The first order of business before anyone can discuss this book like adults is to address the elephant in the room. (Or, in this case, the giant pig in the room.)
This book was originally published in September of 1977 as “A True Story.” In case you haven’t heard, it most definitely is NOT a true story. At worst, it’s a complete fabrication told by a family in financial crisis who purchased a house they could not afford and found a creative solution to get out from under their mortgage with a little extra money on the side. At best, there might be a kernel of truth in the story. A tiny grain of truth. Maybe. However, for the purposes of my review, I’m going to treat this book as fiction with a true backstory that was “ripped from the headlines.”
The undisputed true horror story occurred one year before the events in the book. On November 13, 1974, during the early hours of the morning, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo Jr. used a rifle to murder his entire family—mother, father, two sisters, and two brothers. Early on, Ron used an affirmative defense of insanity and claimed he committed the crimes because he “heard voices.” He later recanted that claim and has repeatedly appealed his 1975 conviction with increasingly bizarre theories of the crime. No one has ever been able to come up with a solid motive for DeFeo’s actions. Perhaps he hoped to collect insurance money. Perhaps his antisocial personality disorder was aggravated by heroin and LSD. Perhaps he was just bored. As Yoda would say, “There is no why.” On November 21, 1975, DeFeo was found guilty of second-degree murder on all six counts.
(As a side note … second-degree murder? Seriously? Someone call Jack McCoy to fight this flaccid application of criminal justice.)
One year after the murders and just a few weeks after Ron DeFeo’s conviction and sentencing, George and Kathy Lutz were able to purchase the DeFeo home at a price that was much lower than its real estate valuation would have been before the violent tragedy. And yet, the price was still far too high for their budget. So the couple was under a heavy burden of financial strain from the moment they signed the purchase papers.
The Amityville Horror details 28 days of terror that began when the Lutz family moved into their “dream home” on Long Island and didn’t quite end when they fled the house leaving behind most of their earthly possessions. It paints a picture of a young couple struggling with both worldly and otherworldly concerns living in a house they could not afford. Walls ooze with slime, windows shatter, ceramic statues attack, sleeping people levitate, a giant pig looms, and a demon appears in the fireplace. Add to the mix the striking physical resemblance between Ronald DeFeo and George Lutz and the tension gets pretty thick.
What does this story do well? Anson employs a pseudo-journalistic style that lends a stark air of veracity. In addition, he sets a ticking clock by letting readers know early on that the Lutz family only stayed in the home for 28 days. He details the family’s experiences inside the residence but also follows troubling occurrences that bedevil the Catholic priest who blessed the property when the Lutzes moved in. The interrupted calls between the Lutz household and the beleaguered priest are some of the most frightening scenes in the book.
However, judging the narrative strictly as a supernatural ghost story, the story is muddled. It reads like a “greatest hits” of 1970s-era horror stories. And the giant demon-eyed pig named Jodie? That’s just silly. Perhaps the most ludicrous scenario is when the house steals $1500 from Kathy’s soon-to-be-married brother. (Raise your hand if you think George snagged the cash.)
When I first read The Amityville Horror in the early ’80s, the cover still declared it was a true story. Despite seeing a few television articles aimed at debunking the whole thing, the book terrified me. I was nervous to read it again. So I did my prep work before cracking open the cover by researching the case. My favorite article describing the tangled mess of lies and lawsuits behind the original book and movie appeared in The Washington Post (The Calamityville Horror, 9/16/1979)
That research took the sting out of the book this time around. But I still have unanswered questions.
Anson died in 1980. As far as I can tell, he never fully addressed all of the niggling inconsistencies or outright errors in his version of the story. The Lutzes divorced in the ’80s. Kathy died of emphysema in 2004 at age 57; George died of heart disease in 2006 at age 59. Both of them stuck to their version of the story until the day they died. If it was a full-on con aimed at getting rich, the Lutzes failed in their scheme. Yes, it does appear the couple escaped their mountain of debt and made a tidy little sum (either $100K or $200K total, depending on the source) but then spent years suing and being sued over this supposedly true story.
And yet … I still believe there could be a disturbing kernel of truth to the Lutzes Amityville haunting.
There were three children caught up in this whole debacle—Daniel, Christopher, and Melissa.
In 2005, Christopher completed a round of interviews claiming that most of the Hollywood version of the story was false or exaggerated. However, he also claimed George Lutz dabbled in the occult and may have brought some sort of paranormal entity into the house. In a 2013 documentary entitled My Amityville Horror, Daniel Lutz went further in detailing his stepfather’s abuse and occult beliefs. In a sad twist, the brothers are estranged and suing each other over this same mostly untrue story!
Apparently, Melissa is the only surviving Lutz who escaped the madness.
This is not a book I would recommend. To anyone. Ever. But it did create a modern cultural phenomenon that’s hard to ignore for anyone interested in exploring haunted house lore.
Alexis K. says
I have learned that our criminal justice and court system are truly fucked in this country over the years. However, it is hard to pin a motivation or purpose on DeFeo’s action because there are so many possibilities as to WHY he could’ve done it that did not have enough evidence without a reasonable doubt. If they took it to a jury under first-degree, it would be way too complicated for the jury to see the evidence and find a logical motivation. Either deadlock or dismissal, if it got passed a grand jury to start.
I laughed out loud at you labeling it the “greatest hits” of 1970s-era horror stories. Also, yes. What would a ghost need money for? Low on milk? 😉
I also could not find Melissa speaking of her childhood. Chris and Daniel really seemed to make it apparent they hated being known as the Amityville Kids. I also only really got from Daniel’s documentary his genuine hatred for George Lutz.
Like I told Maddy, if someone wants all the tropes of ghost fiction, I’ll recommend them this one.
“However, judging the narrative strictly as a supernatural ghost story, the story is muddled. It reads like a “greatest hits” of 1970s-era horror stories.” There were too many tropes of not only ghosts but demons in this book for me to believe this tale was true. But being ‘based on’ is not the same as a documentary. There could be a shred of truth in the story, but then expand that for writing to make it more interesting to reader. Drama sells. That being said, it was funny to read because of how over the top it was as a ghost story.
Glenna Hartwell says
Hi Trisha, I also thought that the scene between the priest and George Lutz was frightening. Phone that calls are repeatedly cut off or never answered are exactly the kind of low level terror I find believable. And for that reason—the smallness and banality of the events—they are scary and effective, much more so than a pig named Jody.
Including the scene of the missing money was silly on Ansons part and made it seem like he was searching desperately for material. Even if the money *seemed* to just disappear, someone could have swiped it, after all. Since Anson could not prove that the $1500 actually did vanished into thin air, there’s no point including the story in the book.
Then there is the subjective response I had to the writing. I can only say that it didn’t have the ring of truth. I am currently reading Grave’s End, our next RIG book, and the difference in style between the two stories is like night and day. In *Grave’s End*, the emotions of the narrator come through. In *The Amityville horror*, the author describes emotions, but in my opinion we never feel them