Is The Watcher a true story? The truth behind the Bobby Cannavale Netflix thriller

Did a happy family flee their home because of some letters?

The Brannock family home watched by mysterious figure in Netflix's The Watcher
(Image credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix/Future)

It’s a chilling tale that’s captured the world’s imagination, but is the story of a family being mysteriously stalked into leaving their own home true or not?

A new seven-part Netflix thriller has viewers gripped, with an intriguing storyline that can’t possibly be real - or can it? When The Brannocks - played by Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale - move into their dream home, they believe they are exactly where they want to be in life. However, everything changes when they receive a mysterious letter in the mail, from a person calling themselves The Watcher, telling the family they have watched the house for years - and will be watching them when they move in. Terror ensues as the letters keep coming, and The Watcher becomes more obsessive in their letters. The Brannocks are even told at one point something mysterious lives in the walls of the house and they must "give the house what it wants". Is The Watcher a true story, and if so, how much is true? Read on to find out.

Viewers want to know if episodes of The Watcher were shot at the real Watcher house - The Watcher filmed across several locations, but where were they? For those wanting to know if The Watcher's identity was revealed in the series finale, we have The Watcher ending explained - which does contain spoilers.  

Is The Watcher a true story? 

Yes, The Watcher is based on the true story of Maria and Derek Broaddus who bought a house in New Jersey in 2014. Shortly afterwards they began receiving anonymous letters from someone calling themselves “The Watcher.” The letters began friendly, but soon turned sinister and threatening. 

The story was brought to public attention in  the 2018 New York Magazine article “The Haunting of a Dream House,” by Reeves Wiedeman. According to Time, three days after closing on their new home in June 2014, Maria and Derek Broaddus received the first letter from a person known as “The Watcher,” addressed to “the new owner” of the house. The letter appeared friendly in tone, simply welcoming them to the neighbourhood.  

The letters then became increasingly sinister. The next anonymous letter claimed the house had “been the subject of my family for decades now and as it approaches its 110th birthday, I have been put in charge of watching and waiting for its second coming. My grandfather watched the house in the 1920s and my father watched in the 1960s. It is now my time.” The Watcher suggested the Broadduses should know something about the history of the house, asking if they knew “what lies within the walls” and asking why they were there. It should be noted the police then reportedly searched the home and found nothing in the walls. 

The next typed letter grew even more threatening, with The Watcher apparently upset with the Broaddus family for renovating the home, and threatening to kidnap their three children. They wrote “Was your old house too small for the growing family? Or was it greed to bring me your children?” They also added “Once I know their names I will call to them and draw them to me.” The letter concluded “Welcome my friends, welcome. Let the party begin,” and signed “The Watcher”. 

Derek and Maria then found out the previous owners of the home - John and Andrea Woods - received a letter from The Watcher in the days before they moved out. The couple had lived at the address for 23 years and claimed it was the first time they’d ever received communication from the anonymous letter writer. In the Woodses letter, The Watcher simply told them they’d been watching the house closely while they lived there. Believing it to be a prank, they threw it away and didn’t think too much about it. The police were now involved, and told Derek and Maria not to tell anyone about the letters, especially as their neighbours were now suspects. 

Due to renovations, the family were yet to actually move into the property. The following letter really put them off doing so. As well as asking “Have they found what is in the walls yet? In time they will,” The Watcher began referring to the family - including the children - by their names. As well as knowing the children’s names, The Watcher also asked if Derek and Maria would let the children play in the basement, saying “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”. They concluded this note by telling the family they passed the house several times a day, calling it “my job, my life, my obsession”. 

This was then the Broaddus family decided they were definitely not moving into the house, and put it back on the market. However, in choosing to disclose the threatening letters to potential buyers, a sale was incredibly difficult to get. They eventually rented the house out and amazingly those renting were unperturbed by the letters, only asking for additional security cameras to be installed. The Watcher even sent the tennants a letter but instead of being about them, they were seemingly still obsessed with the Broaddus family. 

They expressed anger at the media attention the family had brought to the story, and threatened their lives saying “Maybe a car accident. Maybe a fire. Maybe something as simple as a mild illness that never seems to go away but makes you feel sick day after day after day after day after day”.  The property eventually sold in 2019. The Broadduses had purchased the home for $959,000, but sold their dream home - and house they’d never moved into - for a $400,000 loss. 

Terry Kinney as Jasper Winslow, Mia Farrow as Pearl Winslow in episode 101 of The Watcher.

(Image credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)

Where is the real Watcher house?

The real Watcher house is situated at 657 Boulevard in Westfield, New Jersey. The six-bedroom Dutch Colonial was built in 1905, and has only had a handful of owners in that time. 

Prior to the home actually selling in 2019, Derek and Maria Broaddus attempted to sell it to a developer to tear it down and build two new properties on the site. The Westfield Planning Board refused to let this happen, due to neighbours insisting the plan would devalue their homes and ruin the aesthetic of the area. The family also also filed a lawsuit against previous owners John and Andrew Woods, for failing to tell them they’d also received a letter from The Watcher. 

However, this case was dismissed when it transpired the Woods family had only ever received one letter, and hadn’t thought it serious enough to disclose as they hadn’t found it threatening. According to NBC New York, the new owners of the home are Westfield locals Andrew and Allison Carr, who closed on the home on July 1, 2019. 

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How much of The Watcher is true?

There are two major differences between the series and the real story - in the series the family actually moved into the house, which didn’t really happen. The show also gives a sale price of $3.2 million for the house, while the Broaddus family actually paid $1.3 million. 

The real Watcher House is also located at 657 Boulevard in Westfield, New Jersey, and this has been changed to  Hempstead, New York for the series. Derek and Maria Broaddus also had three young children when they bought the house, whereas the series depicts them with two teenage children. The family name has also been changed from Broaddus to Brannock for the series - this was a request made by the family. They asked for the show to change their family name and for the children not to resemble their own.

Creative licence has also been taken regarding how frightening the neighbours were to the family. Although it’s true that some neighbours would sit on deck chairs facing the Broaddus home, the television neighbours are given an eerily threatening roles which are predominantly made up. However, the content of the letters received is based on fact.  

Mia Farrow as Pearl Winslow, Terry Kinney as Jasper Winslow, Jeffery Brooks as Officer, Duke Lafoon as Neighbor, Naomi Watts as Nora Brannock, Bobby Cannavale as Dean Brannock in episode 104 of The Watcher.

(Image credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)

Where is the Broaddus family now?

It’s been reported that Derek and Maria Broaddus still live in Westfield, New Jersey, in the same town as they purchased The Watcher house. 

The Cut reported that as they struggled to sell 657 Boulevard but needed somewhere to live, they borrowed money from family members to afford another home in Westfield. It’s alleged they used an LLC (limited liability company) to make the sale of their new home, to keep the location private and prevent The Watcher from tracking them down. 

At the time, Derek Broaddus told The Cut “I was a depressed wreck. What happened to my family is an affront to their contention that they’re safe, that there’s no such thing as mental illness in their community. People don’t want to believe this could happen in Westfield”.

Bobby Cannavale as Dean Brannock, Naomi Watts as Nora Brannock in episode 101 of The Watcher

(Image credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)

Did The Watcher ever get caught?

No, The Watcher was never caught, and their identity remains  a mystery to this day. 

Attention regarding a potential culprit, initially turned to neighbour Michael Langford. His general demeanour was considered strange, and his family had occupied their house for generations. It was theorised that Langford’s father was The Watcher referred to in the 60s, with him taking over once his father died. However, Langford was questioned twice and nothing was ever found to prove it could have been him.

After DNA found on the letters was found to belong to a woman, Langford’s sister - real estate agent Abby Langord - was questioned. It was thought that in her job, she would have access to personal information about the Broadduses and the sale of the home, to use in the letters. However, her DNA wasn’t a match to that found.

Another theory claimed The Watcher could be a disgruntled party who missed out on the sale of the house, or someone jealous of the Broadduses money. The Watcher implied they were adverse to new money entering the area, and modernising of the homes in the area. An FBI agent at the time even suggested the person could be a former housekeeper at the property, or one of their descendants. He thought they could be angry at the disproportionate wealth in the area, or circumstances they or family members encountered while working there. 

One theory even suggested Derek Broaddus sent the letters himself. As the letters stopped when the house sold, residents suggested the family had sent the letters for attention. Derek Broaddus has vehemently denied this, even asking for an apology that this even came up as a possible theory.

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Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.