A common trope in horror movies: a family flees the hustle and bustle of the big city to the cozy suburbs. But their new dream home turns into a nightmare – in this case, as creepy typed letters appear from someone calling themselves “The Watcher”. The Brannacks’ lives crumble as their search for this sinister stalker threatens their job, family, marriage and position in their new community.
In the tradition of american horror story Season 1The Observer is the latest production from Ryan Murphy to blend the weirdness of horror movies with the true origins of crime. Whereas DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story garnered backlash for how its docudrama adaptation stayed true to the real-life case without the consent of those involved, That of the observer the makers got permission from the real family who received heartbreaking 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 drew inspiration from other true-crime accounts, including the 1971 family massacre committed by patriarch John List. And here, the translation from reality to fiction becomes macabre.
What The Observer‘s John Graff and John List have in common
In episode 3, “Götterdämmerung”, Dean Brannock (Bobby Cannavale) learns of another dark chapter in the history of his new home. Private investigator Theodora Birch (Noma Dumezweni) uncovers the tragedy of the Graff family, who were killed by Father John. Although she claims this story “isn’t in any newspaper article, or on any website”, the actual case is very well known to true crime fans and has been featured in episodes of Forensic files, American Justiceand 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, children, and elderly mother to a large home in Westfield, New Jersey. In List’s case, it was a place described by the New York Times like a “Rundown 19 bedroom Victorian” with a Tiffany skylight.
The motive for the murder – as for many family destroyers – was his shame that he could not provide for his family. List struggled to hold down a job. To save appearances, he emptied his mother’s bank accounts $200,000, but is overwhelmed with debt, including two mortgages on the house.
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Both List and the fictional Graff had an unhappy marriage to a woman named Helen, as well as an athletic teenage son and teenage daughter named Patricia. (The Observer changes the name of the teenage son and completely excludes List’s other teenage son.) In either case, this family man would murder all the relatives living under this roof.
The Observer presents Graff’s crime very closely to the true story. List shot his wife and mother, then waited for 16-year-old Patricia and 13-year-old Frederick to return from school before killing them as well. Much like Graff takes his time eating a sandwich in the house-turned-homicide scene, List took a break between murders for lunch. Then he attended John’s then 15-year-old football game (instead of the basketball game depicted in The Observer), took his eldest son home and killed him.
To ward off nosy neighbors, List told people the family was going on vacation. He left the bodies of his murdered family in their home, then he disappeared. As seen in The Observer, the killer turned on all the lights in the house and played organ music. Before leaving, he cut himself family photos. It took weeks for the crime to be discovered and much longer for its perpetrator to be captured.
What The Observer changed in the true story of John List
In real life, the List case has nothing to do with the strange case of the observer. However, the other details Murphy and Brennan tweaked here are minor.
Prior to the New Jersey home, List lived in Detroit, not Manhattan like Graff. In The Observer, it’s a random act of violence on the mean streets of New York that drives Graff’s wealthy mother to move them into a big house in suburban New Jersey. In real life, List bought the house after receiving a promotion at the bank. His address was not 657, boul. as it is in The Observer but 431 Hillside Ave.
List killed his family in 1971, while Graff committed his homicides in 1995. Rather than the cryptic circle of corpses featured in Murphy’s version, List put his family’s remains in sleeping bags. Then List confessed all in a five-page letter left with his pastor, in which he insisted that he had sent his family to heaven.
Some fictitious details that have been added for The Observer include the bloody bottles in the basement and the apparent revenge of the “creepy professor”. Most notably, however, is how the Watcher’s presence is woven into the massacre of List’s murder. John List had canceled milk, mail and newspaper deliveries as part of his attempt to keep neighbors unaware of what had happened in the house for as long as possible. In The ObserverTheodora claims it was the Unknown Observer who retrieved the mail and newspapers, suggesting the stalker knew what happened before anyone else in the neighborhood.
What happened to John List?
Under the alias of “Robert Clark”, List set up a new life in Virginia that was much like the previous one. He remarried, was active in the local Lutheran church and found work as an accountant. He eluded the authorities for almost twenty years.
In 1989, List was finally captured, thanks to the tv show America’s Most Wanted. The hit show hosted by John Walsh aimed to give its audience an idea of what List might look like all these years later. With many family photos destroyed, the producers brought in forensic sculptor Frank Bender to create a bust that could capture the alleged progression in age of the fugitive prime suspect.
The episode aired on May 21, 1989, catching the attention of a neighbor who called the police – and tipped off 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 led 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 March 21, 2008, complications from pneumonia. He was 82 years old.
What happened to John Graff?
By moving the chronology of this family massacre from 1971 to 1995, The Observer plays with the possibility that – like List – Graff managed to dodge death and the police for decades. So, could it have been John Graff eating a sandwich while giving Dean unwelcome fatherly advice?
For a moment in the last episode “Haunting,” it seemed like Graff might have been a bogeyman dreamed up by Schuyler herself to scare the Brannocks out of that big, beautiful house. But his daughter discovered that the late detective was trying to give the family peace by solving their riddle, even if it meant wrongly implicating himself as the Watcher.
The finale also sees the return of John Graff, who now goes by William “Bill” Webster as he joins the Westfield Preservation Society alongside his Brannock-hating neighbors Big Mo (Margot Martindale), Pearl (Mia Farrow), Roger Kaplan (Michael Nouri) and Jasper (Terry Kinney). But like Dean before them, some members of this group are wary of the glasses room. It starts when he mentions he’s been living in Westfield since 1995. It’s been a long time in the area for him to be new to this curious crew, but also 1995 is the year the Graff family was killed.
With a sharp eye, Kaplan suggests he recognizes “Bill.” Webster/Graff dismisses this saying that Kaplan must have seen him at work in the library.
Previously, Pearl revealed that the library contained typewriters, where she assumed her brother Jasper wrote the Watcher letters. But could 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 bodies – recognize him? Maybe he does. When Kaplan presses, “How’s your family, Bill?” Jasper jumps with his hammer, changing the subject to talk about the sticky pink marble brought into the house. With a new target for their Judgment Intensity, the company moves from Bill to “suitable countertop material” for 657 Boulevard.
Even after the Brannocks leave, the Watcher letters continue, scaring new landlady/real estate shark Karen Calhoun (Jennifer Coolidge) out of her new home. Maybe Graff wasn’t the original Watcher. But the extremely ambiguous ending of this miniseries suggests that he is at least one of the monsters residing in Westfield, New Jersey.
The Observer is now streaming on Netflix.
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