Is 'The Watcher's John Graff Based On a True Crime?

Is 'The Watcher's John Graff Based On a True Crime?

Netflix's new limited series The Watcher has become the true-crime fictionalization to watch, even if you weren't previously familiar with the real-life case. Created by Ryan Murphy and based on a 2018 New York Magazine story, the show follows a family of four when their dream home becomes a nightmare, as they begin receiving creepy letters from someone called The Watcher. The mysterious, menacing figure drives the couple (played by Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale) to paranoia, as they begin to suspect all of their neighbors and even each other.

While the true story of 657 Boulevard in Westfield, New Jersey, is enough of a draw, Murphy and the creative team also pulled inspiration from another true crime tale. The series' third episode introduces the story of John Graff (Joe Mantello), a former owner of the house who had his own lethal history. Read on to learn what we know about the Graff character's connection to a real 1971 family massacre.

Who is John Graff in 'The Watcher'?

The Watcher viewers first hear the name Graff in a story told by private investigator Theodora Birch (Noma Dumezweni), who patriarch Dean Brannock (Cannavale) has hired to investigate the anonymous letters. In the show, Graff was a mild-mannered father and accountant who moved into 657 Boulevard with his wife, his mother, and his two children. The father's mental state slowly deteriorates as he receives the Watcher letters, which taunt him about his family issues and his recent firing from his job. Eventually he murders each member of his family one-by-one, and flees after leaving their bodies in the house for the neighbors to find weeks later.

the watcher joe mantello as john graff in episode 103 of the watcher cr eric liebowitznetflix © 2022
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

What is the John List case?

List was a father of three who lived with his wife, his mother, and his children in the real-life town of Westfield, New Jersey, in the early 1970s. The seemingly mild-mannered man lived in similar circumstances as the character Graff; he struggled to maintain a job and siphoned his mother's bank accounts of $200,000 in order to keep up appearances, per Associated Press. In November 1971, List fatally shot the five members of his family, fleeing their home and leaving behind a five-page letter to his pastor, confessing to the murders.

Several similarities to the List murders were included in John Graff's storyline. Per the New York Times, the List family's Westfield home was a large "19-room ramshackle Victorian" with a Tiffany skylight. Though List had two sons rather than Graff's one, both the real man and the character had a 16-year-old daughter named Patricia.

The show's massacre scene is also very similar to real events; List fatally shot his wife, Helen, and mother, Alma, first, waiting for Patricia and his 13-year-old Frederick to come home from school before shooting them as well. He also took a break during the homicide to eat lunch, before attending his 15-year-old John's soccer game, driving him home, and killing him. Both List and Graff also cut themselves out of family photos and left after turning on all the lights in the house and playing organ music.

What happened to John List?

After his crime, List lived on the run for nearly 18 years. In 1989, he was captured in Richmond, Virginia, where he'd been living under the alias "Robert Clark." At the time, List lived a similar life as before the killings; he had remarried, had found new work as an accountant, and was active in the Lutheran church.

His capture was credited to the show America's Most Wanted, which featured him as the subject of its May 21, 1989, installment. For the episode, producers brought in a forensic sculptor who studied List's old photos and created a bust imagining what he might look like as an older man. He was then identified by a neighbor, and authorities arrested him at his work less than two weeks after the episode aired.

In April 1990, List was convicted on five counts of first-degree murder and received five life sentences. He lived the rest of his life in prison, before dying from complications of pneumonia in March 2008.

the watcher episode 101 of the watcher cr eric liebowitznetflix © 2022
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

What happened to John Graff?

Like The Watcher's other unfinished storylines, viewers never learn what happened to Graff after he fled. In the show's timeline, the murders occur in 1995, and Graff has yet to be apprehended by the time the Brannock family moves into the house. In episode 3, as Dean hears the full story from Theodora, he slowly realizes that the mysterious "building inspector John" he met just hours before could be the killer, returning to the house to see what's become of it. (Mantello plays both Graff and the building inspector.)

As the episodes continue, we learn that the fake building inspector is involved with the Brannock's neighbors Pearl (Mia Farrow) and Jasper (Terry Kinney), and has snuck into 657 Boulevard as part of the Westfield Preservation Society. Though the show never confirms that the man is Graff (he introduces himself as William "Bill" Webster), there is a moment where another character seems to recognize him, and asks about his family. Despite the copious hints, the man's confirmed identity remains a mystery as The Watcher ends.

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