October 13, 2022 5:12 PM EDT

A couple’s dream home turns into a total nightmare in Netflix’s The Watcher. The limited series, from creator Ryan Murphy, is based on a true story that is almost too horrifying to believe.

In the series, streaming now, Dean and Nora Brannock (played by Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts) move to an idyllic New Jersey neighborhood where they assume their kids will be cocooned from the evils of the world. But these affluent suburbs hide something sinister. Shortly after settling into their new home, the couple starts receiving threatening letters from someone calling themselves “The Watcher.” This unwelcome penpal begins to terrorize the family in ways that should make any American Horror Story fan feel right at home.

The Watcher, which also stars Jennifer Coolidge and Rosemary Baby’s Mia Farrow, gives AHS: Murder House a run for its money by taking more than a few liberties with the frighteningly true story on which it’s based. But that doesn’t mean the real events aren’t a terrifying tale all their own. Keep reading, if you dare, to learn the real story behind Netflix’s latest horror series that might make you think twice before signing your next lease.

Read More: Breaking Down The Watcher’s Fantastically Frustrating Conclusion

When did The Watcher send the first letter?

The Brannocks seen in The Watcher are based on the real life couple Derek and Maria Broaddus. Three days after the couple closed on their Westfield, New Jersey home in June 2014, they received their first letter from a person known as “The Watcher.” The white envelope with big block letters was addressed to “the new owner” of the six bedroom, three and a half bathroom estate that was built in 1905. Inside was a typed note that started cordially enough, according to the 2018 New York Magazine story that inspired the Netflix series: “Dearest new neighbor at 657 Boulevard, allow me to welcome you to the neighborhood.”

The tone of the message quickly became far less friendly. The anonymous writer claimed that the home located 45 minutes outside of New York City 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 letter questioned whether the Broadduses knew about the history of the 3869 square foot single family home. “Do you know what lies within the walls of 657 Boulevard? Why are you here?” the writer asked. “I will find out.” (The police reportedly searched the home and found nothing in the walls.)

The letter-writer seemed to have done their due diligence on the Broaddus family, scolding the couple for making renovations to the home and threatening to kidnap their three children. “Was your old house too small for the growing family? Or was it greed to bring me your children?” the mysterious stalker wrote. “Once I know their names I will call to them and draw them too [sic] me.” The letter had no return address, but closed with an ominous line: “Welcome my friends, welcome. Let the party begin.” It was signed “The Watcher” in a typed cursive font.

The following day, Derek and Maria discovered that the previous owners of their new home, John and Andrea Woods, had also received a strange letter from someone calling themselves The Watcher. In the days before they moved out, the Woodses got a letter in which the writer claimed they had been keeping a close eye on the house. The couple, who had lived there for 23 years and had never heard from The Watcher before, assumed it was a prank and promptly threw the letter out without giving it much thought. The police, however, took the letter seriously, and advised the Broadduses not to tell anyone else about the note, especially their new neighbors who were now suspects.

Nora Brannock (Naomi Watts) and Dean Brannock (Bobby Cannavale) deal with a threat at their new house in 'The Watcher' (Eric Liebowitz—Netflix)
Nora Brannock (Naomi Watts) and Dean Brannock (Bobby Cannavale) deal with a threat at their new house in 'The Watcher'
Eric Liebowitz—Netflix

What did The Watcher do next?

Two weeks after the first letter, another one arrived. “The workers have been busy and I have been watching you unload carfuls of your personal belongings,” The Watcher wrote. “The dumpster is a nice touch. Have they found what is in the walls yet? In time they will.” This time around, The Watcher referred to the Broadduses by name (misspelling their surname as “Mr. and Mrs. Braddus”). Derek and Maria grew worried by how much information this person knew about them and their family, including the names and birth order of their children.

Due to the renovation—and the creepy letter—the family had yet to move into their new home and The Watcher seemed anxious to see them do so. The writer questioned whether they would let their kids, who the writer referred to as “young blood,” play in the basement. “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 wrote. In that same note, The Watcher let the family know that they “pass by many times a day. 657 Boulevard is my job, my life, my obsession. And now you are too Braddus family.”

After the second letter, Derek and Maria stopped bringing their kids to what was supposed to be their new home. Weeks later, they received another letter. “Where have you gone to?” The Watcher wrote. “657 Boulevard is missing you.”

Did the Broaddus family ever move into 657 Boulevard?

No. In fact, six months after closing on the property, purchasing the house for $1.4 million, they put it back on the market. They were unable to find a buyer due to the creepy letters, which the Broadduses chose to disclose to anyone who came and looked at the property. “I don’t know how you live through what we did and think you could do it to somebody else,” Derek told New York Magazine.

The Broadduses attempted to sell the house again in 2016 for $1.25 million, but the letters were a no-go for potential buyers. The family’s real estate lawyer suggested they sell the home to a developer who would tear down the place, a move that would have required the Westfield Planning Board’s blessing, since dividing the lot into two homes would go against local code. The Broaddus’ request was unanimously rejected after a heated four-hour board meeting in which many locals aired their worries that tearing down 657 Boulevard would lower the cost of their homes and ruin the aesthetic of the neighborhood.

Months later, the Broadduses were able to rent out the home, but shortly after the new family moved in, The Watcher sent another letter. It was dated February 13, which was the same day the Broadduses gave a deposition in a legal complaint they filed in June 2015 against the home’s previous owners The Woodses, who they claimed should have warned them about The Watcher. (The complaint was later dismissed by a judge.) “You wonder who The Watcher is? Turn around idiots,” read the letter, which arrived two and a half years after the Broadduses bought the home. “Maybe you even spoke to me, one of the so-called neighbors who has no idea who The Watcher could be. Or maybe you do know and are too scared to tell anyone. Good move.”

The new letter was more aggressive than the previous three with the writer complaining about the media attention the Broadduses had brought to “my neighborhood,” but celebrated how the locals had “saved the soul of 657 Boulevard with my orders.” The Watcher even threatened revenge on Derek and Maria, seemingly plotting their deaths: “Maybe a car accident. Maybe a fire. Maybe something as simple as a mild illness that never seems to go away but makes you fell [sic] sick day after day after day after day after day.” (Surprisingly, the renters at the time didn’t leave the house, but requested the Broadduses install additional security cameras.)

The fourth—and final—letter ended with The Watcher declaring, “You are despised by the house. And The Watcher won.”

Was The Watcher ever caught?

From the beginning, police suspected that someone in the Westfield neighborhood was behind the letters. Initially they believed Michael Langford, the Broaddus’ next door neighbor whose family had lived there since the ‘60s and who was described by another neighbor as “kind of a Boo Radley character,” according to New York Magazine. There wasn’t much hard evidence against Langford, and he was never arrested. When a later investigation revealed that the DNA on the envelope was female, authorities investigated Michael’s sister, Abby Langford, a real estate agent, and the home’s previous owner Andrea Woods. Neither was a match. Even Maria’s DNA was tested, but she was quickly cleared of any wrongdoing. Another possible suspect, a man who was into “really dark video games” and often played as a character named “The Watcher,” according to his girlfriend, was also dismissed after he failed to show up for multiple meetings with authorities.

Some people in the neighborhood told New York Magazine that it was possible the Broadduses were behind the offputting letters, suggesting the couple had realized they couldn’t afford the home and wrote the creepy notes themselves in order to get out of the sale. Some even suggested that the couple were scammers looking for a movie deal. (The Broadduses reportedly turned down several offers and sent a cease and desist letter to Lifetime after the network released a 2016 movie called The Watcher, inspired by their experience.)

Derek did admit to sending anonymous letters to his neighbors who had bashed him on Facebook nearly three years after The Watcher had contacted him. He hoped the notes signed, “Friends of the Broaddus Family,” would help him clear his family’s name, but it only made him feel more defeated by the situation. “It’s like cancer,” he told New York Magazine in 2018 about the whole ordeal. “We think about it everyday.” Despite an extensive investigation by Westfield police, The Watcher has yet to be caught.

A dream house becomes a nightmare for a family in 'The Watcher' (Eric Liebowitz—Netflix)
A dream house becomes a nightmare for a family in 'The Watcher'
Eric Liebowitz—Netflix

What happened to the house at 657 Boulevard?

In the summer of 2019, the Broadduses sold the home for $959,000, resulting in a $400,000 loss for a house they never lived in. In October, New York Magazine’s The Cut reported that when the new owners moved in, the Broadduses gave them a note via their real estate attorney: “We wish you nothing but the peace and quiet that we once dreamed of in this house.” They also included a photo of The Watcher’s handwriting just in case any new letters arrived. To date, none have.

The Broadduses, who moved to a smaller home in Westfield, told The Sun Online in October that they are traumatized by their experience with The Watcher and are “trying to move on” with their lives. They said the Netflix series, which they do not plan to watch, did not make them rich, or even fully cover the losses incurred from the sale of their house.

The identity of The Watcher remains a mystery, despite intriguing wrinkles in the case since New York Magazine published the Broaddus’ story in 2018. After the article came out, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office asked those who lived near 657 Boulevard to voluntarily submit DNA samples. None of the neighbors were a match, though one neighbor, named Malcolm Mannix, took issue with the search. But, according to The Cut, there is no one by the name of Malcom Mannix who lives in Westfield. Mannix was a 1960s TV show in which a police officer named Art Malcom helps private investigator Joe Mannix solve crimes. In the original note to the Broadduses, the writer mentioned that their father had watched 657 Boulevard in the ‘60s. An odd development, to be sure, but not enough to warrant an arrest.

The case has also been tied to Me and Orson Welles author Robert Kaplow, who worked as a high school English teacher two towns over from Westfield, and has talked about his affection for the wealthy New Jersey town he grew up in during the ‘60s. Former students claimed to The Cut that he had talked in his classes about the obsession he had with a home in Westfield and had written at least 50 letters to not the owners, but the home itself. (In another strange coincidence, Kaplow’s brother, lawyer Richard Kaplow, lived half a block away from 657 Boulevard and even represented the Woodses in the legal complaint the Broadduses filed against them.) Speaking with The Cut, Robert Kaplow denied being The Watcher. He claimed that it was a different house nearby that he had been writing to and the owners of that home actually let him housesit due to his kind, non-threatening letters. While Robert did not say why he had started writing to this specific home, in 2009, he said that “Westfield remains for me the geography of my youth. I’m still very drawn to the place.”

The investigation remains inactive, according to the prosecutor’s office, and there are no lead suspects. However, the case isn’t closed. Authorities believe the suspect to be older, female, and someone who lives near 657 Boulevard, based on the DNA evidence found on the envelope, and say the only way to solve the case is via confession or a DNA match. But if The Watcher decides to write again, the Internet will be watching.

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