Netflix’s American Nightmare Is Literally Unbelievable But Literally Real

The story presented in Netflix's American Nightmare was called the "real life Gone Girl." And then something unexpected happened ...

(L to R) Aaron Quinn and Denise Huskins in American Nightmare
Photo: Netflix

This article discusses the real life events behind American Nightmare and will therefore “spoil” the docuseries.

The events that unfold in Netflix true crime docuseries American Nightmare are hard to believe. I know that because I didn’t believe them. At least not at first.

On March 23, 2015, Aaron Quinn called 9-1-1 and reported that his girlfriend Denise Huskins had been kidnapped from their California home. According to an extremely groggy-sounding Quinn, a masked man wearing a wetsuit had broken in, tased them, injected them both with a sedative, and then taken off with a tied-up Denise. What was already a strange case only got stranger when Denise returned to her parents’ home a few days later, seemingly no worse for wear.

The police held a press conference in which they accused Quinn and Huskins of making the whole thing up and wasting precious law enforcement time and resources on a scam. The media latched onto the case, emboldened by its similarity to David Fincher’s Gone Girl, which had come out just the year before and featured a vengeful woman concocting her own disappearance to frame her husband for murder.

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The police and the media were swiftly proven wrong. The crime that the couple experienced unfolded precisely how they described it. There really was a wetsuit-wearing monster out there with a syringe full of diazepam and NyQuil. And he really was in the midst of a kidnapping spree. Quinn and Huskins’ story was literally unbelievable. But it was also literally real. And that’s what makes this doc such a compelling, disorienting watch.

American Nightmare‘s three episodes have all the familiar cadences of a true crime streaming docuseries. The show uses archival news footage, revealing talking head interviews, and a foreboding score, to tell its story.

Somewhat atypically for a documentary, however, American Nightmare has writers credited. In this case, the opening titles indicate that the series is “Written, produced, and directed by Felicity Morris & Bernadette Higgins” (the same filmmakers behind Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler). Now, “written” as a credit doesn’t always automatically mean “scripted.” A writer can be involved on a non-fiction project to help shape the reconstructed narrative of real life events. Still, it’s a detail I clocked as I watched the first episode of the series.

By the time I was partly through the second episode, in which Denise begins to tell her truly wild story, I had a wild intrusive thought based on that writing credit: “wait a minute. Is this a fictional scripted story that Netflix has dressed up to look like one of its usual true crime docuseries?” I quickly Googled the name “Denise Huskins” and discovered, to my horror, that this was all real.

I tell this story for two reasons. First and foremost so that we can all laugh at what a massive dumbass I am. But I also tell it to communicate just how hard any true crime story can be to accept when it deviates wildly from our expectations. For many of us (myself included unfortunately) that often means taking a young woman at her word, even when her version of events seem outlandish at first glance.

American Nightmare is an excellent entry into Netflix’s true crime canon. Deeply empathetic to the victims at its center, it lets them speak frankly in a secure environment without interruption. What’s even more impressive, however, is how it subtly interrogates us. We all have biases when it comes to true crime, likely built up from years of watching Dateline, 20/20, and whatever the bloody flavor of the week is in the streaming world. But that doesn’t mean we should mistake our familiarity for expertise.

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Even the most helpful heuristics can lead you astray. The lesson of American Nightmare is that Occam’s razor is useful but it can still draw blood.

All three episodes of American Nightmare are available to stream on Netflix now.