The year before Denise Huskins was kidnapped, drugged and raped, David Fincher’s Gone Girl struck gold at the cinema. The movie is about a wife who takes revenge on her cheating husband by faking her abduction. When Huskins vanished from her home in Vallejo, northern California, only to reappear 48 hours later, police couldn’t see past the film. As far as they were concerned, Fincher had already solved their case for them.
The truth of what happened to Huskins was far darker and more warped than any thriller starring Ben Affleck. Her ordeal is chronicled in unflinching detail in American Nightmare (Netflix), the gripping new documentary from the team behind 2022 true-crime hit The Tinder Swindler.
Netflix documentaries have a well-deserved reputation for pushing exploitative junk down our eyeballs. There are a few gems: 2015’s Making a Murderer more or less revived the true-crime genre on the small screen. But for every worthwhile series, the streamer is clogged with manipulative dross padded out for maximum shock value. One of the more notorious examples is 2019’s bloated eight-hour The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Among other digressions, it found space for a 40-minute refresher on the evolution of Portuguese tourism.
American Nightmare, by contrast, clocks in at a lean three episodes and places the testimony of Huskins and her then-boyfriend Aaron Quinn at the centre of the story. More than that, it serves the public interest in exposing the myopia and misogyny too often a feature of law enforcement in the United States. It also suggests that the cultural footprint of Gone Girl – today remembered as a middling Affleck caper – was far deeper than anyone imagined.
“The real Gone Girl” was the label bestowed on Huskins after her story became national news in the US. One evening in March 2015, Huskins was drugged and kidnapped by an unknown number of assailants while her helpless partner was bound with zipwire. It sounded far-fetched. After it emerged that Quinn and Huskins had rowed over texts he’d sent to his ex, police bluntly informed the boyfriend that he was the prime suspect.
If he was going through hell in custody, Huskins’s situation was many times worse. She was bundled into the back of a car and driven to a remote location. She was still wearing goggles when her captor raped her twice. He then drove her to her family home near Los Angeles, after telling Huskins that his original target was Quinn’s former girlfriend.
Back in Vallejo, police and the FBI assumed that Huskins – presumably inspired by Gone Girl – had staged a hoax. When Huskins’s mother revealed that her daughter had been abused in the past, one of the cops observed victims “often pretend to have it happen again, so they can relive the thrill of it”. At a news conference, a detective even accused Huskins and Quinn of wasting valuable police time. “If anything, it is Miss Huskins who owes this community an apology,” said an officer.
These painful events are recalled tearfully but courageously by Huskins and Quinn. Nearly a decade later, they are still understandably shocked at how they were treated. That, moreover, is where the story might have ended were it not for a tenacious detective who connected the kidnapping to the attempted abduction 10 months later of a 21-year-old woman in Dublin, California.
Fleeing the scene, the attacker left behind his mobile phone. Misty Carausu and her fellow officers used it to track the assailant to a cabin in the woods. They found goggles with strands of blonde hair, among other incriminating evidence. When someone mentioned the “Gone Girl case”, Carausu tied the culprit – a former marine and Harvard graduate named Matthew Muller – to the abduction of Huskins.
He pleaded guilty to her kidnapping and rape and is now serving a 40-year sentence. None of this was any thanks to the police in Vallejo, though. Huskins and Quinn brought a defamation case against the department over the allegation that they had staged the kidnapping. It was settled out of court. Yet no officer was ever disciplined. One later received a commendation for his sterling police work.
American Nightmare makes for infuriating viewing. Still, Huskins and Quinn have at least made it out the other side. They will live with the emotional scars of what they went through forever. And they maintain that other abductors were involved in the kidnapping alongside Muller and are still at large. However, directors Bernadette Higgins and Felicity Morris bring down the curtains on a positive note as we see the couple, now married, walking on the beach with their two daughters, looking toward the future. It isn’t a Hollywood ending – but it is a happy one, and you can only wish them the best.