HISTORY DOES NOT RECORD what a bunch of Long Island newspaper reporters thought they would hear on February 13, 1976, as they were hustled into a modest, book-lined attorney’s office in the village of Patchogue, New York. In that room, that morning, the press would be introduced for the first time—but certainly not the last—to George and Kathleen Lutz, two relative newlyweds of indeterminate employment who had, very suddenly, left their dream house in Amityville the month before. Rumors had been floating through this sleepy area on the south shore of Long Island that the Lutzes had left because the house was haunted.
George and Kathy Lutz, in their mid-thirties, looked like a normal couple, at least normal for the ‘70s: he had lots of pin-straight light-brown hair and a full beard, she had a blonde feathered haircut that framed a round, sweet face. In the press conference, George did more of the talking. He took the tone of someone who had been forced, reluctantly and after long consideration, to come forward with his story. He said he didn’t want to get into details. But yes, he said, a “very strong force” had driven his family from the house. He wanted, too, to correct some facts. No, his family had not seen “human shapes” and “flying objects” in their home. No, they had not heard “wailing sounds” and seen “moving couches.” But yes, they had left the house after only owning it for a month, with just three changes of clothes apiece, “because of our concern for our own personal safety as a family.” And that was about all he was willing to share for the present time. The reporters tried to press Lutz for more details, but he would not be specific, as the Newsday writer reported with evident frustration. “[Lutz] did say he would not spend another night in the house if asked to do so by researchers, but he also said he is not planning to sell the house right now,” the reporter wrote. Within a day of the press conference, the lawn of this house, a Dutch Colonial perched on a waterway at 112 Ocean Avenue, was full of people who had decided to come investigate matters themselves. They came mostly from neighboring towns in Long Island. They parked along the street. Some were accompanied by their children. “I’m interested in unexplained… phenomena,” said a father who’d brought his 12-year-old son. “I was here the other night with my other son, and we watched the electric meter for a while—and I swear it slowed down… of course, it could have been the refrigerator.”
In the 1970s, American culture was awash in superstition. It was a time rather like our own, filled with economic and political instability. The Lutz family’s press conference took place 18 months after Watergate had forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency and the onslaught of upsetting news had led everyone to question conventional facts and truth. It was unclear whether the stable laws of the universe still held. Anger and fear were everywhere, and often enough, they bloomed into outright delusions. Couple that with the remnants of the New Age philosophies of the 1960s, shake in a little bit of good old American folklore, and you got something like what the Lutz family’s story would eventually be: The Amityville Horror, a story that would inspire several books and more than half a dozen films, spanning from the 1979 original blockbuster starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, to the rather poorly-reviewed, middling effort released just this past October 12, called Amityville: The Awakening, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bella Thorne. Though a lucrative and ubiquitous emblem of American mythology, it’s telling how dull the story actually is, when summarized: Young American family moves into house where there was once a mass murder. Disturbing phenomena follow, including (as reported in the first book on the case, written by a man named Jay Anson with the paid cooperation of the Lutzes, and later in the screenplay Anson wrote for the 1979 film version) green slime leaking from the house’s keyholes, a spirit yelling “Get out!” to a visiting priest, a child beginning to speak to an imaginary friend named Jodie. The father sees, in a window, a pig with red, glowing eyes. Cold spots appear mysteriously in the house. A roomful of flies torments the family. Eventually, the family has enough, and flees. Research eventually tells them that their house was not only the scene of a murder but the alleged site of an ancient “enclosure for the sick, mad and dying” operated by the Shinnecock Indian Nation. Many of these elements were already part and parcel of the American horror story, especially that last one – the rather racist tracing to the “Indian burial ground,” which had long been a kind of catch-all explanation for paranormal phenomena in American storytelling. The notion had, for example, also surfaced repeatedly in the work of Stephen King, in The Shining and Pet Sematary. Pike Place Market in Seattle is thought to have been built on a Sqaumish Indian ground, and people also claim it is haunted. What was unusual about The Amityville Horror, though, was that in a way, the story-about-the-story was more interesting than the alleged haunting itself. It hovered on a strange, tricky edge of fact and fiction. Some players, from the start, were up front about admitting it was a hoax. Others insisted, to their graves, that the story was true, that the Lutz family had been haunted by something. It’s just that the something may not have been paranormal at all.
On November 13th, 1974, six members of the DeFeo family—father Ronald, mother Louise, two daughters and two sons—were shot to death in their beds there in their home at 112 Ocean Avenue. A third son, 23-year-old Ronald “Butch” DeFeo, Jr., initially told police he’d innocently discovered the bodies in the locked house around 6 p.m. later that day. As Butch DeFeo told the story that day, when he saw the bodies, he fled the house to a bar down the street, arriving there in a state of “hysteria,” as one man lingering at the bar told reporters. He took the men back to the house and the police were called, who doubted Butch’s claims to innocence almost immediately: Within two days of finding the bodies, he would be on the hook for six second-degree murder charges; the police had come to believe that he’d committed the crimes because he wanted insurance money, a sum of about $200,000. ($960,000 today, adjusting for inflation.) DeFeo’s attorney was a bald-pated, laconic man named William Weber. From the time of his arraignment, Weber insisted that DeFeo was insane. They blamed the dead Ronald DeFeo, Sr. for his son’s dysfunction, arguing that he had been an abusive, bullying man. By the time the case came to trial, in October 1975—just months before the Lutzes would buy the Ocean Avenue house and move in—DeFeo’s lawyers had hired a psychiatrist who said that their client had been in a state of “paranoid psychosis” as he moved through the house and shot each of his relatives, one by one. A psychiatrist hired by the prosecution agreed that DeFeo was mentally ill, but insisted that he still knew that what he had done was wrong, and therefore didn’t fit the legal definition of insane. The jury sided with the prosecution. DeFeo received six concurrent life sentences for the deaths of his siblings. When a Newsday reporter at the trial asked Weber if he thought the verdict against his client was fair, he did not reaffirm his client’s innocence or make the usual strident sort of statement one expects from a criminal defense attorney. Instead, he shook his head, and said, “I’m glad I wasn’t a member of that jury.” But Weber clearly still wanted to try to argue the case. He had said to reporters during the trial that he was charging DeFeo only a “modest fee,” and that “I’m getting more out of this from the publicity.” The tale of a haunting gave Weber a chance to put the case back into the spotlight. It was, in fact, in Weber’s office that the Lutz’s February 1976 press conference took place, although he did not present himself as their attorney. Weber told reporters that day that now, having heard the Lutz family’s full story, the story they were not entirely sharing that day with reporters, he thought he could reopen the DeFeo case. The implication was clear: the tale of paranormal phenomena in the house suggested that DeFeo had, in fact, been out of his mind—he’d been driven out of it by this supernatural current in the place. Of course, Weber said, he could not tell them more just then. He still had to discuss it with his incarcerated client. He was looking into filing a motion, he said, though he never said what kind and none appears to have ever been filed. As of right now, Ronald DeFeo is still an inmate in a correctional facility in Fallsburg, New York.
For fourteen months after the Lutzes fled the house in Amityville, it stood empty. Then, a family called Cromarty had moved into the house in the spring of 1977. “We moved in on April 1,” Jim Cromarty would later tell a reporter, “We were out here like a week and then came this Good Housekeepingarticle. We started to get a lot of visitors.” The Good Housekeeping article, by a man named Paul Hoffman who’d repeatedly written about the case for the New York Daily News, was published in the April 1977 issue, under the title “Our Dream House Was Haunted.” The article would swiftly become the subject of a lawsuit by the Lutzes, who claimed the article invaded their privacy. (This lawsuit, in which the Lutzes sued Hoffman, Good Housekeeping, the New York Daily News and several other parties for invasion of privacy, ultimately wasn’t successful. The publications were thrown out of the case by judges, and claims against Hoffman and the remaining defendants were eventually settled for undisclosed terms in 1979.) Then, five months later, Jay Anson published the book he’d written with the Lutzs’ input, The Amityville Horror. “A Devil of a True Story,” the Los Angeles Times reviewer called it. The book swiftly hit the bestseller lists, and stayed there for 42 weeks. By 1981, the book had gone through 37 printings and sold over 6.5 million copies. The film rights sold to Hollywood, with Anson attached to write the screenplay. But as the phenomenon grew, there were two key doubting voices. Throughout their ownership of the house, which lasted a decade, Jim and Barbara Cromarty repeatedly told the press they’d never seen anything unusual in the house. (That should have been good news. They had bought the place cheap because of all the bad publicity—they’d bought the house for $55,000 where the Lutzes had bought it for $80,000.) Instead of spirits, the Cromartys complained, they were haunted by what could only be called paranormal tourists, who knocked on the door at all hours of the day and night. These people sometimes called themselves witches. Sometimes they cursed out the Cromartys and told them they would die. Sometimes they were drunk. And sometimes, as the family told Newsday in 1978, they were just odd: “I think one of the funniest things was when we woke up at three o’clock and heard this guy with a bugle playing ‘Taps’ on the front lawn. I opened the window and applauded and said, ‘Kid, you’ve got a real good sense of humor,’” said Jim Cromarty.
The Cromartys would eventually sue the Lutzes, Anson, and book publisher Prentice-Hall for $1.1 million in assorted damages for fraud, trying to get them to admit that the subtitle of Anson’s book—“A True Story”—wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be. (The suit settled for an undisclosed six-figure sum in 1982.) The subtitle still stands, but sometimes it seemed even Jay Anson thought “true story” might have been an exaggeration. Whenever he was asked by the press if he actually believed the story he had written, he usually gave some wry reply. To People, in 1978: “I’m a professional writer. I don’t believe and I don’t disbelieve. I leave that to the reader.” To the New York Times, the same year: “I believe these people believe that they went through all those things they saw and heard.” Then, in 1980, at the age of 58, he up and died of a heart attack, and so never got around to explaining why so much of what is claimed in his book—police visits, Catholic priests with ghostly experiences, stormy weather—turned out to be utter bunk, according to all concerned. But then few of the participants here were ashamed of copping to embellishments. William Weber, for example, was quite prepared to say that it was all a lie, granted that he also wanted to take credit for having come up with the great idea in the first place. On the day that the film version was released in July 1979, Weber went to the press and said he and the Lutzes had made up the entire story “over a bottle of wine.” While he said that they did claim to have had some kind of supernatural experience in the house, he said it was only with his help that they began to elaborate on the details of the story after looking at evidence of Ronald DeFeo’s crime, which he provided them. The famed green slime, for example? That was blood. The flies? Based on flies from the crime scene. Weber quite mildly explained, later, that he had been approached and told that a publisher would happily offer a large advance for a book about the DeFeo case. He tried to get the Lutzes to go in on it with him. His notion was that some of the royalties could be split with DeFeo himself, “effectively paying him for the murder,” as George Lutz pointed out in a British documentary on the case 20 years later. After hearing that, Lutz said, he and his wife stopped speaking to Weber. When they cut the deal with Prentice-Hall and Anson, Weber wasn’t involved. They had effectively cut him out of any future deal. Weber tried to carry on by himself—the freelance writer he’d enlisted to write the book would eventually publish an account of the Lutz’s experience in the house in Good Housekeeping—but the Lutzes sued him for invasion of privacy. That suit settled, too, in 1979. DeFeo later corroborated Weber’s account too, saying he’d never wanted to claim insanity. That said, his credibility was suspect, and his explanation for the crime was more baroque: his mother and sister had been involved in the killings too. In an appearance before his parole board in 1999, DeFeo explained that he had actually only killed one of his sisters, Dawn, 17. He claimed she had been responsible for the rest of the murders herself. “I loved my family very much,” he allegedly insisted. The parole board did not believe him.
The only people, in fact, involved with Amityville who insisted that it was real were the Lutzes themselves. Their relationship to the story always seemed to swing between absolute faith in its truthfulness and ambivalence about telling it to anyone. They gave the press conference, then promptly fled Long Island for California. They only agreed to cooperate with Anson, and gave a few press interviews pegged to the book. But in those interviews, they were suddenly the same reluctant, guarded couple they’d been in the original press conference. For an interview with the Los Angeles Times, for example, they demanded that the reporter not reveal precisely where they live, take photographs of the inside of their house, or take photographs of the children. The only thing George Lutz was eager to get across in that interview, the reporter said, was that the family was happier now for the experience they’d gone through. The experience he still seemed somewhat reluctant to articulate in detail. “We now appreciate good things more,” he said, of the family’s current state. “We are closer together. We value materialistic things less.” And then later, he’d add cryptically, “Privacy is not just about where we live, but about our thoughts. They are no one else’s business.” Kathy died in 2004, George in 2006. But over the years, George in particular would give a few more interviews, slowly opening up the frame. Still he was this strange, enigmatic figure on the truth of it all. He insisted the family had experienced a horror. But he also came to admit that certain elements of the story—that green slime, in particular—were embellished, never accurate. And George’s admissions of such piecemeal, small inaccuracies, allowed everyone to doubt the whole thing, to assume that it was all Weber, a simple case of a hoax, all along. But his children have complicated that. Because at least two of them clearly believes that there was a haunting. Danny Lutz and Christopher Quaratino, the two older Lutz children, say they remember the events, shadowy figures and being thrown up a staircase by malevolent spirits. And when Danny Lutz told his story in a recent bizarre documentary called My Amityville Horror, he was in evident turmoil about it. “I was possessed by a spirit that I could not get rid of on my own,” he insisted. Actually, Danny Lutz claimed, the disturbances in the Amityville house had nothing to do with the DeFeos. He said it was actually George who had summoned the bad spirits with his dabblings in the occult. A vain, domineering stepfather, he had terrorized his stepchildren. He sometimes beat them with a wooden spoon as punishment. (Christopher Quaratino, the middle Lutz child, has told similar stories and also blames George for the haunting. The third Lutz child, Missy, has never spoken publicly about her experience.) Still, Danny Lutz insists there was a force larger than George Lutz at work in the house too. “Evil demonic spirits,” Danny Lutz says with absolute certainty in the documentary. “I know they exist.” Which, in one of the many weird parallel truths and untruths of this whole, messy story of the Amityville Horror, he seems absolutely to believe.