The Watcher’s John Graff Is Inspired By Murderer John List

It took nearly 20 years for the killer to be caught.

On Netflix's 'The Watcher,' real people and events inspire the dramatization — and John Graff is one...
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

If you’ve been exploring the real story behind The Watcher on Netflix, you probably already have the basics down. The on-screen Brannock family represents the real-life Broaddus family, who received disturbing letters from a sender called The Watcher starting upon the purchase of their Westfield, New Jersey home in 2014. While both The Watcher and the story it’s based on remain unresolved (to the disappointment of some viewers), not every part of the adaptation tracks with the family’s real-life experience.

For example, the Broadduses never actually moved into 657 Boulevard. Understandably spooked by the threatening letters they were receiving, they opted to stay elsewhere while the investigation unfolded. Some small requests were made by the family, Derek Broaddus told The Cut, so that the Netflix series wouldn’t be too close to real life. Other changes seem to have been made by the streamer for dramatic effect, though, like the case of John Graff.

In Episode 3, we see the phony building inspector sneak into 657 Boulevard, make himself a sandwich, and preach to Dean about religion and his teenage daughter’s sex life. Later, Theodora tells Dean a story about a man who used to live in the home, and we learn it’s the same guy. In the past, she explains, John also received letters from The Watcher. After losing his job and exhibiting an obsession with religious repentance, he killed his entire family and then disappeared, ostensibly assuming a new alias. He later returned to the scene of the crime to dole out some creepy advice to the new homeowner.

So, is the John Graff storyline in The Watcher real? Yes and no. As Entertainment Weekly points out, the character is based on a real murderer named John List. Like John Graff, the real man killed his entire family in a gruesome fashion before going on the run and ultimately wasn’t found for nearly two decades. There’s no evidence that he received letters from The Watcher, though, and he didn’t live at 657 Boulevard, so these details were seemingly included to add dramatic tension to the show — and to Dean’s own obsessive hunt for The Watcher.

There is one important connection between the show and the real John List, however. He actually lived in Westfield, and Maria Broaddus was aware of his story before her family’s saga with The Watcher began. “My mother always told me don’t have a false sense of security,” she told The Cut in 2018. “It wasn’t that bad things were going on all the time, it was that bad things happen everywhere. She didn’t want me to think that this is Mayberry.”