The True Out-There Story That Inspired Netflix’s ‘The Watcher’
Arriving shortly after Netflix’s Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story became Netflix’s second most popular TV series ever, the streamer is unleashing another true-crime bombshell from executive producer Ryan Murphy. The Watcher is based on the unsettling 2010s mystery out of New Jersey that shook up the internet when New York magazine’s reported (and very long) feature about the incident was published in 2018.
But who is “The Watcher,” the person/figure that haunted a family and its new dream house after they bought it in 2014? Or perhaps, what is “The Watcher”? And how do we make sense of this truly bananas scandal that bitterly divided peaceful, pretty Westfield, New Jersey? And how have Netflix and executive producer Ryan Murphy exactly shaped the material into their hotly anticipated, fictionalized limited series The Watcher, starring Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts among a fleet of other uber-famous faces? Here’s an explainer to break it all down for you.
(Warning: If you don’t know the Watcher story in real life, this has major plot spoilers for the show.)
What is The Watcher show about?
The Watcher haunted a family in Westfield over several years. In 2014, Derek and Maria Broaddus and their three kids bought their $1.4 million dream home at 657 Boulevard, a historic, gorgeous six-bedroom house. In a charming, albeit heavily white and affluent neighborhood. Before the family had a chance to fully move in, they received the first of what became a series of letters. The envelopes had scrawled handwriting, but the notes themselves were typed with a cursive sign-off: “The Watcher.”
Creepy enough if you’re new to the block, but the Watcher went on to describe how 657 Boulevard had been important in their family for years, with their grandfather and father watching the manse from a distance.
“It is now my time,” the initial letter went on. “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.”
The letters continued in this creepy vein. And got downright threatening, serving as a kind of spirit haunting of the house and referring to the Broadduses’ children as “young blood,” brought for the Watcher. The Watcher even correctly ticked off the kids’ names in order of age.
What did the Broadduses do about the Watcher?
Derek and Maria went to the local police, and understandably asked them to get to the bottom of the case. But the police could only do so much, and generally resisted going full CSI. Even if they did nab the Watcher, the cops pointed out, the creep was unlikely to suffer much in the way of legal consequences. They had unsolved murders on their hands.
There were also few hard-hitting clues. The fact that the letters were typed — and as the Watcher pointed out, hundreds of cars passed the house on Boulevard each day, and a passerby might have picked up a few details about the family — muddled things.
A neighbor in the close vicinity was probably sending the letters, but which one? Everyone seemed to have a motive: Those resentful over the Broadduses’ apparent success, history society-types who hated their renovations to the house, a registered sex offender in the area. Maybe it wasn’t one person at all.
The police investigated further, circling around a neighbor who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and walked into people’s backyards, but several residents said he was harmless and actually quite sweet. DNA from saliva on the envelope seal reportedly turned out to be from a woman, while most assumed a male perpetrator.
Facing the unknown, the Broadduses’ alarm skyrocketed. When word of the Watcher got out, Derek and the rest of Westfield were at odds. Neighbors worried about potential nosediving property values affecting them. Once the family wanted to sell the house, it sat on the market even at a steep discount. The Broadduses were in a precarious financial position. Derek lashed out at other residents with hostile anonymous letters of his own, and filed lawsuits to try to get his money back. Needless to say, in this posh, appearances-obsessed neighborhood, it didn’t go over well.
Who is the Watcher?
The identity of the Watcher is the central question of the events, the viral article, and Netflix’s The Watcher. But at least in reality, it hasn’t been solved. The letters gradually petered out over years. The Broadduses successfully rented out the house, then finally sold it for just under $1 million, as the author Reeves Wiedeman wrote in his update.
But theories about the Watcher abound. Many still have their eyes on this or that neighbor. But another popular theory online is that the Broadduses, or at least Derek, orchestrated the scheme all along. Which would really be the ultimate twist, since in that scenario, he would’ve saddled himself with a ton of debt and suburban rivalry with little to show for it, except maybe notoriety? But the Broadduses early on wanted to keep the letters out of the press, hoping for a legal fix. And Derek would probably have to be, well, a certain level of unhinged to arrange all this. He did write some nasty letters to neighbors, but ones who opposed his attempts to turn over the property and move on from a disturbing situation.
How accurate is Netflix’s The Watcher?
Netflix’s limited series centers on Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts as the husband and wife, but names have been changed. The setup is fairly faithful at the very beginning, then subplots are quickly invented out of thin air (which isn’t necessarily bad, but worth knowing if you’re expecting the true-to-life version). In true Ryan Murphy fashion, a story that’s ominous on its own gets layered with flashbacks, seemingly out-of-nowhere side characters (just wait for the jazz singer-turned-private eye), and more horror tropes than were needed.
Some of this is quite unnerving if campy, as with a pet ferret who reaches a brutal end. But at least in the first couple episodes, it’s nowhere near the gore level of Dahmer. The dialogue can get wooden, but the style is sharp. Given Watts’s presence and the too-idyllic suburban setting, it’s hard not to see the connections to the American remake of Funny Games also featuring her.
Speaking of which: Stick around for the acting, with heavyweights popping in for the gleeful spectacle: a phenomenal Jennifer Coolidge as a whispery real estate agent (a character that got her own fake ads currently plastered around Los Angeles in a promotional stunt), Richard Kind, Margo Martindale, Mia Farrow!
The Watcher story is unforgettable once you’ve learned it. Unraveling it seems impossible, at least so far. Netflix’s The Watcher isn’t great TV, but it is compulsively watchable. And (who knows!) maybe it’ll finally give us closure Westfield never got.
Paul Schrodt is a freelance writer and editor who also contributes to Esquire, GQ, Money, The Wall Street Journal, and more.