The Amityville Horror
Halloween is almost here, and the world is fucking scary enough without it, TBH. I’ve been running myself ragged trying to keep these kids COVID-free and also somehow HOME SCHOOLED while ALSO trying to get the corrupt, deranged, real life monster out of the White House. It’s been an experience, and my best laid plans for an HLAS !!SPOOKTOBER!! marketing bonanza have fallen by the wayside along with injunctions against drinking, eating candy, cussing, and doom scrolling. My own little graveyard of good intentions - another quarantine casualty!
This is not at all to say that I’m over Halloween. I’m leaning in hard this year. My daughter is ten AND COLD AS ICE so I’m slowly onboarding her to horror movies. We started with Insidious and The Conjuring and we’re onto the Paranormal Activity series. Working our way through the horror canon got me thinking on what is probably the BEST American haunted house story- The Amityville Horror. I decided to write about it because (a) it’s such a great story, and (b) it’s been thoroughly debunked. This story is layers upon layers of craziness. It is both a treat and A BIG FUCKIN TRICK, so refill your beverage and enjoy.
The Amityville Industrial Complex
The Amityville Horror is probably America’s most famous haunted house story. It hits a lot of hot topics - haunted houses, true crime, demonic possession, pop culture - and it’s worth a deep dive to see how these combined to make a moment in American culture. Amityville is really an encapsulation of the 1970’s and the edgy occult vibe of that decade, pasted up against the atrocious rates of violent crime in our country. It’s a story about the effects of horrific violence and trauma, and an exposure of family and domestic demons. These folks are haunted, alright - just not by a literal poltergeist. It’s a story that is still deeply troubling, even once you know it’s not real! It’s embedded into our perceptions of how hauntings occur, what evil lurks within, and the imprint of crime from that decade on our collective imaginations.
The story started with a crime, and ended with a bestselling book and movie about a haunting. In 1974, Ronald (Butch) DeFeo, Jr. murdered his whole family while they slept in their beds at 112 Ocean Avenue, in Amityville, NY. The state tried and convicted him of murder, and one year later the house went on the market for a low, low price. The Lutz family purchased the home and moved in. While there, they complained of paranormal activity and were scared away after living there for only a month. The family claimed that a demon or evil spirit possessed the house, and that the same force triggered Butch DeFeo to murder his family.
The Lutzes went public with their story, which was prominently featured on TV and in magazines. Jay Anson wrote a version of their story and called it “The Amityville Horror,” and that book was made into a movie starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder. The book and the movie - both billed as true stories - were blockbuster successes. The story of the haunting has since been mostly debunked, but the legend still holds power. The owners of the home have changed their address and have removed it from Google Maps to keep the curious and morbid (HI!!) away.
There’s a whole cottage industry dedicated to this story and whether it’s true or not. This story spawned documentaries, YouTube videos, all kinds of books and movies, and many, many websites. George and Kathy Lutz basically made an entire career out of their haunted house experience. You can spend weeks down this rabbit hole (I did and it was fantastic - just get to clicking links on this post and you’ll see what I mean). It’s a testament to the powerful hold this story has on our culture that we have created so much from it.
The scariest part of this whole story is the actual crime that inspired it - and that shit was brutal. Some time in the middle of the night on November 13, 1974 Butch DeFeo, then 23, killed his ENTIRE FAMILY - two parents and 4 siblings - IN THEIR BEDS. He walked around the house and shot them one by one while they slept. After the rampage, Butch ran to a bar and told everyone his family had been murdered. At first he blamed the mob, but broke down under police questioning and admitted to the murders. At some point, either at trial or on appeal, he argued that he’d heard voices that told him to kill his family. The insanity defense did not work, and the jury sentenced DeFeo to life in prison.
When I first heard about the crime, I remember feeling extremely, extremely disturbed by it. It’s such a terrifying thing to imagine - a young man stalking through his house with a shotgun and systematically killing his entire family. It’s so odd that no one heard it - not the murder victims, not the neighbors. It seems like a crime that has no reason, which is exactly the kind of story that lends itself to creating a haunted house. Here was a massive trauma inflicted on innocent victims in the middle of the night. It’s chilling, and the way we are conditioned to see crimes like this - SOMEONE SNAPPED - primes us to be swayed by reports of possession or mental illness and “hearing voices” telling him to commit the crime. Otherwise how do you explain it?
Well, if you dig into the details of the case, the explanation becomes clear: Butch was an angry, abused kid who grew up in a violent environment and used a lot of drugs. Ronnie DeFeo Sr. was a real piece of work - and by that I mean he beat the shit out of his wife and kids and mistreated them on the regular. Butch was volatile, full of rage, and probably high and drunk when he committed the murders. Is that NORMAL BEHAVIOR? No. Most abused kids don’t murder their families. But it’s certainly a toxic and dangerous combination and it makes a lot more sense than demonic possession. Even if he was hearing voices, we know that is a product of mental illness - and we definitely knew that in the 1970’s (Sybil, anyone?). As to why no one heard the shots, there are theories that Butch’s sister Dawn helped him, and he killed her in some kind of struggle at the end. It’s an awful story any way you tell it, but the real boogeyman here is abuse and dysfunction, not the devil.
When the Lutz family bought 112 Ocean Avenue, they knew what they were getting into. Obviously you are going to get a sweet deal on a MURDER HOUSE, and they didn’t let the crime stand in the way of their bargain. But as they told everyone with a microphone - they only lasted a month in that house. Because SURPRISE! The murder house had some bad fuckin vibes. George and Kathleen Lutz had a laundry list of crazy shit to report: dramatic personality changes, feeling cold all the time, visitors who were chased out by weird sensations, a demon telling the family priest GET OUT, swarms of flies even in the winter, a door blown off the hinges, black stains in the toilets, green slime on the walls, a GHOST DEMON PIG NAMED JODI, and levitation. Just, you know, classic haunted house shit. Well, it’s classic now thanks to this story.
I read Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror so that you don’t have to (seriously, do not. The original movie is good but this book is trash), and I can see how this was a BFD in the 1970’s. It was marketed as a true story, and the family hit the circuit to tell it to anyone who would listen. The book came out just after The Exorcist (released in 1973) in the American public was ready for more demon-battling priests and evil possessions. And to keep it real, the story is fucking scary! It gets under your skin, even if you are researching it with an eye toward culture and the debunking, like me. I started this project while visiting my sister in San Diego. We went to the Old Town Cemetery at night, because that’s what we do on vacation, you guys. I took a bunch of photos of the grave markers, all white wooden crosses. When I looked at the photos, I realized that some of them had been over-exposed, creating these long, fucked up crosses that looked like they were upside down.
Now, if you’re not familiar with horror movies tropes - an upside down cross is a SIGN OF THE DEVIL AND OR DEMONS, OK?!!! The Amityville Horror book and movie really played this up, and for a moment I had a fucking heart attack. I thought OMG DEMONS ARE REAL AMITYVILLE WAS REAL THE DEMON PIG IS TRYING TO TELL ME SOMETHING. Like genuinely scared myself for a minute there - because there’s something very primal and deeply bred into the American psyche about this kind of shit. There are no atheists in our Yankee foxholes when it comes to demons, possession, and sinister hauntings. Maybe it's our Puritan roots, but this type of thing triggers a deep response, even in the horror lover.
It seems impossible that the fact of the brutal murders in the house did not affect this family when they moved in. The Lutzes were only able to afford that house because it was stigmatized by that crime. You can’t just put that story out of your mind. There had to be some seed of fear in there. Sometimes I think this whole thing started with a germ of superstition that kept gaining power and steam until it affected the whole family. Made them tense, frustrated, hysterical. Allowed them to convince themselves that this house they couldn’t really afford anyway was going to be their ruin. They did abandon it and let the bank foreclose - they lost a lot of money. Maybe it was real to them on some level, and in the telling, it just got more and more fantastic - like another American staple, the tall tale. Imagine making a mistake and getting in over your head on an investment, losing a bunch of money, but getting to tell the world it wasn’t your fault and have that validated by TV appearances, book and movie ticket sales? I mean, it’s not the worst theory.
There are definitely more cynical takes on Lutzs’ supernatural claims, however. William Weber, Butch DeFeo’s shady ass lawyer, claims that the three of them made the story up over a bottle of wine. In fact, many people think that Weber encouraged DeFeo to plead not guilty by reason of insanity so that he could make money off of a book deal. A contract that he presented to the Lutzes allocating 5% of royalties to DeFeo supports the accusation. AND that Weber is a sketchy asshole, I might add. Lawsuits over this property and the rights to the story abound, complete with incriminating testimony about who made up which part of the story. (Fun fact: I wrote about this back when I was still a lawyer! Caveat emptor, motherfuckers!!).
Weber’s bad behavior is not the only evidence that this story was a hoax, either. None of the subsequent owners reported any problems. A news crew sent to spend a night in the house, complete with a team of psychics and psychic hangers-on found no evidence of a haunting or anything paranormal. Mainstream consensus, even among believers, is that this is most likely not a true story. Jay Anson admits that he’s first and foremost, a writer, and that his motivation was to sell money and make books, not to capture the historical record. Some think it was actually a low-level haunting whose story spiraled out of control. However, short of the Lutz family, Ed and Lorrain Warren, and a few others connected with the case, few believe there were levitating-demon-pig level phenomena at 112 Ocean Avenue.
There is a relatively new and disturbing source on the Amityville story that complicates the narrative: My Amityville Horror, a documentary that features Kathleen’s eldest son Danny, now an adult. Danny is clearly traumatized. He’s angry, erratic, and plagued by demons. Danny is convinced that the hauntings were real, and while the film features reporters, psychics, demon hunters, and others involved with the story, it’s an insight into the damage that the Amityville Horror Industry did to this child more than anything else. While Danny attributes his trauma to the hauntings, it seems like the real problem was his asshole parents and the Amityville Industrial Complex they sacrificed their children to create.
Let’s put this bluntly: George and Kathleen Lutz don’t seem like great parents. In the book, Anson describes all kinds of shitty behavior. They are constantly losing their temper with the kids, hitting them, threatening them, yelling at them. Anson uses this as proof that the entity in the house was changing their personalities, which I’m going to call bullshit on right now. George Lutz is always described as a tough guy - you won’t read one profile of him that fails to mention that he was Marine, that he was regimented and strong. How does that translate into suddenly taking on a mortgage he can’t afford and three children? Remember - these aren’t his kids. How was he equipped to be a parent?
According to Danny, the Lutzes abandoned their children in order to ride the Amityville gravy train as far as they could. They moved to San Diego and dumped him (and presumably his siblings) at a Catholic boarding school so that they could “go on tour.” At the boarding school, Danny describes the priests as trying to “beat the devil out of him” because he was “possessed.” Danny ran away at age 15 and the paranormal harassment stopped - NO WONDER. He lived in a chaotic and traumatizing environment, JUST LIKE BUTCH DEFEO.
I think that Danny’s experience of the poltergeist activity is his way of processing the stress and rage of his parents. He says that “when there was anger in the house, more shit was going on in the house. The more traumatic and more dysfunctional it got, the worse it got.” Danny was the eldest, and he speaks very clearly on George’s abusive behavior. He talks about growing older and becoming hyper-aggressive, and he’s very aware of the effect all of this had on him.
One of the psychics interviewed in the documentary says he doesn't think the haunting was real, but that the kids were clearly traumatized by the whole thing and that Danny was “soaked in suggestion.” He read the news, knew about the book, the TV shows, the movies. His family was famous for it - how could he not incorporate that into his sense of self? It’s impossible to watch this documentary about Danny and not see that he is absolutely haunted. He was deeply affected by all this shit in his life, just maybe not in the way that the Amityville Sales Team would have us believe. It was never about the house, but about the people in that house.
A lot of ink has been spilled over why this story persists, and I think the basic answer is first and foremost, IT’S FUCKING SCARY. Second, it came around at the right time: the 1970’s. Crime was RAMPANT in America in the seventies, and the media focused on New York City and the violence there - right next to Amityville. According to the Brennan Center, “the violent crime rate increased by 126 percent between 1960 and 1970, and by 64 percent between 1970 and 1980.” There were a ton of murders, but crime across the board also soared during this decade. There are a lot of theories about why crime was so high - the Baby Boom (the coming of age of men like Butch DeFeo), high levels of alcoholism, economic problems, lack of access to abortion, drug use, and the prevalence of lead, among others. The crime wave was so bad that Americans are still affected by it, and more likely to perceive high crime rates when they’re currently at historic lows.
The 70’s were the golden age of the American serial killer. This was the time of Ted Bundy, Son of Sam, John Wayne Gacy, and the Hillside Strangler. The media fixated on these crimes and covered them with garish glee. In fact, “the media’s growing obsession with serial killers in the 1970s and ‘80s may have created a minor snowball effect, offering a short path to celebrity.” The serial killer came into the public consciousness at this time, and it was obviously terrifying: “These crimes caused media frenzies in part because of the way they tapped into the obsessions and fears of the time: Bundy, a golden boy who worked on Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign in Seattle, seemed to represent the evil lurking beneath America’s cheery exterior. Gacy, who dressed up as a clown and preyed on teenage boys, was every parent’s nightmare.”
The 70’s also saw the rise of cult violence. Charles Manson formed the Manson Family and set out on a horrific and bizarre killing spree early in the decade. The seventies were the time of Jim Jones People’s Temple, which ended in the mass murder of a staggering nine hundred people. To most Americans, these crimes must have seemed not just horrifying but inexplicable - the product of a type of evil that they hadn’t previously grappled with. This was some new shit, straight out of hell.
To my mind, this new perception of evil primed Americans to be sucked into stories like the Amityville Horror - stories about demons, the devil, and malevolent hauntings. The Exorcist paved the way. Released in 1973, that movie introduced the public to arcane Catholic rites, demonic possession, and the sinister forces of the Devil. Butch DeFeo killed his family just one year later, and that must have seemed just as gruesome and bizarre as the cult murders of the Mansons. The Amityville Horror was a product of magical thinking grounded in real fear and confusion about the violence impacting everyday people. And what a relief it must have been to blame evil spirits, instead of abuse, dysfunction, drugs, and the other real, preventable corruption of the human soul.
Jay Anson - The Amityville Horror
Last Podcast on the Left - Amityville Horror series
Stuff You Should Know - How the Amityville Horror Worked
Movie - released 1979 - The Amityville Horror
BuzzFeed Unsolved - The True Story Behind The Amityville Horror
Amityville - Horror or Hoax?
Documentary - My Amityville Horror
Long Island Landmark: Scary since 1974 (article about My Amityville doc)
The Real Amityville Horror - documentary
Leonard Nimoy’s Show - In Search Of - Amityville
New Address: 108 Ocean Avenue (Originally 112 Ocean Ave) (2016)
Snopes Fact Check on Amityville Horror (2005)
ABC News: Amityville Horror: Horror or Hoax? (2006)
Skeptic Magazine: The Amityville Hoax at 40: Why the Myth Persists (2017)