The Watcher: What Happened in Real Life

Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series The Watcher takes an unsolved mystery to extremes. Here is the true story of 657 Boulevard.

The Watcher. Episode 101 of The Watcher.
Photo: Eric Liebowitz | Netflix © 2022

This article contains spoilers for The Watcher.

Hot off the success of his Jeffrey Dahmer series Dahmer, Ryan Murphy is back with another Netflix show inspired by a true story. This time, though, there’s a bit of a twist. The Watcher, inspired by the true story of the Broaddus family who bought a very expensive house in Westfield, New Jersey and received a series of threatening letters from someone calling themself “The Watcher”, takes a slightly different approach to true crime. It’s a weird story. And it’s never been solved, though there are many theories kicking around. The show’s approach is to allow various theories to play out, leaving you with a story that, at first glance, seems quite outlandish but with a bit of further digging is often peripherally true, could have been true, or was inspired by something that really happened.

Let’s break it all down.

The Family

In real life they were called Derek and Maria Broaddus, in the show they are called Nora and Dean Brannock (played by Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale). The Broaddus’ specifically asked that the family at the center of the series resemble them as little as possible, so as well as the name change, there are two, not three kids and the children are older than the Broaddus’ (who were 5, 8 and 10). 

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This also means that the subplot romance between Ellie (Isabel Gravitt) and Dakota (Henry Hunter Hall), the young man who installs their security system, isn’t based in reality. However, the subplot with Dakota using the name The Watcher as his online handle is based on another vague suspect. This was a guy whose girlfriend’s car was spotted lingering outside the house. She said her boyfriend lived on the same block and was into some dark video games where he played as a character called The Watcher. The police officer at the time attempted to interview him but he never showed up.

The Letters

The letters to the Broaddus family were real, very weird and creepy – the extracts used in the show are often word for word from the originals, including sentences like “Will the young blood play in the basement? Or are they too afraid to go down there alone. I would [be] very afraid if I were them. It is far away from the rest of the house. If you were upstairs you would never hear them scream.”  There are odd differences though – the detail about Ellie being a pianist and having delicate fingers was actually a comment about the Broaddus’ daughter being an artist indicating The Watcher had seen her painting at an easel out the back of the house (which was only visible from close up). 

The letters sent to neighbors after the Broaddus’ left 657 Boulevard were also real and they were sent by Derek (Dean in the show). This he confessed to a New York Magazine journalist in a follow up four years after the original article was published. According to Derek he was feeling hurt and angry about various comments and online posts about his family. Like Dean in the show, Derek in real life became absolutely obsessed with the case which negatively affected his life and relationships while it was going on.

The final letter to estate agent Karen Calhoun (Jennifer Coolidge) isn’t real, because Karen herself isn’t real, but an imagined realtor who could have been suspected of sending the letters with a view to getting the family to sell the house cheaply. But the realtor did not buy the house from the Broaddus’, initially they rented it and then five years after their purchase they sold the house to a young family at a massive loss.

The Neighbors

The Broaddus family did have some slightly odd neighbors who were considered suspects at one point or another. 

Mia Farrow’s Pearl and Terry Kinney’s Jasper are likely a loose translation of the Langford family who lived very close to 657 Boulevard and had been there since the ‘60s (a detail referenced in one of the letters). Matriarch Peggy Langford was in her 90s and lived with several of her adult children, including Michael, and Abby, both in their 60s. Michael was reportedly quite an odd character, described as “Boo Radley” like, who would sometimes peer in people’s windows, but the Langford family was ruled out in police investigations.

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Mitch and Mo (Richard Kind and Margo Martindale) are likely to represent a strange couple identified by the Broaddus’ house painter, who would sit on lawn chairs weirdly close to the Broaddus’ property and face 657 Boulevard rather than their own house. There’s no suggestion that they were in a cult that sacrificed babies, though this kind of wild speculation is likely to have been inspired by some of the theories that appeared online after the story broke and went viral.

John Graff, who later says his name William Webster (played by Joe Mantello) is based on a real person, but not someone who had any interaction with the Broaddus family. He’s modeled on a man named John List who actually did murder his mother, wife, and three children, including his 16-year-old daughter Pat at their home in Westfield. He then ran away and vanished, assuming a new identity and remarrying until he was caught almost 18 years later. He’s notorious in Westfield, but he couldn’t have been The Watcher, since he was caught in 1989 and died in 2008.

The Teacher and the Ode To A House

He’s real! The real teacher was called Robert Kaplow, he’s Roger Kaplan in the show, played by Michael Nouri. Kaplow was a teacher a couple of towns over from Westfield, and he did actually write letters to a house in Westfield, as in the show. But these were love letters to the house, not threatening ones, and it wasn’t 657 Boulevard but a different building. Fun fact: Kaplow also wrote the book Me and Orson Welles, on which Richard Linklater’s film was based.

The Former Owners

In the show “Samantha and Ted Forest” are referenced as the people who sold the house to the Brannocks – they’re not in the show in person but they are stand-ins for the Woods family who did live in the house before the Broaddus family. The Woods’ received one letter from The Watcher prior to selling the house and the Broaddus family actually tried to sue them for failing to communicate that in advance of the sale. However the Woods felt their letter was a bit weird but not actually scary or threatening and had only had one letter and nothing before that in the 23 years they lived in the house. 

Police Investigations

The family did go to the police and reportedly didn’t get a great deal of assistance. They also used private detectives and former FBI agents to try to resolve the case. Theodora is a fictionalized version, so the jazz singer, heart attack, cancer, taking the blame for The Watcher stuff is not real. The detail about finding the DNA on the envelope of one of the letters belonging to a woman is in fact true though, not that it helped them solve the mystery. They have never found a match despite asking some of the neighbors (but not all) for samples.

Secret Tunnels, Dead Dogs, Home Invaders

This is pure horror fun, but isn’t based on reality. It’s possible that someone entered the property but the Broaddus family did not find evidence of concealed rooms and tunnels, and the scene in the last episode of Karen’s dog getting murdered and a shadowy figure chasing her down the street are just for fun.

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All seven episodes of The Watcher are available to stream on Netflix now.