A common trope in horror movies: a family flees from the hustle and bustle of the big city to the cozy suburbs. But their new dream home becomes a nightmare — in this case, as creepy typewritten letters turn up from someone calling themselves “The Watcher.” The lives of the Brannacks unravel as their search for this sinister stalker threatens their jobs, their family, their marriage, and their standing in their new community.
In the tradition of American Horror Story Season 1, The Watcher is the latest Ryan Murphy production to intertwine horror movie eeriness with true crime origins. While DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has drawn backlash for how closely and callously its docudrama adaptation has stayed to the real-life case without the consent of those involved, The Watcher’s makers got permission from the real-life family who received harrowing letters at their home.
Beyond that, Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan made major departures from the true story of the mysterious “watcher.” They also pulled dark inspiration from other true crime tales, including the 1971 family massacre committed by patriarch John List. And here, the translation from fact to fiction gets grisly.
What The Watcher’s John Graff and John List have in common
In episode 3, “Götterdämmerung,” Dean Brannock (Bobby Cannavale) learns another dark chapter in his new home’s history. Private investigator Theodora Birch (Noma Dumezweni) unfolds the tragedy of the Graff family, who were slain by father John. While she claims this story “is not in any newspaper article, not on any website,” the actual case is very well known to true crime fans and has been featured on episodes of Forensic Files, American Justice, and Your Worst Nightmare.
Like John List, John Graff (played by Joe Mantello) seemed like an ordinary man who loved his family and his Lutheran church. An army veteran, he became an accountant and moved his wife, kids, and elderly mother to a big home in Westfield, New Jersey. In List’s case, it was a place described by the New York Times as a “19-room ramshackle Victorian” with a Tiffany skylight.
The motive for the murder — as with many family annihilators — was his shame over not being able to provide for his family. List struggled to maintain a job. To keep up appearances, he drained his mother’s bank accounts of $200,000, but was drowning in debt, including two mortgages on the house.
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Both List and the fictional Graff had an unhappy marriage with a wife named Helen, as well as an athletic teen son, and a teen daughter named Patricia. (The Watcher changes the name of the teen son and excludes List’s other teen son altogether.) In both cases, this family man would murder every relative living under that roof.
The Watcher lays out Graff’s crime very closely to the true story. List fatally shot his wife and mother, then laid in wait for 16-year-old Patricia and 13-year-old Frederick to return from school before killing them as well. Just as Graff takes his time to eat a sandwich in the household-turned-homicide scene, List took a break between killings to eat lunch. Then, he attended 15-year-old John’s soccer game (instead of the basketball game depicted in The Watcher), drove his elder son home, and killed him.
To keep nosy neighbors at bay, List told people the family was going away on vacation. He left the bodies of his murdered family behind in their home, and then he disappeared. As seen in The Watcher, the killer turned on all the lights in the house and set organ music to play. Before he left, he cut himself out of family photos. It took weeks for the crime to be discovered and much longer for its perpetrator to be captured.
What The Watcher changed in John List’s true story
In real life, the List case isn’t related at all to the strange case of the Watcher. However, the other details that Murphy and Brennan changed here are minor.
Before the house in New Jersey, List lived in Detroit, not Manhattan as Graff did. In The Watcher, it’s a random act of violence on the mean streets of New York City that urges Graff’s rich mother to set them up in a big house in the New Jersey suburbs. In real life, List bought the house after receiving a promotion at the bank. His address was not 657 Boulevard as it is in The Watcher but 431 Hillside Avenue.
List killed his family in 1971, whereas Graff committed his homicides in 1995. Rather than in the cryptic circle of corpses presented in Murphy’s version, List put his family’s remains in sleeping bags. Then, List confessed to everything in a five-page letter left to his pastor, in which he insisted he’d sent his family to heaven.
Some fictionalized details that have been added for The Watcher include the bloody bottles in the basement and the apparent revenge killing of the “creepy teacher.” Most notably, however, is how the Watcher’s presence is woven into the List murder massacre. John List had canceled milk, mail, and newspaper deliveries as part of his attempt to keep the neighbors unaware of what had happened in the house for as long as possible. In The Watcher, Theodora claims it is the unknown watcher who collected the mail and newspapers, suggesting the stalker knew what had happened before anyone else in the neighborhood.
What happened to John List?
Under the alias “Robert Clark,” List set up a new life in Virginia that was much like his previous one. He remarried, was active in the local Lutheran church, and found work again as an accountant. He evaded authorities for nearly twenty years.
In 1989, List was finally captured, thanks to the television program America’s Most Wanted. The John Walsh-hosted hit show aimed to give its audience an idea of what List might look like all these years later. With many of the family’s photos destroyed, the producers called on forensic sculptor Frank Bender to create a bust that could capture the presumed age progression of the on-the-run prime suspect.
The episode aired on May 21, 1989, catching the eye of a neighbor who called the police — and warned Clark’s second wife, who seemed “stunned.” List was arrested at his workplace on June 1. He tried to deny his true identity, but fingerprints, military records, and other evidence pushed him to confess in 1990.
On April 12, 1990, List was convicted of first-degree murder on five counts and received a life sentence for each. Despite an appeal, the infamous killer spent the rest of his days in prison, before dying on March 21, 2008, from complications of pneumonia. He was 82.
What happened to John Graff?
By moving the timeline of this family massacre from 1971 to 1995, The Watcher plays with the possibility that — like List — Graff has successfully dodged death and the police for decades. So, could it have been John Graff who was eating a sandwich while giving Dean unwelcome fatherly advice?
For a moment in the final episode “Haunting,” it seemed Graff might have been a bogeyman dreamed up by Theodora herself to scare the Brannocks out of that big beautiful house. But her daughter uncovered that the late detective was trying to give the family peace by solving their puzzle, even if it meant falsely implicating herself as the Watcher.
The finale also sees the return of John Graff, who is now going by William “Bill” Webster as he joins the Westfield Preservation Society alongside Brannock-hating neighbors Big Mo (Margot Martindale), Pearl (Mia Farrow), Roger Kaplan (Michael Nouri), and Jasper (Terry Kinney). But like Dean before them, some in this group are suspicious of the bespectacled local. It starts when he mentions he’s lived in Westfield since 1995. That’s a long time in the area for him to be new to this nosy crew, but also 1995 is the year when the Graff family was killed.
With a sharp eye, Kaplan suggests he recognizes “Bill.” Webster/Graff dismisses this by claiming Kaplan must have seen him at work in the library.
Previously, Pearl revealed that the library contains typewriters, where she’d assumed her brother Jasper had written the Watcher letters. But might it have been Graff, following in List’s real-life footsteps by creating a new life after killing his family?
If so, wouldn’t Jasper — who found the Graff family’s bodies — recognize him? Perhaps he does. When Kaplan presses, “How’s your family, Bill?” Jasper jumps in with his gavel, changing the subject to the tacky pink marble being brought into the home. With a new target for their judgmental intensity, the society moves on from Bill to “appropriate countertop material” for 657 Boulevard.
Even after the Brannocks are gone, the Watcher letters continue, scaring new owner/real estate shark Karen Calhoun (Jennifer Coolidge) out of her new home. Perhaps Graff wasn’t the original Watcher. But the wildly ambiguous ending to this mini-series suggests he is at least one of the monsters residing in Westfield, New Jersey.