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.