One night in March 2015, Denise Huskins and her boyfriend Aaron Quinn awoke to a scene of brutal confusion. Someone had broken into Quinn’s home in Mare Island, a peninsula in Vallejo, California, where Huskins was staying over that night. Quinn would later recount being blinded by a bright white light. A Taser buzzed, and a man told him to lie face down. Quinn and Huskins’s senses were neutralized: they were blindfolded with blacked-out swim goggles; the abductor placed headphones over their ears and gave them sedatives. The abductor carried Huskins to Quinn’s Toyota Camry and placed her into the trunk. Quinn heard the car pull away with Huskins in it.
For two days, Huskins was held captive. Her abductor – a man eventually revealed to be called Matthew Muller – raped her twice. He then drove her hundreds of miles before releasing her. Quinn, meanwhile, reported Huskins’s abduction to the police – the first stage of a nightmare that would play out over months and years.
Huskins’s abduction and its cruel aftermath are explored in heart-stopping detail in An American Nightmare, a new documentary released by Netflix. It examines how, after Huskins’s return, law enforcement’s suspicion of the couple endured, and Huskins found herself unfairly accused of having staged her own abduction.
“It was maddening,” Huskins tells The Independent. “Two days of being questioned by police and the FBI, and all I could do was tell them the truth over and over again. And they just refused to believe it. At times, you start to question yourself and your own sanity. It’s a really scary place to be in.”
Huskins and Quinn were respectively 29 and 30 when Huskins’s abduction took place. Both worked as physical therapists. Their relationship had experienced ups and downs, but – as Huskins recounts in American Nightmare – they were trying to work things out.
Together, they previously released a 2021 book, Victim F: From Crime Victims to Suspects to Survivors, about their shared ordeal. The case became a tabloid sensation. Headlines basessly compared Huskins’s situation to Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl. (In the 2012 thriller, the fictional Amy Dunne stages her own disappearance and plans to fake her own death, framing her husband for the crime in retaliation for his perceived marital failings.)
“Members in the media have an incredible responsibility when it comes to reporting these real-life traumas,” Huskins tells The Independent. “Sometimes, we, as real people and real victims, get stripped of our identities. We get reduced to labels and symbols, and whatever narrative they want to go with at the time.”
American Nightmare unfolds in three episodes, recreating the harrowing chaos of Huskins’s abduction and return. Quinn and Huskins share their own perspectives in revealing interviews. Their voices drive the story.
“We’re hoping that people can feel that step by step, what it’s like to go through a traumatic experience like the home invasion and kidnapping,” Quinn tells The Independent, “and then have the desperation of looking to authorities for help and being told that you are a murderer.”
The series makes for an infuriating watch at every step: while Huskins is held captive by Muller, investigators focus on Quinn, accusing him (falsely, as it turns out) of having killed Huskins. Once Huskins returns from her captivity, she is immediately re-traumatized, and must deal with the terrifying reality of finding herself under suspicion.
“For most of that, I was in shock,” she tells The Independent. “[I went] through two days believing that I was going to be killed, only to be set free without even really getting to comprehend my freedom. [Then] I’m being met with authorities saying basically, ‘We don’t believe you and we intend to prosecute you.’ I had no choice but to get an attorney. And thank God I did.”
Without revealing too much here, even viewers with general knowledge of the case are liable to find themselves surprised as the series unfolds. Some of the most chilling moments in American Nightmare come when we are shown video footage of Quinn being interrogated by police shortly after Huskins’s abduction. At that point, Quinn was treated like the prime suspect in her disappearance, and the interrogating officer tried to get him to confess.
“I don’t think [Huskins] was kidnapped from your home,” the officer tells Quinn at one point. “I think something bad happened in your house, and it happened between you and her.” The officer then starts offering various theories: maybe Huskins overdosed, he suggests, or maybe Quinn called out his ex’s name during sex. “And [Huskins] got pissed, and you carted her ass out of there,” the officer adds.
Quinn didn’t confess, because doing so would have derailed the investigation into Huskins’s disappearance.
“I needed help to find Denise,” he tells The Independent. “The authorities wanted me to lie to them. And I knew that if I said anything they wanted me to say, then they would stop looking for Denise.”
Still, it’s impossible to watch those tapes and not feel the danger of the situation. It’s impossible not to think of other cases that have involved false confessions and ruined lives.
“Some people don’t understand why you would falsely confess,” Quinn tells The Independent. “As someone who experienced it – you just want it to end. So many people confess because that’s the only thing that would stop the police from [using] these tactics. Hopefully in the documentary people can get a sense of that, and maybe change their opinions going forward.”
Huskins’ interviews are the documentary’s throughline, and Bernadette Higgins and Felicity Morris – the documentary series’ writers, producers, and directors – worked hard to create the conditions in which she could tell her story honestly and thoroughly. Higgins and Morris spoke to Huskins for “hours and hours” on Zoom before she even sat down in front of the cameras. Once in production, they used a closed set for Huskins’ interviews, meaning most crew members weren’t present.
ââ”We want audiences to feel that stories told from the point of view of victims can be just as compelling as documentaries grounded in the perspective of the perpetrator,” Morris tells The Independent. “It was also important to us that people leave this series with a sense of hope, and to honor Denise and Aaron’s relationship and the love story that has come out of this and their resilience.”
Huskins found the experience of sitting down in front of Higgins and Morris’s cameras empowering. She was seven months pregnant with her second child during filming, which added “another emotional component” to the whole exercise.
“Sitting down for hours on end and recounting the worst moments of your life – it brings up a lot of old emotions that are deeply embedded within you,” she tells The Independent. “At the same time, it was motivating because with my two daughters, we want to make sure we do whatever we can to make change. If, God forbid, anything happens in the future, hopefully law enforcement, the public, media – everyone – can treat victims a little differently.”
Following their ordeal, Huskins and Quinn moved closer to nature in pursuit of a “healing” environment. They attended therapy together, as well as individually. Both resumed working as physical therapists, which Quinn says helped, too.
“A big part of our job is helping people. That in itself can be healing because after something this traumatic happens to you, you almost feel like you’re incapable of contributing more, [because] you’re too broken,” he says. “Finding something where you can help people on a small scale can give you a sense of purpose.”
Writing a book also helped. Now, Huskins and Quinn both hope that American Nightmare will leave people less prone to judgment and outrage.
“It’s easy to see a headline and get outraged, or to know a little bit of information and make an opinion based on that,” Quinn says. “If people walk away from the documentary going, ‘ Maybe I don’t know enough to have an opinion, I need to learn more,’ or ‘I don’t need to have an opinion on this because I don’t know enough information,’ that would be a really positive outcome.”
Huskins hopes the series might help others who have experienced trauma – and she hopes it inspires people to listen to survivors of violence “with an open heart and an open mind”.
“You can watch as many true crime shows as you want – you never know what it’s going be like when you’re confronted with a real-life nightmare,” she says. “We need to approach each other and ourselves with more empathy.”
American Nightmare streams on Netflix on 17 January in the US and in the UK