American Murder: The Family Next Door, the newest Netflix true crime documentary, brought the murder of Shannan Watts into the news again, two years after the crime. Now, it’s not just Shanann’s name out there for everyone to read, but also all of her intimate text messages about her and her husband’s sex life.
Chris Watts murdered his pregnant wife Shanann and their two young daughters on Aug. 13, 2018 in the small town of Frederick, Colorado. Chris is now serving a life sentence. American Murder chronicles the events leading up to the crime. The case of the Watts family murders initially came to national attention due to the widespread search for Shanann and her daughters when it was still a missing persons case. The public gathered an abundance of information about the family through Shanann Watt’s extensive Facebook posts. People flocked to social media platforms to offer their own opinions on the case, many of which claimed Shanann “drove him insane,” as one anonymous commentator in the documentary said.
After the film's release many are wondering if Netflix went too far in its analysis of the case. Throughout the film, dozens of texts between Shanann, her husband and multiple friends of Shanann’s are shown on screen for viewers to read. The texts are very personal, and include details about her sex life.
Texts displayed on screen from Shanann to her friend Cristina Meacham detail Shannan’s feelings of desperation for intimacy with her husband. She explains how she’s tried to seduce him and failed repeatedly.
Later in the film, the viewers are shown a love letter Shanann wrote to Chris just a few days before her death. Excerpts include “I missed smelling you in the sheets” and “I missed seeing you naked and on top of me making love.”
All of this case evidence was made available to filmmakers and to the general public from a Colorado open records request made in Nov. 2018. This means these personal texts have been on the internet for anyone to see for the past two years, but they haven’t been put under a spotlight in a major media production until now.
Fans of true crime called out the documentary for exposing so much of Shanann’s private life. In fact, her story has been told without those details, as can be seen in previous media accounts of the crime like the HLN special report show Family Massacre: Chris Watts Exposed.
Some even accused Netflix of portraying Shanann as a bad person, similar to how online bullies made Shanann look when commenting on the case back in 2018.
Other viewers, however, commended Netflix for the way American Murder was presented only with evidence and relevant footage, rather than overdramatized re-enactments.
Besides the controversy of the intimate messages, the film has seemed to accomplish its goal of spreading awareness of domestic violence. At the end of the documentary, a statistic shown on screen stated that in America three women are killed by their current or ex-partner every day, sparking feelings of shock and horror in the viewers.
Her story has opened people’s eyes to cases of domestic violence, and it may be that sharing private details of Shanann’s life was an important part of making that happen. Either way, it’s clear Shanann was a very open person in her life and chose to share a lot of details with her friends on social media. In death, it is up to those still here to make a choice on how Shanann should be remembered and how much of her private life should be showcased.
As Netflix becomes a bigger producer of mainstream documentaries, they have a chance to set a precedent for how much to divulge to the audience in a true crime case. Some believe their first priority should be minimizing harm, for the survivors, if there are any, and for the victims’ families. This might mean holding back certain information in order to prevent victim-blaming arising in the audience. Others think true crime should be as honest and humanizing as possible, including raw footage and evidence, whether that includes personal messages or not. The question for Netflix now is what will their precedent be.
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