Before the Satanic Panic took hold of the American consciousness, there was the “Satanic Passion” when Americans couldn’t get enough kitschy occult horror. The passion was moved, for the most part, by movies: Rosemary’s Baby, based on a book; The Omen, based on a book, The Exorcist, based on a book; and The Amityville Horror, based on a book, based on “true” events.
To be clear, The Amityville Horror is classified as a novel.
Written by Jay Anson and published in 1977, the Amityville Horror follows the terrifying twenty-eight days the Lutz family reside in 112 Ocean Ave, Amityville, New York. The book is written in the style of a true crime laying out facts as they were told to the author, via 45-hours of recorded audiotape.
The story begins with George and Kathy Lutz purchasing 112 Ocean Ave for well below prices of similar houses in the area. They are able to purchase this house so cheaply because it was the scene of the infamous DeFeo Family murders. Ronald DeFeo Jr. murder his father, mother, and four siblings with a .35 Marlin (which the book annoyingly refers to as a “high powered rifle”).
The Lutz family, George, Kathy and their three children, move in. Spooky happenings begin immediately. From cold spots, demon pigs, ghostly flu, to the notorious green goo and gathering flies—the tropes are all here and arguably, began here. Family, friends, and even a Priest experience frightening events while in the house: a demonic voice crying “get out” when the Priest blesses the house and Kathy’s sister-in-law encounters a ghostly little boy at the foot of her bed. The Lutz remain in their new home for twenty-eight days before finally fleeing the house, abandoning it, everything inside, and moving to CA.
The Amityville Horror, as a book, is unremarkable. The book is told is a semi-formal true crime style where everything is presented without skepticism. It’s a short read, clocking in at 6hrs 27mins on Audible. Its faults show because it’s written like a true crime. The Lutz are real people and the layout of events leaves no place for character arcs, development, or elucidation. For a horror novel, I wasn’t so much horrified as fascinated.
If you’ve seen any of the multiple movies, you’re familiar with the plot. You may even be familiar through cultural osmosis as The Amityville Horror has become transcribed into the American consciousness as folklore. I respect it as folklore.
The American folkloric tradition is spooky, almost all great American writers have written scary stories: Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorn, HP Lovecraft, William Faulkner, etcetera. This doesn’t even include the number of oral traditions found throughout the nation from the Brodie Curse, Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, Mothman, the hook-handed lunatic, etcetera.
Scary stories are an American pastime.
But folklore is all it can be. It will neither convince nor unconvinced you of the existence of ghosts and demons. The skeptical will write off the Lutz story as a shameful cash grab, and the believers will take it as further evidence of the supernatural. I take it as neither, the truth is, the real horror happened when Ronnie DeFeo Jr. murdered his family.
The murder of the DeFeo’s is, in its own way, also folkloric. There are numerous theories: Ronnie Jr. was possessed by a demon; Ronald DeFeo Sr. had mob ties and his son was a scapegoat for a mob hit; Ronnie Jr. is mentally ill; Ronnie Jr. killed his family for money. Regardless, the Lutz’s ghost story has overshadowed the tragedy, willing or unwilling. All of this is, indeed, made more sinister with the revelation that the Lutz’s were in financial trouble. For me, the simplest solutions are usually the correct ones. But life is never simplistic and humans are complicated creatures.
The Amityville Horror is a piece of American folklore, I only hope that we remember the tale is built on real human tragedy.