Sometimes, home is where the horror is.
That's certainly the case on Netflix's "The Watcher," starring Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts as Dean and Nora Broaddus, the new owners of a stately home in the New Jersey suburbs who can't believe their good fortune. Until the first letter arrives.
Feeling unsafe in your own abode is the stuff nightmares are made of — and the binge-worthy series, the latest creation from Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, has the added creep factor of being inspired by true events.
"This family, what they went through, how hard they fought to get their dream home and then have it turn out in a very different way than they imagined," Watts told NJ.com. "I think that anyone could identify with that story and anyone could feel that that could happen to them."
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Who is the family that had the real-life Watcher experience?
The family in question was Derek and Maria Broaddus and their three children, who bought 657 Boulevard, a sprawling six-bedroom Dutch colonial in Westfield, N.J., for $1.3 million eight years ago.
On June 5, 2014, three days after the couple closed on what they thought would be their forever-home, an envelope addressed only to "The New Owner" showed up in their mailbox.
"Dearest new neighbor at 657 Boulevard," the handwritten letter inside began. "Allow me to welcome you to the neighborhood."
Nice enough, if a little weird. But the message quickly took a turn.
"657 Boulevard has 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," the letter continued. "My grandfather watched the house in the 1920s and my father watched in the 1960s. It is now my time. Do you know the history of the house? Do you know what lies within the walls of 657 Boulevard? Why are you here? I will find out."
The writer noted seeing Derek and Maria's children, continuing, "Do you need to fill the house with the young blood I requested? Better for me. Was your old house too small for the growing family? Or was it greed to bring me your children? Once I know their names I will call to them and draw them too [sic] me."
The writer also claimed to have once "ran from room to room imagining the life with the rich occupants there. And now I watch and wait for the day when they [sic] young blood will be mine again."
Signed, "The Watcher."
The disturbing communique could have been a prank, a dark welcome-to-the-neighborhood joke.
But it was almost 10 p.m. when Derek, who was at the not-yet-moved-into house painting that day, read the letter and got duly freaked out. So he called police, according to the 2018 The Cut article that inspired the "The Watcher" series.
"What the f--- is this?" the responding officer wondered.
How many letters did The Watcher send?
The next letter came June 18, 2014, addressed erroneously to "Mr. and Mrs. Braddus." The Watcher wrote, "The workers have been busy and I have been watching you unload carfuls of your personal belongings. The dumpster is a nice touch. Have they found what is in the walls yet? In time they will. I am pleased to know your names and the names now of the young blood you have brought to me. You certainly say their names often."
Noting that the house was "anxious" for them to move in, The Watcher continued, "Will the young bloods play in the basement. Who has the bedrooms facing the street? I'll know as soon as you move in. It will help me to know who is in which bedroom then I can plan better. All the windows and doors in 657 Boulevard allow me to watch you and track you as you move through the house. I am in charge of 657 Boulevard."
A third letter wondering why the family hadn't moved in arrived in July. "Where have you gone to?" The Watcher wrote. "657 Boulevard is missing you."
Who used to own The Watcher home?
The mystery went viral in June 2015 when Derek and Maria sued their home's previous owners, John and Andrea Woods, for not disclosing that the house came with a Watcher. As in, the lawsuit alleged, the sellers failed to tell their buyers that they had received a letter on May 24, 2014, a week before the sale became official.
The complaint, which alleged fraud and breach of contract, also named the Chicago Title Insurance Company and The Watcher as defendants.
The story was so sensational, the Woodses countersued for damages in 2016, alleging they'd been defamed by the Broadduses' claims.
"My clients have gone through having to experience serious allegations that have made their way to the Internet," the Woodses' attorney said. "They have been embarrassed and humiliated and subject to public ridicule."
According to The Cut, Derek and Maria emailed the Woodses right after receiving the first Watcher letter, and the next morning Andrea emailed back, sharing that she and her husband had had received an "odd" note, the first of its kind in the 23 years they'd lived there, but they didn't find it threatening and they just threw it out. She and John, both retired scientists, also went with Maria to the police station later that same day, where a detective told her not to mention the letters to anyone, including any new neighbors — because they were all suspects.
The legal battle went on for a couple of years, during which the Broadduses never ended up moving into 657 Boulevard. They unsuccessfully tried to sell, and then a plan to raze the house, divide the lot and build two new structures was rejected by the township planning board, which called the existing home "magnificent."
Ultimately the Broadduses managed to rent it out in February 2017 to a tenant who told NJ Advance Media at the time that he was not aware of the house's eerie backstory until he responded to the ad.
"That is not my issue," he said. (According to The Cut, there was a clause in his lease letting him out of the deal in case of further letters.)
It became his issue days later when a fourth (under Broaddus owernship) Watcher letter arrived Feb. 13, 2017.
"This letter contained specific threats and was more derogatory and sinister than any of the previous letters," Derek and Maria's lawyer wrote in a brief filed the following month.
This time, per The Cut, the letter was sent "To the vile and spiteful Derek and his wench of a wife Maria." It read, "You wonder who The Watcher is? Turn around idiots. 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 letter, which also noted the media coverage of the house and gave a shoutout to the "soldiers of the Boulevard" who "carried out their mission and saved the soul of 657 Boulevard with my orders," also listed some possible revenge scenarios, such as a fire or the "mysterious death of a pet."
But the tenant reportedly agreed to stay, so long as the Broadduses installed some security cameras.
Meanwhile, authorities were investigating, but as Scott Kraus, who worked on the case for the Union County Prosecutor's Office, told The Cut, "It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack."
Was The Watcher ever identified?
An August 2017 court filing from John and Andrea Woods, citing a deposition given by Maria Broaddus as part of the ongoing litigation, alleged that a third family had received a Watcher letter and posted it to Facebook, and that police had a suspect.
Westfield Police promptly said they had no suspects in the by then three-year-old case, nor had they tracked down the other alleged letter. "At best there were persons of interest," Westfield police Chief David Wayman told NJ Advance Media. "We're still actively investigating this case."
Maria also said in the deposition, per the filing, that she still felt that anyone in town could have written those letters.
What happened to The Watcher house?
A judge dismissed the Broadduses' lawsuit in October 2017, ruling that there was no evidence the Woodses had intentionally deceived them, and threw out the defendants' counterclaims as well.
Needless to say, the whole experience continued to haunt them. "It's like cancer," Derek told The Cut. "We think about it every day."
He and Maria did finally manage to sell the house in July 2019 — for $400,000 less than they paid for it. It's there to this day, a macabre tourist attraction that's seen an increase in visits thanks to the Netflix series.
While it's not an active investigation, the Union County Prosecutor's Office says the Watcher case is still open.
Watts and Cannavale said they didn't meet the Broadduses, but they thought long and hard about the family as they embarked on playing the Broadduses in "The Watcher."
"The fear that they went through and the disruption and suspicion of outside forces constantly," Watts said. "I imagine it to be an incredibly anxious time. So it makes for great characters to play."