The Wildest Theory You Need to Understand in 'The Staircase'

the staircase on Netflix

This story contains spoilers for The Staircase, though you really shouldn't care too much about spoilers when it comes to true crime

If you haven't noticed, Netflix has something of an obsession with true-crime series, probably because Netflix viewers have an obsession with true-crime series. Beginning in 2015 with Making a MurdererNetflix shows have told the real-life stories of everything from murdered nuns to bioterrorist cults to collar bomb murderers to elaborate CIA cover-ups.

The streaming megalith's newest release, The Staircase, differs from previous hits in several crucial ways. For starters, it's not new: A French filmmaking team led by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade followed the case of Michael Peterson, a Durham, North Carolina writer accused of murdering his wife in 2001, almost from the very beginning of his legal defense. The resulting series is filled with the kinds of "NO WAY" moments that make any true-crime series compelling, but it also offers a depth of character and a refusal to provide definitive answers, helping it transcend the raw sensationalism of cheaper work in the genre. 

Critically, though, The Staircase's mid-2000s release meant it missed the streaming revolution, so it's easy to understand why Netflix acquired the distribution rights to a story that, for most people, is brand new. With a three-episode wrap-up tacked on to entice those who have already seen the original, an entirely new audience gets to wonder what actually happened to Kathleen Peterson in December 2001. 

Which means a whole bunch of people are about to dive headfirst into the world of Staircase theories. None is more bizarre, and more enticingly plausible, than the infamous Owl Theory.

What is "The Owl Theory"?

Michael Peterson found his wife, Kathleen Peterson, bleeding and unconscious at the bottom of a staircase in their home just before 3am one night in early December. He called 911, but paramedics were unable to save Kathleen's life, and police began treating the death as a homicide. Michael was charged with murder, but from the beginning -- and to this day -- he maintains he had nothing to do with it.

We'll have to leave much of what happens during the trial behind, but suffice to say that no convincing theory ever comes to light before Peterson is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Enter The Owl Theory. In 2009, a lawyer and neighbor of the Petersons named Larry Pollard, who was not involved in the case, reviewed the evidence files and came up with what sounded on its face like the ravings of an ornithologist madman. But when you look closer, it might actually make sense. 

According to the theory, the events of that night unfolded like this: Kathleen Peterson was outside the couple's home at night, while her husband was down by their pool. An owl -- likely a barred owl -- swooped down and attacked Kathleen on her head, causing the lacerations police found later. (Yes, owls do attack humans; we'll get into that later.) Kathleen then ran inside to escape the owl, which had ripped out chunks of her hair; pine needles were also found in her hands, along with microscopic feathers. Drops of blood were found on the front steps, and the door had blood smeared on it, indicating that whatever happened, it wasn't totally confined to the staircase. 

Continuing with the theory, Kathleen at this point attempted to go upstairs, where she slipped and fell. Toxicology reports found traces of anti-anxiety medication, muscle relaxants, and alcohol -- combined with an owl attack, getting up a long flight of stairs is far from a straightforward proposal. The theory posits that she slipped and fell, causing the injuries that ultimately led to her death. 

Here you can see Pollard laying out in some detail his case for The Owl Theory: 

What evidence is there that an owl might have attacked Kathleen Peterson? 

As with all evidence in this case, nothing is conclusive, but there were microscopic feathers found on Kathleen's body, along with some of her hair, which could indicate an encounter with an owl. There are also the pattern of lacerations on her head, which an autopsy diagram indicates occurred in three-pronged arrangements in places. A layperson primed to look for an owl attack can easily imagine these wounds having come from a bird's talons. 

But, of course, a layperson's imagination proves nothing at all. That's why three owl experts submitted affidavits in 2010, in which they claimed Kathleen's wounds were consistent with an owl attack, so it's not as though a few crackpot redditors are out there all alone claiming an owl is responsible. 

Do owls really attack humans? 

Yes, they do! Not out of spite, though. Owls are territorial and certainly aren't afraid of large, clumsy primates like us humans. The Audubon Society has written about the scourge (they don't call it a scourge) of barred owls swooping down on human heads. One Oregon owl even gained notoriety for stealing people's hats, which in Portland could disrupt a major sector of the economy and probably ruin people's days. 

Most of the time, these attacks are frightening but mostly harmless, as one Montana boy discovered in 2008. Again, The Owl Theory doesn't claim that an owl killed Kathleen Peterson -- only that an owl attack set in motion the events that led to a tragic death. 

Why don't we hear about The Owl Theory in The Staircase

The Owl Theory has picked up so much steam not just because of its bizarre plausibility, but also because the docuseries doesn't address it at all. As lead defense attorney David Rudolf pointed out to Vulture, he didn't consider an animal attack a possibility until just before closing arguments, so it wouldn't have been the smartest legal strategy to introduce an owl to the jury at the last minute. De Lestrade adds that he was focused on the legal case, and the owl theory never became a viable defense, despite the affidavits. In the new episodes released on Netflix, Rudolf acknowledges the existence of The Owl Theory when he refers to a "raptor" attack, but that's all you'll get from watching the series. Hence its popularity on the internet in the years since The Staircase was initially released.

What actually happened to Kathleen Peterson?

In an introspective moment during the three new installments, David Rudolf admits that he -- like everyone else who's spent hours forming opinions about the figures in The Staircase -- wants to know what actually happened to Kathleen Peterson. It's human to want the truth, and human to feel frustrated that the truth is unknowable. The Owl Theory might be an accurate account of that night, or Michael Peterson may have killed his wife just like the prosecution said, or something entirely different. One of the takeaways from the documentary is that in the absence of definitive proof (and sometimes despite it), everyone fills in the gaps: Jurors, family members, lawyers, filmmakers, Netflix viewers. We're all biased, and our personal biases play out all over the American justice system every day. 

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Anthony Schneck is an entertainment editor at Thrillist. Follow him @AnthonySchneck