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The Amityville Horror: From hoaxed haunting to Hollywood goldmine

And they would have gotten away with it, if not for Stephen Kaplan.

This past summer at my request, a good friend who lives in Amityville, Long Island, took me for a drive by the house. THE house. The one in which Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered his entire family in November 1974. The same house the subsequent owners, George and Kathy Lutz, fearfully fled with their family in 1975. The house the haunting of which was chronicled in the book and subsequent movie, The Amityville Horror.

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I’d seen the movie in the theater in 1979 and it scared the crap out of me. It was based on a book that was a “True Story” (it said so, right on the cover!). Credulous 11-year-old me thought that everything I saw actually happened.  From the early scene in which a visiting priest is told to “Get out!” by a demonic voice, to the end when the Lutz family sped off in their van (as Jodie the demonic pig looks on from within the house), it was pure terror.

In many tales like this, the original story is far afield from the narratives it creates.  In the case of The Amityville Horror, it’s mostly untrue.

The real horror of Amityville was the Defeo family murders. In the early morning of November 13, 1974 Ronald (Ronnie) DeFeo Jr. killed his entire family, going room to room, shooting his parents and three siblings as they slept. DeFeo was a heroin addict and barfly with a criminal past, and stood to gain $200,000 in life insurance from the deaths of his immediate family.

He then went into a local bar and asked for help because “someone killed my parents.” Being the only suspect, he was eventually arrested. While in custody, Defeo confessed to the crimes and showed police where to find the murder weapon. He was convicted and is currently in prison serving multiple life sentences. The incident was a shock to a community that had previously enjoyed the general peace and quiet of obscurity.

The next owners were George and Kathy Lutz and their three children, who purchased the house at lower-than-market value due to its “psychological damage.”  Shortly after moving in, the heating system broke, and they couldn’t afford to repair it. According to a friend of the Lutzes, the couple also underestimated their comfort level living in a house known for such a horrific act. After only 28 days, the Lutz family abandoned their new home.

The reason George and Kathy gave for their leaving is much more exciting (and marketable). The Lutzes claimed to endure hordes of flies in winter, levitation, demonic attacks, horrible hallucinations, mysterious green slime, and many other horrors. Leaving was their only option.

On February 16, 1976, George Lutz called self-proclaimed parapsychologist, with a doctorate in sociology, Stephen Kaplan. A believer in paranormal phenomena, Kaplan was still more than a typical “scientifical” ghost hunter, in that he wasn’t “ready to believe”. He actually tried to get information from primary sources. Some skeptics might reject Kaplan’s investigations a priori based on his worldview. This is understandable but unfortunate, because his work on this case does have utility beyond the paranormal world.

George asked Kaplan to investigate the house that he and his family had abandoned. The haunting had been reported in Long Island’s largest circulated newspaper, Newsday, so Kaplan was familiar with it. He agreed and told George, “I will do all I can to discover what is going on …. If it is a hoax, I will not hesitate to expose it.” George agreed and the date was set for February 20.

On February 19, Kaplan received another call from George, telling him that he didn’t want any more publicity, and canceled the investigation. George’s flip-flop made Kaplan think the Amityville haunting was probably a hoax, and that suspicion was supported five days later by a news report that featured a séance in the Lutzes’ home. As you might imagine, the segment was a bit of a circus, featuring several paranormal investigators like Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The book The Amityville Horror, written by Jay Anson and based on audio tapes made by the Lutzes, was published in September 1977. Kaplan received an advance copy, and decided to mount his own, independent investigation. Kaplan contacted Amityville police sergeant Pat Cammarato, the Suffolk County clergy, Channel 5 reporter Marvin Scott, and the other paranormal investigators mentioned in the book, and all of them (excluding the Warrens) refuted its accounts.  When Kaplan confronted Anson with these denials, he said he “leaves it up for the reader to decide.”

After more than 15 years of investigation, Kaplan’s own book, The Amityville Horror Conspiracy, was published, in which he points out many of the Lutzes claims need not be supernatural in origin. Creepy eyes seen from outside a window at night were probably those of a cat. Old windows with weights on them will open or close on their own.

More suspiciously, the first paperback edition of The Amityville Horror includes the claim that it’s the exact text as the original hardcover, but Kaplan found 27 major differences. Many of the changes were references to the priest, Father Mancuso, and the name of the police sergeant (who in reality never visited the house) has changed from Pat Cammarato to Lou Zammataro. These alterations appear to be cover from legal action by the actual people.

The most enlightening part of The Amityville Horror Conspiracy is Kaplan’s transcription of an interview from Long Island radio station WBAB, in which host Joel Martin discussed the Amityville case with Ronald DeFeo’s defense attorney, Steven Weber. The text, which takes up a whopping 45 pages, recounts Weber’s sessions with George Lutz, showing many of the story’s details were cooked up by George upon seeing crime scene photos, who applied embellished versions to his own narrative.

Fingerprint dust residue on the keyholes and wall became the mysterious green slime.  A fat Siamese cat the DeFeos likened to a pig became Jodie, the demon pig and imaginary friend to the Lutzes’ daughter.  Weber planned to write a book based on the murders, and the Lutz story was to be the last chapter. George took ideas from Weber and ran off on his own.

Kaplan did his best to make the public aware of the dishonesty in the Lutzes’ story, but initially had a difficult time finding a sizeable outlet for his work. Kaplan does appear a little naïve in his attempts to get reporters and reviewers to retract their stories or to print his rebuttals. He finally had to admit that “an un-haunted house does not sell.” The best he was able to get was appearances on some radio and  TV talks shows.

In this arena he often found himself in debates with Ed and Lorraine Warren, who acted as proxies for the Lutzes.  Invariably the couple would engage in ad hominin attacks rather than answer or counter Kaplan’s criticisms. Kaplan eventually had the chance to confront George Lutz in a three-way call on a radio show.  Kaplan pressed him about a few issues and got George to admit that Anson had exaggerated some of the claims in his book.

Kaplan died before the release of The Amityville Horror Conspiracy, but it remains a testament to his tenacity and passion for truth. He did a fine job of exposing the Amityville Horror story as just that, a story. That hasn’t stopped Hollywood from continuing to trade on its “based on a true story” label.

A current search of the word “Amityville” on IMDB yields more than 148 matches, including the remake from 2005 and Witches of Amityville Academy, which is set for release in 2020. A small number of the titles are documentaries, but the bulk of them are horror movies.  As the source material is stretched further over time, the production values drop. “Amityville” had been synonymous with horror since 1976, but itt now appears to be synonymous with cheap horror.

While The Amityville Horror did create a cottage industry of bad movies, it also (in a roundabout way) inspired an Oscar-winner. Writer/director Jordan Peele won an Academy Award for the original screenplay of his horror/comedy, Get Out, the inspiration for which was an Amityville Horror-based routine by comedian Eddie Murphy. So at least some good came from it?

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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