American Murder: The Family Next Door: 6 Facts About Chris Watts and the Psychology of Family Killers

The Watts family is featured in American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020).
The Watts family is featured in American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020).
Shanann Watts/2020 via Netflix

In 2018, the world watched in horror as husband and father of two Chris Watts seemed to transform before their eyes. Initially seen as a grief-stricken husband and father searching for his missing family, Watts soon became one of the most hated men in America when he confessed that he had murdered his pregnant wife Shannan and their two young daughters, Bella and Celeste. 

Using security footage from the Watts's Colorado home and the couple's own personal communications, Netflix’s true-crime documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door tells the heartbreaking story of the Watts family. While the streaming giant packed a lot of information about the tragedy into its 83-minute running time—including several clips of Shanann Watts speaking about Chris and her family, which she documented on social media—it still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Especially about why a seemingly happy husband and dad would suddenly snap and kill his entire family.

If you're looking to dig further into the case, and learn more about the unique psychology of what is usually referred to as a family annihilator or family killer, read on to discover some fascinating facts about the Watts case that weren't covered in Netflix’s documentary. **Spoilers ahead.**

1. Family annihilators generally fit into one of four basic profiles.

Family annihilator is the term used by criminologists to describe a person who murders their own family. In 2013, The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice published a study on the characteristics of family annihilators, based on a paper examining 30 years’ worth of newspaper archives. The study noted that assailants are typically male and fall into one of four categories: Self-Righteous, Disappointed, Anomic (Socially Unstable), and/or Paranoid.

In addition to fitting the gender part of the profile, Chris Watts has also been shown to exhibit self-righteous behavior. According to the research, family killers who exhibit self-righteous behavior often seek to blame their spouse for both the crime and any familial strain leading up to the murders. Watts showed this when he told detectives that it was Shanann who killed the kids, prompting him to then kill her out of rage. Watts later recanted this when describing the murders of his daughters by his own hands.

2. Family killers don't usually have a criminal history.

Chris Watts during his court hearing in American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020).Courtesy of Netflix/2020

According to the same 2013 study, family killers are unique in that most of them have no history of mental illness nor any criminal record. And most of them seem to be happy family men (or women) before their crimes.

3. financial strain can Be a Major Trigger for Family KIllers.

Although family annihilators have not been studied as much as serial killers or other mass murderers, it still befuddled the public that a seemingly loving father and husband could plan something so horrific.

But when compared to other family killers, there seems to be one commonality that stands out: financial strain. Financial issues are considered to be the second most common motive for family killers to act, according to The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice study.

As with the case of John List, who confessed in a letter that his 1971 family murders were due to finances, Chris Watts appears to have had money issues of his own. The Watts family filed for bankruptcy in 2015 after the couple racked up medical and credit card debt, as well as debt attributed to department store shopping and student loans.

4. Many family annihilators choose to commit their crimes in August.

One odd bit of data gleaned from all this research is that family annihilators most often commit their horrific crimes during the month of August. Why August? Professor David Wilson, director of Birmingham City University’s Centre for Applied Criminology and one of the paper’s authors, theorizes that it may be due to children not yet starting school, and the murderer having access. Another explanation could be parental stress after children are home for months during the summer break, which could worsen other issues like finances and marriage.

Chris Watts murdered his family in the early morning hours of August 13, 2018.

5. Chris Watts has spoken out from prison to express that he wants “a normal life” for his Mistress.

Chris Watts and his mistress in American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020).Courtesy of Netflix/2020

As more details surrounding the Watts case came to light, the public learned that, just as Shannan had suspected, there was another woman in Chris's life: geologist Nichol Kessinger. Kessinger sat down with detectives after learning about the murders and asserted that she didn’t know anything about Chris's plans.

Since then, Watts has sat down with Denver 7 for a nearly 5-hour prison interview to discuss his crimes and what led up to them. During the conversation, Watts spoke at length about his relationship with Kessinger. When asked if he wished he could talk to her he replied yes, “... just to say I’m sorry this all happened." Watts then went on to say, “Hopefully it’s calmed down since ... I just hope she can have normalcy.”

6. Some viewers swear they saw a ghost in the footage.

Following the American Murder: The Family Next Door's premiere on Netflix, one user took to YouTube to point out a rather strange detail: The image of what some believe is a ghost.

The YouTube video above features a clip from the first 15 minutes of the documentary, which is captured via police body cam, and many people think that what they're seeing on the screen is a ghost—perhaps of one of the Watts daughters who was killed. Others, however, refute the paranormal claims, stating that it’s likely the daughter of Nickole Atkinson, a friend of Shannan's and the person who first alerted the police to her disappearance.

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

Chronicle Books/Amazon

The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

Buy it: Amazon

2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

Buy it: Amazon

3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

Kolme Korkeudet Oy/Amazon

Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

Buy it: Amazon

4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

Ulysses Press/Amazon

This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

Buy it: Cratejoy

7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

Buy it: Amazon

9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

LookHUMAN/Amazon

This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

Buy it: Amazon

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100 Years Later, the Story of Florida’s Ocoee Massacre—an Election Day Attack on Black Citizens—Is Finally Being Told

Courtesy of Orange County Regional History Center
Courtesy of Orange County Regional History Center

The bloodiest Election Day in the history of the United States is a story many Americans have never heard. On November 2, 1920, the day of the U.S. presidential election, a white mob attacked a Black neighborhood in the city of Ocoee, Florida. Now, the story of the Ocoee Massacre is being told in a new museum exhibition for its 100-year anniversary, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

The exhibit, titled "Yesterday, This Was Home: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920,” is now on display at the Orange County Regional History Center in Downtown Orlando. It examines what the museum calls "the largest incident of voting-day violence in United States history."

On November 2, 1920, a black labor broker named Moses Norman attempted to vote in what is now Ocoee, only to be turned away when he didn't pay the $1 poll tax. He returned later that day to attempt to vote again, and this time his persistence caught the attention of local Ku Klux Klan members.

Knowing his actions had provoked anger, Norman fled town. A mob of armed white men went to the home of his friend July Perry that night while searching for him. Perry, a fellow labor broker, was 50 years old and had been involved in civic activities like registering more Black citizens to vote. Sha’Ron Cooley McWhite, Perry's great niece, told the Orlando Sentinel that his bravery and activism likely made him a target for white supremacists.

July PerryCourtesy of Orange County Regional History Center

The confrontation at Perry's home led to a shootout and ended with the mob capturing Perry and lynching him. The violence raged in the Black neighborhood throughout the night. By morning, the mob of 250 had burned down 22 homes and two churches and murdered dozens of Black residents.

Like many tragedies suffered by Black communities in U.S. history, the story of the Ocoee Massacre is not widely known. Poor record-keeping and intentional suppression of the news has left historians with an incomplete picture of exactly what happened that night. The Orange County Regional History Center had to collect land records, written reports, and oral histories to recount the event in depth.

"Yesterday, This Was Home: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920” is on display at the Orange County Regional History Center now through February 14, 2021.

[h/t Orlando Sentinel]