 

I would ultimately like to think that the average person isn’t capable of murder. I suspect that those that resort to violence were probably long predisposed to that type of conduct and merely do a good job of masking their inner darkness until they don’t. But there are no easy answers provided here.

All in, American Murder: The Family Next Door is a harrowing affair that combines the documentary style with elements of found footage. This unsettling film serves to remind us that evil comes in many shapes and sizes and subsequently instills doubt as to how well we can ever really know the people in our lives. 

If the flick sounds like it might be of interest and you’re curious to check it out for yourself, American Murder: The Family Next Door is available to stream exclusively on Netflix



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