It was a perfect story for the time, one seemingly built for an exploding obsession with true crime, horror and class politics. Reeves Wiedeman’s 2018 New York Magazine article “The Watcher” pulled together all those elements, and told a tale equal parts ghost story and psychological thriller — the only difference being that this one was real.
That is, as real as a mystery without a resolution can be. The story, now turned into the newest series on Netflix, documented the Broadduses (renamed Brannock for the show) moving into a New Jersey home. Soon after, they begin receiving threatening letters from a sender who identified themselves only as “the watcher” — a neighbour seemingly infuriated by rich out-of-towners taking a historic home from locals.
That sender, who referred to the home as “the subject of my family for decades now,” even went so far as to reference — and spy on — the Broaddus’s young children.
“Do you need to fill the house with the young blood I requested? Better for me,” the watcher wrote in one of their cryptic, and often misspelled, letters.
“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 too me.”
Now creator Ryan Murphy — fresh off the success of controversial serial killer biopic Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story — is turning his eye to the house at 657 Boulevard, as well as another odd and unsettling series of crimes.
But this time he’s working with a fairly star-studded cast: Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale star as Maria and Derek, the ill-fated couple moving in. Elsewhere, Jennifer Coolidge makes an appearance as the real estate agent who plays somewhat of a role in the true story, while Mia Farrow and Margo Martindale debut the over-involved and vaguely threatening neighbours, who flitted in and out of a real-life suspect list that was never truly resolved.
It was those two things — Murphy’s involvement, and the underlying theme of anonymous terror — that most of the cast say drew them to the project.
“It was a fresh story for me,” Watts said in an interview with CBC. “And I just imagined myself in the same shoes of that family, of being in a situation where they were finally able to get their dream home into their clutches. And that fear of it not going well — but not wanting to give it up at the same time.”
Meanwhile, for Coolidge — a veteran comedian fresh off her first Emmy win for work on White Lotus — there were other motives. Firstly, she said she’d wanted to work with Murphy again (she played a role in a few episodes of Nip/Tuck he wrote years earlier) ever since he used her New Orleans home to film scenes from American Horror Story a decade ago.
But at the same time, she said the opportunity to work on something with a more sinister undertone informed her choice. (Though Watts shared the most difficult part of working with Coolidge is still “keeping a straight face.”)
“We always want to change,” Coolidge said. “I think every actor wants to get out of the former way they were seen, they always want to sort of upgrade. But for a lot of the time, for a lot of my career … I don’t know if there was that much variation.”
An unknown culprit
Even four years later the case hasn’t been solved, despite recent updates — the Broadduses selling their home for a loss, the police being roundly criticized for a failure to adequately investigate the case — and a few discoveries that may constitute spoilers for the series. That lingering mystery gave the show both obstacles and opportunities.
Firstly, as the real watcher is still unknown, the decision on which of the characters to choose for the role was similarly up in the air — even to the cast.
“You don’t know, because we got one script at a time. So we weren’t sure where it was going and it was just so much fun playing,” Farrow said, explaining that led them to speculate whether their scene partners’ characters were the watcher — or even their own.
“We were all like, What? What’s happening? What’s happening? Is it you? I was — I figured Margo’s got to be the one.”
“And I was sure it was me,” Martindale said.
Resentment, speculation surround true story
Elsewhere, that led to a fair amount of artistic license, including the invented character of Theodora Birch, played by British actor Noma Dumezweni. That role introduces a private investigator with terminal cancer who throws herself into the mystery surrounding the home.
While Dumezweni said she loved the freedom to simply ‘play in this world,’ building a character from suggestions by Murphy and her own instincts, the tendency to wander from reality does offer a threat to both The Watcher’s legitimacy, and the Broadduses.
Even after selling their home, the family opted to stay in the same town of Westfield — where a number of residents have apparently bristled at the attention it has brought, and the supposed windfall neighbours think the couple made by selling their rights to the story.
According to an update published by Wiedeman earlier this week, the Broadduses only consented to the series on the conditions that the show change their name, alter the makeup of their family (changing the real family’s three kids to an onscreen two) — and with the note that “they wouldn’t mind it if the fictional house burned to the ground.”
They also stated they won’t be watching the show themselves.
At the time of writing, the house’s fate, and whether a fictional watcher is revealed, are still mysteries: in keeping with the show’s secrecy, journalists were only allowed to watch the pilot episode, instead of the whole series as is normal. That only afforded a glimpse into what is certainly a compelling mystery, though with enough added on to risk becoming overdramatized — even if it’s more entertaining than the truth.