Among the many horrors of American Murder: The Family Next door is this one: Defenders of Chris Watts, who has admitted to killing Shanann Watts and their children, are making money from their internet theories defending him, according to American Murder director Jenny Popplewell.
As the film notes, after the 2018 of the pregnant Shanann Watts and her and Chris Watts’ two children, some people online repugnantly suggested that she somehow drove him to the murders. Others have created wild theories in an attempt to clear the confessed killer.
Chris Watts defenders have seized on Shanann Watts’ online profile before her murder — she loved sharing videos of herself, Chris, and their daughters, Bella and CeCe — to look for supposed evidence to support unfounded theories.
Worse, says Popplewell, they’re making money on it.
“There is a dark corner of the internet that enjoys that vast amount of archives that they have access to, and they enjoy creating content, which they’ll charge for,” she told the MovieMaker Interviews podcast. “They’ll go into Patreon, or they’ll monetize their pages with all her content. It really bothers her family, because her legacy slowly is being eroded and twisted and made ugly.”
“And that wasn’t the Shannan they knew,” Popplewell continues. “And they’re just so tired of defending her. And the trolls’ response is, if you don’t like it, just leave Facebook. If you don’t like it, don’t watch my YouTube video. If their family member died, and somebody kept taking their photos and creating horrible content… I don’t think they’d remain quiet, either.”
Popplewell says Shanann Watts’ parents, Frank and Sandra Rzucek, gave her access to Shanann’s phone and laptop to share her story, in her own words and images. In the film, Frank Rzucek is seen pleading with online trolls to leave his daughter’s and grandchildren’s memory alone.
During the interview, Popplewell also talks about a decision she made for American Murder that separates it from other documentaries: She doesn’t care about Chris Watts’ excuses or explanations. While other true-crime docs often spend a tremendous amount of time trying to, as the cliche goes, enter the mind of a killer, American Murder is more interested in giving voice to the victim.
“When we spoke with the family and told them our intentions, they were happy that someone was going to do that,” she said. “I told them from the start, I have absolutely no interest in approaching Chris Watts, I’m not going to go to him for an interview.”
“My one truth was, I’m going to tell Shanann’s story. So I don’t care about Chris Watts. I want to know Chris Watts through Shanann’s eyes. What did she see in him? What did she love about him?”
Popplewell also notes that Chris Watts seemed to lack basic emotional intelligence, once Googling simple questions about how to behave when you’re in love. American Murder also includes a sequence in which he delivers a Power Point presentation about the disintegration of relationships. Popplewell says she included a snippet of video from the presentation in the film because it demonstrates that he understands adult relationships with the sophistication of an 11-year-old.
By comparison, she says, Shanann Watts had extraordinary empathy and love for her husband — even when she felt their relationship falling apart, and sensed that he was having an affair. Chris Watts eventually admitted to police that he killed his wife and their children after meeting another woman.
American Murder: The Family Next Door, directed by Jenny Popplewell, is now streaming on Netflix.