Spoiler alert: This story contains spoilers from “American Nightmare,” the three-part docuseries now streaming on Netflix.
“American Nightmare” may be difficult to watch at night. Netflix’s latest docuseries, from the filmmakers behind “The Tinder Swindler,” Felicity Morris and Bernadette Higgins, tells the story of a traumatic home invasion, abduction and the unreal events that unfolded from there.
In March 2015, Denise Huskins was abducted by a home invader from an apartment in Vallejo, Calif., and her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, was drugged with Nyquil at the same time, so he wasn’t able to report her kidnapping right away. As shown in the docuseries, the Vallejo police first viewed Quinn as the prime suspect after hours of questioning and attempting to get him to confess. Then Huskins showed up at her father’s house in Huntington Beach, hours south of Vallejo, after being missing for two days. She was quickly labeled by the police and the media as a “real-life Gone Girl,” and was accused of faking the entire ordeal and framing her boyfriend. The timing, one year after the Ben Affleck movie had hit theaters, wasn’t on her side, and somehow, Huskins was painted her as the villain — so much so that they stopped searching for the actual man committing the crimes.
Several women associated with the case who tried to stand up for Huskins were shot down by police as well. When Huskins’ mother revealed her daughter had been molested when she was a child, Det. Mat Mustard said that women who were sexually assaulted at a young age “often pretend to have it happen again, so they can relive the thrill of it.”
The new series dives into what happened with the police, what really happened to Quinn and Huskins, and how a different police department eventually helped to find the man responsible and put him behind bars.
Here, Morris and Higgins detail the process of making the doc with Variety.
How did this story come to you?
Felicity Morris: Bernie and I knew we wanted to work together again. This was a story that the production company we both worked for on and off had spotted, and had been negotiating access to Denise and Aaron for nearly two years. They wanted to tell their story, but they were being very careful with who they worked with after they dealt with not being believed. When we look at stories, we ask ourselves, “Why tell this story?” We always want people to have an active viewing experience and think of the themes. There needs to be those layers that demand the audience to ask themselves questions, and ask questions of institutions and the villains involved in these crime stories. In this, there are two villains: the police and Matthew Muller.
The way you crafted the storytelling and built suspense was so remarkable, in terms of who was telling the truth and what’s going on between Aaron and Denise in the present day. There’s almost a mystery at the end of each episode about who the villain is. How did you create that structure?
Bernadette Higgins: One of the main things we wanted to address with this was armchair detectives and people filling in blanks with whatever the most salacious possible thing is. This was a huge story in California, but somehow hasn’t been as viral globally, so we knew that people were coming in, ideally, not knowing anything about it. We wanted them to have the exact same experience as the people of California at the time. Aaron and Denise’s stories happened very separately. From the point where Denise was taken, they both had completely different experiences over the next 48 hours. So it didn’t really make sense for them to be together. Aaron genuinely didn’t know what happened to Denise, and nobody else in the public did either. So we wanted to hold her back, so that the viewers at home would have the same gasp when she turns up at the end of those 48 hours. We also had the amazing interrogation footage that Aaron and Denise fought tirelessly over the last few years to get access to, so that was a real gift for us in terms of storytelling — especially when it came to allowing the audience to sit back and really adjudicate the behavior of the police and decide how they felt about it.
We also wanted to really make sure that in Episode 2, Denise finally had a safe space and a platform to tell her story to an audience that was most likely going to believe her. Certainly, we believe her, and we wanted her to have a chance to just sit. We had a closed set, we didn’t have anyone in the room who didn’t need to be there. We just wanted her to finally have a chance to have her story heard by people who aren’t going to dismiss it or question it, or be suspicious of it.
Did this change your perception of law enforcement?
Morris: There’s law enforcement, not just in America, with problems at the top, and as you go down through the systems, what you’re really looking for with the police is a system of integrity — especially with victims of sexual assault victims like Denise. They need to listen and come from a point of believing, before making their minds up. The most shocking thing with Denise was that obviously the police went on national television and called Denise and Aaron liars 12 hours after she had been released, without even speaking to her. Even though we see some of those tapes and hear how compelling she is and how she tells the story in such incredible forensic detail — Denise is so unbelievably smart — they then still didn’t believe her, and still wanted to peddle the story that she was the real-life “Gone Girl.”
Bernie and I are not anti-police in any way. We’ve made a series where police had been the heroes. Certainly with the Dublin police and with Misty Carausu, it was just great that there was a police department who did investigate, who were curious, who did go not even go above and beyond. Misty will tell you that she was just doing her job as a detective, and the detective work is fascinating for her. There are good cops and there are bad cops. Unfortunately for Denise and Aaron, they fell victim to a police force that was seemingly misogynistic, and unable to believe the truth. But then fortunately for Denise and Aaron, they had a police department and Misty Carausu, who was hungry for the truth and hungry for answers and worked with integrity, with care and with thought.
There were a lot of questions about Det. Mat Mustard and agent David Sesma, the latter of which used to date Andrea, Aaron’s ex. Did you guys dig into how he was able to stay on the case and ask to speak to him?
Higgins: We reached out to all the police and FBI involved. We would have loved to have interviewed them. There’s a real missed opportunity here for law enforcement to be humble, and admit that they made mistakes and share with us how they’re trying to remedy these kinds of errors so that they don’t happen again. Unfortunately, they didn’t take that opportunity. They turned their back on us, and just shut down. We’re really lucky that the police interrogation tapes do the work for us. That is all the evidence we need, really, but in terms of the Andrea and David Sesman connection, Denise’s lawyer wrote to the United States Attorney and said, “This is outrageous. This guy should not be on the case.” There was this lull in between Denise being released and Matthew Muller being caught, their attorney tried to get David Sesma off the case. Aaron and Denise, were obviously, at this point, feeling like, “What the hell is going on? Every time we think that it can’t get any worse, it does.” So it starts to feel personal. Anyone who’s grown up watching any kind of police shows knows that if you have a connection to the case, you’re not supposed to be working on it. It is pretty basic. But they got a response saying that they didn’t see that there was any conflict of interest.
But there’s no reason to believe that David or Andrea had anything to do with anything that happened. That was an unfortunate set of coincidences, but nonetheless, there should be a bar when it comes to integrity and that clearly was not reached on many, many occasions during this investigation.
Did you also reach out to Andrea for this?
Higgins: We let Andrea know that the series was being made.
Did you request to interview her?
Higgins: I think she probably was dragged into it more than she ever wanted to be in the first place. We obviously knew that she had nothing to do with it. It was just a terrible set of coincidences.
One question I had at the end of watching this was whether Muller acted alone. I read that during the abduction, he played a pre-recorded message that made it seem as if there was more than one kidnapper. How did you decide what not to show about the details that came out after, when he was sentenced?
Higgins: One doesn’t cancel out the other. All of these things could be true — there could have been more than one person, and they could have used recordings to create chaos and confusion. Everything they did was to create chaos and confusion. And the fact of the matter is that every single thing Denise and Aaron said turned out to be true. Everything they said that everyone thought was too unbelievable, and couldn’t possibly be right, was proven right. Everything that they said has turned out to be true, so why wouldn’t this?
They maintain to this day they saw more than one set of legs in that bedroom, but unfortunately, because of the lazy policing that happened, there were many things that were never followed up on. There were many threads that were not pulled. We would never conclude that, because no one ever was able to conclude that. A lot of assumptions were made, even at that trial. This is just assumption city, this entire case, so you just get to a point where you’re like, who knows what to believe at this point — except that Denise and Aaron are the only consistent truth-tellers in this investigation.
Who was the toughest person to get to participate in this?
Morris: Nobody was difficult. Denise and Aaron had written a book about this before, and they’re very keen for their story to be told, and lessons to be learned from it and for other victims to feel heard and seen through their story. Denise had actually reached out to Tracy, the other lady that we spoke to in Episode 3. They had had some communication, because Tracy also was left in the dark once Matthew Muller was arrested. I think it was a reporter who knocked on her door and said, “Hey, I’m here to interview you about this case.” Tracy had no idea that a man who could have been behind her home invasion had been apprehended, and she too is left with questions that she hasn’t had answers to because of the fact that these investigations came to a standstill. It was really important for us to hear from another victim in this story, and thankfully, she was willing to go on camera.
Andrea was the original target. Did you ever find out why that was, or do you have any theories on that?
Higgins: Not really. Aaron spoke to Andrea, and she said that the police had told her that they thought it was just a case of mistaken identity — that Matthew had been casing the house, and simply thought that Denise was Andrea, basically. We’ve got no reason to think anything other than that. We know that Matthew Muller had been casing the neighborhood for quite a few months beforehand, so it’s entirely possible that he just it was a case of mistaken identity, but there’s no other real dotted line between Matthew and Andrea.
This interview has been edited and condensed.