The Watcher, Ryan Murphy’s latest true crime drama offering for Netflix, makes no secret of the fact that it’s based on a true story. The saga of the house at 657 Boulevard Avenue in Westfield, New Jersey, and “The Watcher” that haunted its residents is well-covered territory. The spooky tale has been the subject of many features, including the definitive interpretation in The Cut.
What viewers might not know about The Watcher, however, is that it’s actually based on two real life stories melded into one TV show! In episode 3, The Watcher introduces us to John Graff (Joe Montello) , a mild-mannered accountant who once lived at 657 Boulevard Ave. John Graff would go on to, uh…kill his whole family (we didn’t say it was a happy true story). There isn’t a real life figure named John Graff or anyone resembling him in the original Watcher story about the Broaddus (Brannock in the show) family being stalked. There is, however, a very clear historical murderer that Graff is based on: John List.
John List is one of American history’s most infamous family annihilators. He also just happened to have committed his familicide in Westfield, New Jersey – the same city in which The Watcher is set. While List didn’t have anything to do with The Watcher case, the show brings the story of his 1971 killing spree closer to the present to fit in with the story of 657 Boulevard.
Here is everything you need to know about John List and how The Watcher adapted his murders into the character of John Graff.
The Real Life Story of John List
Before we delve into the changes that The Watcher makes from the John List story for its John Graff character, let’s present the cold hard facts of the John List case.
John List was a Korean War veteran who worked as an accountant during and after the war. An intensely serious man with an intensely serious haircut and glasses to match, List married his wife Helen in 1951. Their’s was not a happy home as the pair was not a good match due to John’s religiosity and Helen’s alcoholism but they did eventually have three children: Patricia, John Frederick, and Frederick.
The Lists moved around the country to follow John’s accounting work before setting in Westfield, New Jersey in 1965 when John accepted a position as Vice President of a bank in Jersey City, New Jersey. The home the Lists moved into was a massive 19-room Victorian mansion at 431 Hillside Avenue. John was only able to make the downpayment due to his mother, Alma’s, contributions. She would move in with John and the kids.
Though John was a good accountant, he wasn’t a particularly effective executive or leader due to his dry, awkward personality. List eventually lost his job at the bank and was left unemployed and with an enormous mortgage payment. Instead of telling his family about his job situation, he would pretend to leave for work every day and head to a local train station to read. He gradually withdrew over $200,000 of his mother’s savings to cover the bills.
Eventually, John came to believe that the only way out of this mess was to kill his entire family, leave Westfield, and start anew. His intense religious beliefs also contributed in his decision-making. He viewed his daughter having normal interests like boys and parties being a sign of his family’s moral decline and the only way to assure they would all make it to heaven was to cut their lives short now.
On Nov. 9. 1971, John murdered his entire family using two guns. He began by shooting his wife in the back of the head, then his mother above her left eye. When Patricia and John Frederick returned from school, List shot them both in the back of the head. After having lunch, he drove to Westfield High School to watch John Frederick play soccer then drove him home and shot him too.
List placed his wife and children’s bodies on sleeping bags in the home’s ballroom, but left his mother’s upstairs. He left a five-page letter to his pastor on his desk describing what he had done and why he did it. He also cut himself out of family photographs in the house, which would impede the investigation significantly as there weren’t many available pictures of List for investigators to reference. He made sure the lights were on, turned the radio up to a religious station, and cranked the air conditioner to better preserve his family’s bodies.
List’s preparations for the murder were exhaustive. He called his children’s school to let them know they’d be away for an extended period of time. After leaving the house for good, he would periodically return to pick up the mail and milk deliveries so that they wouldn’t mount up on the front porch. Because of this, the murders weren’t discovered until nearly a month later on Dec. 7 when neighbors finally suspected something was up.
By that point John List had already fled to Denver where he lived as an accountant under the assumed name Bob Clark until he was finally captured in 1989.
Differences Between John Graff and John List
For those of you who have seen The Watcher episode 3 “Götterdämmerung,” you might notice that the similarities between John Graff and John List are truly striking. Both men were accountants in unhappy marriages who moved to palatial homes in Westfield, New Jersey. Both were intensely religious and concerned about their family’s moral fate. Both lost their job and went to great lengths to lie about it. And most importantly: both men killed their whole families (though List generated one more body than Graff).
On all the major details, John Graff is a very close approximation of John List. Of course, to make List’s story work within The Watcher‘s modern time period, the show does have to make some changes. In the show, Graff’s murders occurred in 1995, not 1971. Additionally, Graff only had two children, not three (when, in fact, List technically had four since Helen has a daughter from her first marriage…she was spared the carnage though). While List did return to the scene of the crime to pick up the mail, newspapers, and milk, he didn’t return more than two decades later to taunt the house’s current occupants.
The Watcher also implies that it may not have been Graff who returned to pick up the mail but the Watcher himself. Since the real life case of John List has absolutely nothing to do with The Watcher, this is obviously an invention for the show as well. John List also didn’t “desiccate” his family’s bodies by removing their blood and placing them in milk jars. That’s just a detail added for the show, likely to tie into the Watcher’s obsession with “young blood.” List did, however, make sure the air conditioning was on so that his family’s bodies were somewhat preserved and the smell of rotting flesh wouldn’t draw anyone to the house.
Finally, while both Graff and List got away with their crimes, List was eventually captured roughly 18 years later. Though given that Graff’s crime occurred in 1995, he should be due to be found out in the world of the show soon enough.
What is the Fourth Turning?
During John Graff’s first meeting with Dean Brannock (Bobby Cannavale), Graff prattles on about the world being in the midst of a “Fourth Turning,” which in turn will turn into a new “Saeculum.” Graff is referring to a real life political theory but it’s not one that his real life counterpart John List ever referenced as it didn’t arrive in 1997.
In Graff’s telling, historical events don’t just happen, great men have to make them happen. Each one of these momentous events in history is known as a “Turning,” with every Fourth Turning marking a “Saeculum.” Turnings happen roughly every 20 years or so, which means that a Saeculum happens once in the average lifetime.
Graff is being a touch dramatic about the whole thing and butchering some of the details but the basic geopolitical concepts of “Turnings” are based in real theory. The relevant terms were coined in William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 1997 book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny.
Using the past 500 years of history as evidence, Strauss and Howe argue that history unfolds in a distinct pattern of Four Turnings over the span of roughly 80 years, like Graff said. Many intellectuals and deep-thinkers regard Strauss and Howe’s theories (also known as the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory) as academically sound, including big fan Al Gore, though others arguing that there is not enough evidence.
Where to Learn More About John List
As both one of the most prominent family annihilators and one of the most successful fugitives of justice in American history, John List is the naturally subject of many articles, books, podcasts, and TV shows. If you want to know more about the John List story, check out one of the following:
- TV MOVIE – Judgment Day: The John List Story (1993) – This one stars murder suspect Robert Blake as John List!
- TV SHOW – Forensic Files Season 1 Episode 12 – “The John List Murders” (1996)
- TV SHOW – American Justice Season 12 Episode 6 “To Save Their Souls” (2003)
- BOOK – Collateral Damage: The John List Story (2006)
- PODCAST – Last Podcast on the Left Episodes 438 and 439 (2020)
- PODCAST – NJ Advanced Media’s “Father Wants Us Dead” Podcast (2022)
All seven episodes of The Watcher are available to stream on Netflix now.