Last weekend, we watched “American Murder: The Family Next Door” on Netflix and it’s got me feeling like shit about watching it. If you haven’t heard about it yet, it’s another true crime documentary on Netflix, it uses real footage from police body cams, interrogation video room cams, Facebook video posts and text messages to document the timeline of a murderer named Chris Watts in the days after he murdered his wife, Shanann Watts and their two infant girls, right up until the time when he confesses to those murders.
Turning a horrible tragedy like this into entertainment, is eroding our humanity in my opinion and I really, really regret watching it. So before you watch it, I just wanna point out a couple of the things that have been running through my mind.
When we watch this sort of reality television, it normalizes schadenfreude and that normalization is one of the things that I believe is tearing our society apart. Schadenfreude is defined as feeling pleasure from another person’s misfortune. It’s a kind of joy humans feel when someone else has it worse off than we do and it’s such an ambiguous emotion or a feeling that we don’t even have a word for it in the English language, in fact, I’m probably not even saying it right. It isn’t an actual appreciation for someone else’s tragedy but it’s like finding joy in knowing that you aren’t the one that it happened to. It’s a sense of relief mixed with pride and validation and also an othering, making someone else less than you and finding maybe even humor in that.
But when we feel schadenfreude, we filter someone else’s tragedy through our own self worth or self-interest. When we do that, we lose our ability to empathize with that person. It’s like creating a wall with that TV screen between us and someone else who’s another human person. Schadenfreude is something we should be ashamed of, in my opinion, ashamed to feel, we should strive to recognize that feeling in ourselves and then to move past it, to get rid of it. And we definitely shouldn’t seek it out as a form of entertainment, because it does nothing for us, it has no biological or psychological value, it creates a false sense of self-worth and it fabricates a fake feeling of security, like this is happening to them but it’s happening to me, which logically doesn’t really track.
Watching TV and movies that make us feel schadenfreude, erodes our self-awareness of it, which makes it easier for us to avoid empathy for other people in the real world and real world situations. Because when we’re watching these sorts of shows, it degrades our moral compass, because these shows portray other people’s tragedy as being very separate from our own, even though we are all really just humans and we’re all in this world together, this murder took place in 2018 in Colorado, I think, so it’s actually… It’s a lot closer to home than you might really think when you’re watching the movie.
And add to that, the fact that the protagonist in this movie is Chris Watts, a guy who murdered his family, following him around this way, the way the camera follows him, it humanizes him, which further normalizes these murders, it desensitizes us to it. He’s handsome, they show him smiling, which at least on a subconscious level, makes the audience like him or identify with him. They kind of skirt around villainizing his wife, they show him shirtless and working out and he’s kind of fit, he’s had a weight loss transformation and those sorts of things appeal to people’s most base attraction towards seeing other fit humans. All of those things, they’re choices that a director or producers use to manipulate the audience and the way the audience feels about this murderer. They move our perception away from these tragic events and away from the victims and put the spotlight on the perpetrator. But why? Is there anything to be gained by watching this tragedy from the perspective of Chris Watts? I don’t think so.
This sort of storytelling, centering him in this tragedy, it only just muddies the truth and the truth is that this is a guy who killed his wife and his infant daughters, he threw them into oil tankers, it’s horrendous. Reality television warps our sense of reality, turning real life into entertainment, manipulates us into seeing these real people as if they were characters in a story, instead of seeing them as real people who’ve experienced really terrible events. We’ve gotta keep reminding ourselves that these people are not characters in a story, they’re actual people involved in an unspeakable tragedy at the hands of a terrible person. Scripting these stories and creating entertainment from real life, it creates a distance between us and these very real people, as if we’re watching them in a museum, like through a lens in the safety of our dark living room late at night, when nobody else can see us peeking.
When we trivialize these stories, we talk about them casually at the water cooler, or we make jokes about these people or the situations, we normalize antipathy, we make it okay to other people to hate the villains or cheer for the heroes, but these are real people who happened to be in very real situations, sometimes very tragic situations. When we do this, when we make ourselves comfortable watching them as if we were in a museum, we make it more acceptable for us to create that distance toward or with other people in real life. Like we other, other people. To treat people in real life like characters in our own story, instead of like people as part of the story and all of this, all of this desensitization to other people’s tragedy, is making it easier for us to hate one another, especially to hate strangers and to not feel any shame about that hatred.
I’m really disappointed in myself for watching this movie. It’s highlighting my own cognitive dissonance, because I know I need to avoid this kind of bullshit television, I know it does bad things to my brain, to my psychology and to the way I treat other people in real life. It’s desensitizing me to the collective human experience and it’s impeding my ability to connect with people in the real world, instead of treating them as part of a narrative I’m writing in my own head.
So if you’re thinking about watching this movie, maybe just don’t. Even if you’re thinking about watching other reality shows, even ones that aren’t about tragedies, just ask yourself, why? Why are you entertained by this? Would you be comfortable sitting in the audience, watching a gladiator be torn apart by lions? Another human person. And if so, why?
It’s just something I’ve been thinking about because I’m super, super disappointed in myself for watching this movie and I hope that maybe you were thinking about this stuff too. So thanks for listening and letting me share.