Around 3 a.m. on Wednesday, November 13, 1974 Ronald DeFeo Jr. took his .35 Marlin rifle and systematically murdered his entire family as they lay in their beds. Thus began the lengthy and often times convoluted piece of American History 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island now occupies.

The story of Amityville is familiar to most people who were around in the seventies and eighties in America. The movie The Amityville Horror has been scaring millions of people since its release July 27, 1979. This movie was an adaptation of a book by author Jay Anson. He based his dramatic and often times totally inaccurate account on 35 hours of taped interviews with George and Kathy Lutz, who bought the house one year after the DeFeo murders.

Since I would rather not cut and paste enormous chunks of text from the numerous websites carrying summations of all that happened, I'll offer mine, direct and to the point. A grand debate has been raging for two decades now as to the truth of the movie and the book, and quite simply some things could possibly be true while others are patently inaccurate.

Truth and possibility:
  1. There has always been a lot of confusion as to whether or not the murders really happened and what kind of person Ronald DeFeo is/was. It is true that all the murders took place and it is true that Ronald DeFeo is still in jail for the crimes, serving six consecutive life sentences. It is also true that he said he heard voices telling him to do it, but his story became specific (and also began to include witches, demons, and Satan) after the book was published. The book included fabrications by Jay Anson stating that the house was built on an ancient Satanic altar and burial ground, which it was not.

  2. It is true that the Lutzes left their possessions behind when fleeing the house after living there for 28 days. Some aspects of their story have always been the same:
    • They had a ceramic tiger which moved around the house apparently of its own volition and once, when George tripped over it, he found teeth marks on his ankle matching those of the tiger.
    • George was always cold. Then again, the house was on the water.
    • Kathy levitated off the bed twice at around 3:15 A.M., once at a height of two feet and once at a height of one foot. This latter levitation is also when she apparently "transformed into a ninety-year-old hag." While this may or may not be true, I haven't been able to find any variant on this story. Since so many occurences in the book and the movie were total lies, this is probably false, but the Lutzes have stuck by their story.

  3. There was a room in the basement that apparently was not in any plans for the house. They said the walls were "blood-red" and they saw the faces of demons inside it, and that perhaps it was a gateway to Hell. It was later discovered that this was simply a pipe access that had been bricked over in a renovation and (you guessed it) the walls had been painted red while the Lutzes were in residence, by the two young boys.

  4. The priest so prominently featured in the movie and the book, Father Pecoraro stated in an interview that he heard a voice say "GET OUT" and then felt a slap on the face while blessing the house.

  5. George was in serious financial trouble. This was a major component in sparking the investigations into the veracity of this story, considering that they had a signed book and movie deal which would make the Lutzes no small amount of cash.

False statements, lies, misconceptions
There are many more aspects of the Amityville story that have either been irrefutably proven as false or were later "corrected" by the Lutzes.
  1. "One of the Lutz children had his hand smashed in a window and had to be taken to the hospital." - No area hospital has any record of this ever happening. George and Kathy later admitted they had treated this injury at home.

  2. "The 250-pound front door and basement doors were both ripped from the hinges... from the inside of the house!" - Bullshit. George later 'remembered' that it was actually a screen door, and it happened during a winter storm.

  3. "Father Pecoraro had the flu... fever of 104 degrees...went blind... all shortly after blessing the cursed house." - None of this ever happened. He thought he heard a voice in the house, got freaked out and left, but that's it.

  4. Many many dates and meteorlogical happenings in the book were wrong.

  5. "...112 Ocean Avenue happened to be built on the site of an Indian Burial Ground / Indian Sanitarium / place where other families had been run off by evil spirits / where a Satanist High Priest had openly practiced and lived." - Town archivists in Amityville have shown every one of these claims to be false.

  6. "...The Lutzes never returned for their belongings." - When an investigator showed up at the house shortly after the Lutzes began talking to Jay Anson about their encounters, George and Kathy were there, selling off some of their belongings.

  7. " couldn't be filmed at the house because the film crew was too frightened to enter..." - The movie couldn't be filmed there because the new owners of the house and the city wouldn't grant them filming rights.

  8. "The Amityville Horror - A True Story Of Horror - By Jay Anson" - Although the outside cover of the first edition claims it as non-fiction, the Library of Congress cataloging on the inside of the book gives the standard "This is a work of fiction." disclaimer.

    For everything I've mentioned here there are fifteen things I've left out, but you get the general idea: Family moves into murder-scene house, gets some bad vibes (who wouldn't), gets into financial trouble and then - B-I-N-G-O - Book deals, movie deals, likeness rights, etc.

    This summation will please the skeptic in all of us but it is important for me to say that I am an avid believer in supernatural phenom; I have experienced things personally that are ten times as freaky as anything in the movie, except maybe the walls bleeding. But there is a difference between literal hauntings and pure fabrication. In my estimation, considering that no other family that has lived in the house have complained of any problems or spiritual malevolence, I would have to say that Amityville's most famous house doesn't have any more psychic energy or spiritual vibrations than your average house that just happens to be 250 years old.

    Research sources -

The Bottom Line

A newly married couple and their three children move into a house haunted by the memories of a terrible massacre one year prior. When strange occurrences arise about the house, fear sets in: is the house truly evil? (Note: it may take a sequel or two to be sure.)

The Rest of the Story

Beltane's writeup above gives an excellent summary of the general events that set up Jay Anson's best-selling book The Amityville Horror and the subsequent 1979 horror picture starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder as the terrified and haunted Lutzes.

The film itself was shot not on Long Island, the home of Amityville, but rather in Toms River, New Jersey. A house not unlike the actual Amityville home where Ron DeFeo murdered his parents and siblings was built for the movie, and shooting took four weeks.

The movie is a basic faithful adaptation of Anson's book, which itself is primarily a retelling of the Lutzes' own story about the house. Shortly after moving in, George Lutz (Brolin) begins a long decline in his health, exacerbated by his perceived "chill" throughout the house. The Lutz daughter, Amy, claims that spirits are hanging around her, and that they don't like the people there. Soon, all of the members of the house begin experiencing unexplained phenomena - blood in the tap water, doors unexpectedly closing, terrible smells - which eventually results in the abandonment of the house. (I don't know why, this sounds like your average dorm to me.)

My Take

What makes the movie so compelling (or, if you prefer, so eye-rolling) is that it is based on personal accounts by the actual family being portrayed, and several of the film's "scary" phenomena are confirmed by eyewitnesses and visitors to the home. Like its more successful relative The Blair Witch Project, The Amityville Horror contends to offer a realistic and accurate documentary-style film over the events that took place in the house. Although dramatic license certainly carries its weight in the film, it never seems particularly hamfisted or extravagant. In fact, the banality and atmosphere of the evil can be more unnerving than your average body count slasher pic.

The major drawback to the film is the acting. Kidder and Brolin are both TV-movie stars trying to play out their fear with bulging eyes and Gloria Swanson-worthy chest clenching. The kids are obviously reading from cue cards for many of their scenes, and even the decent Rod Steiger can't save the schlocky nature of the film, which sucks out a lot of the dread for the next hair-raising scene. After all, what do I care if Margot Kidder is a little panicked at some blood in the sink? The realism of the story is not matched by the actors on screen. Luckily, Lalo Schifrin's haunting score (replete with a children's chorus) keeps your blood at an acceptably chilled level throughout the film.

Still, the movie was scary enough (and successful enough) to warrant a passel of sequels, from Amityville II: The Possession, to a gratuitous 3-D version, Amityville III: The Demon. A 2005 remake is in the works, to be directed by none other than Pearl Harbor taskmaster Michael Bay. We'll see if it can improve on the marginally frightening original.

Rating: 6 out of 10. Watch it late at night with your friends, and then do the Bloody Mary trick. Spooktacular!


Directed By
Stuart Rosenberg

Written By
Jay Anson (book)
Sandor Stern

Lalo Schifrin

James Brolin .... George Lutz
Margot Kidder .... Kathy Lutz
Rod Steiger .... Father Delaney
Don Stroud .... Father Bolen
Murray Hamilton .... Father Ryan
John Larch .... Father Nuncio
Natasha Ryan .... Amy
K.C. Martel .... Greg
Meeno Peluce .... Matt

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