Netflix true-crime series American Nightmare recounts the horrific ordeal of abductee Denise Huskins – and the role the 2014 David Fincher film may have played in her treatment.
In March 2015, a woman from Vallejo, California, Denise Huskins, was kidnapped in the middle of the night from her boyfriend’s house, held hostage for 48 hours and raped. However, on her release, as detailed in the new Netflix documentary, American Nightmare, she was not only accused by police of orchestrating the terrifying ordeal, but her case was linked to Gone Girl, the 2014 movie adapted from the best-selling 2012 Gillian Flynn thriller, both by the media, and, allegedly, an investigating FBI agent too. In the film, a sociopathic woman, Amy, (played by Rosamund Pike) concocts an elaborate plan and fakes her own abduction to punish her husband and family.
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In reality for Huskins, this false characterisation and gross miscarriage of justice violated a vulnerable victim all over again. In episode two of the three-part series – subtitled Gone Girl, and also featuring footage of the film – Huskins relives her disbelief at escaping captivity, then finding herself under interrogation in a police holding room as a suspect. “For the last 48 hours I have been living moment to moment, trying to survive,” she says. “The last thing you’re thinking about is: ‘If I do survive, I’ve really got to make sure that all of this is believable’.”
The details of Huskins’ case were certainly extraordinary, so much so that the police couldn’t fathom it being real. When it came to the night in question, Huskins and her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, both provided the same account: they were tied up by wet-suit clad intruders, force-fed sedative drugs and had their eyes covered with blacked-out goggles, while a pre-recorded message told them that Huskins would be kidnapped, and freed 48 hours later for a ransom. When Quinn awoke, Huskins had been taken, and he had texts demanding two payments of $8,500 for them to let her go free, on the condition that he didn’t call the police.
The Vallejo police did get involved, but just as they began to pin the abduction on Quinn, Huskins reappeared 400 miles away in Huntington Beach, near her parents’ houses. She had been told by her abductor that if she told authorities that she had been raped, he would kill her family, so she initially denied this.
But on the very day of Huskins’ release, Vallejo police spokesperson Lt Kenny Park told a crowded press conference that the force believed the couple had fabricated the entire thing: “Mr Quinn and Ms Huskins have plundered valuable resources away from our community and taken the focus away from the true victims of our community while instilling fear among our community members. So, if anything, it is Mr Quinn and Ms Huskins that owe this community an apology.
The following day, as Huskins’ lawyer Doug Rappaport alleges in the documentary, after an FBI agent interviewed Huskins, the agent raised doubts to Rappaport about whether his client was telling the truth, saying: “Haven’t you seen the movie, Gone Girl?”, with explicit reference to the David Fincher film by name. “How could this person who has been charged with investigating this crime think that it is like a Ben Affleck movie? That’s Hollywood. This is real life,” Rappaport adds. “He is so sure that he is right – it’s called confirmation bias.”
In the documentary, the makers state that the FBI have not released a recording of this interview. BBC Culture has contacted the FBI for comment.
As a result, in the weeks afterwards, the press ran with these hoax claims, with headlines playing on the Gone Girl association, the film being very fresh in people’s minds, having been released in October 2014. ABC News led with the headline “Denise Huskins’ Alleged Kidnapping: What We Know About California Gone Girl Case”, while in the UK, Metro newspaper reported the authorities’ flawed suspicions: “Real-life Gone Girl ‘staged her own kidnapping’, police say”.
A controversial fiction
Between Gone Girl being released as a novel in 2012 – which sold 20 million copies by 2019 – to the film’s launch in 2014, it provoked much public debate. Time magazine’s Eliana Dockterman captured both ends of the spectrum of thinking around it in an article around the film’s release, writing that it is both “a sexist portrayal of a crazy woman” and a “feminist manifesto”, and explained that it’s this duality that makes the film interesting.
But for all the hot takes about the book and film, what has never been up for debate is whether popular culture should be given licence to create these types of dark, devious characters and plots (because, of course they should). What American Nightmare highlights, however, is that law enforcement definitely shouldn’t be using it as a basis for assumptive interrogations that further perpetuate trauma against victimised women.
20th Century Fox/Alamy
Journalist Joan Smith, writing about the film in The Guardian in 2014, focused in on what she saw as the movie’s “recycling of rape myths… a disgusting distortion”, arguing that it perpetuated the assumption that instances of false allegations of rape are anything other than extremely rare. A 2023 survey showed that 16 per cent of Britons think half or more rape claims are false, while studies on actual cases of false rape claims – which are almost impossible to accurately substantiate – the real proportion of them ranges from 0.5 per cent of all claims to 3 or 4 per cent.
The salience of a movie like Gone Girl is that it made sense of something that at first didn’t – Melissa Hamilton
But was Huskins’ lawyer correct in saying that Gone Girl’s unlikely narrative could have had such a direct impact as to help turn law enforcement against his client? Perhaps, says Melissa Hamilton, Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Surrey. “As humans, particularly in terms of investigating events, we want a story that makes sense to us,” she explains. “Instead of thinking about it as a crime, investigators are often thinking that they need to understand the motivations of the people and according to what data they are given, what facts are confirming a storyline that makes sense to them.
“The salience of a movie like Gone Girl is that it made sense of something that at first didn’t. At first, you don’t understand it, but the beauty of a movie like that is that it puts together a puzzle that makes you say, ‘ah, that’s weird, but now I understand it all’. That can feed into the confirmation bias that then applies to this situation; ‘because I made sense of that [in the film], now I’m making sense of that in this situation’…The fact [that the FBI] were drawing on Gone Girl [is because] it was a storyline that was available to them.”
As for justice for Huskins and Quinn, the actual perpetrator, Matthew Muller, was caught, thanks to the efforts of Sgt Misty Carausu, convicted and sentenced to 40 years in jail in 2017. In 2018 Huskins and Quinn received a $2.5m settlement from the city of Vallejo, with the city admitting “no wrongdoing”. The police eventually apologised, but none of the police officers involved with the case were disciplined, and, as covered in the documentary, the lead detective on the case, Mat Mustard, was awarded officer of the year in 2015.
Speaking with People magazine in 2021, Huskins said: “When I was kidnapped, I didn’t know if I was going to live to see another day. And then to have people attacking you on social media, the whole ‘Gone Girl’ label – a whole persona was placed on me that had nothing to do with who I am.” In Gone Girl, the privilege afforded to Amy was that her “kidnapping” was accepted as real. In the actual case of Huskins, as America Nightmare relays, she was denied that, despite her ordeal being true. “I don’t know what needs to happen to me… to happen to any woman to be believed,” she says at the end.
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