Monday, October 31, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Amityville Horror

Despite its subtitle, Jay Anson's 1977 book, The Amityville Horror, is not a true story and thus I feel no compunction at making it today's installment of Pulp Fantasy Library. Even if one is credulous enough to believe the book's claims, The Amityville Horror was a significant tale of supernatural horror in a decade suffused with such tales, such as The Exorcist and The Omen, and thus a fit topic for this series. Indeed, I think it fair to say that this book is one of the most famous haunted house stories of the modern age, if not the most famous, both the medium of the book itself and 1979 movie of the same name (not to mention many TV shows, newspaper, and magazine articles).

According to Anson, in late 1975, the Lutz family of five moved into a Dutch colonial house on 112 Ocean Drive on Long Island, New York. Though worth considerably more, George Lutz paid only $80,000  for the home (plus an addition $400 for the furnishings it already contained), owing to the fact that it had an unsavory reputation. Thirteen months prior to the purchase, 112 Ocean Drive was the site of the murder of six people -- two adults and four children -- by Ronald DeFeo, Jr., a fact the Lutzes knew but decided didn't matter, since they liked the spacious home so much. Even so, the Lutzes asked a Catholic priest to come and bless the home, just in case.

The priest, Father Ray Mancuso, entered the house to bless it and found doing so uncomfortable. He eventually heard a voice telling him, "Get out!" At first, he kept his experiences to himself but eventually decided to tell George Lutz. Father Mancuso called the Lutzes and warned them against going into the room from which the voice he'd heard had come. As it turned out, the room had been the bedroom of two of the children murdered by Ronald DeFeo. Not long thereafter, Father Mancuso fell seriously ill, afflicted with a high fever and strange blisters on his body.

Over the course of the next 28 days, 112 Ocean Drive was host to numerous bizarre phenomena that suggested the house was haunted or demon-possessed. For example, swarms of flies appeared on the windows of some rooms of the house, despite the cold winter weather, while blood oozed from the walls in some places. The family members experienced nightmares, feelings of being touched by unseen forces, and, in the case of the youngest child, 5 year-old Melissa, repeated encounters with a pig-like creature with red glowing eyes whom the little girl called Jody. There were also spinning crucifixes, demonic visions, hidden rooms, inexplicable noises, and levitations. In short, nearly every cliché associated with haunted houses in modern times supposedly happened at 112 Ocean Drive, except of course most of these weren't clichés before the publication of The Amityville Horror. This is the book that started it all, right down to the house's having been built atop an Indian burial ground.

I was too young to read The Amityville Horror (whose title, incidentally, was chosen by Anson based on Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror") when it was first released, but, like most kids back then, I knew the story. In the late '70s, it was everywhere, part of the cultural landscape of that bygone decade and something that simultaneously attracted and repelled me. Even now, reading the book reminded me of all the feelings I had as a child. Despite the fact what Anson and the Lutzes perpetrated is one of the great hoaxes of the 20th century, the book is still powerfully compelling. There's a rawness and -- dare I say it? -- believability to its presentation that I find hard to resist, even though I know better. It's a fun and inspirational read and I don't deny that there are aspects to my The Cursed Chateau that I cribbed from The Amityville Horror. I'm sure I'm not that only gamer ever to do so.

15 comments:

  1. I was 5 years old in 1977, but, living on Long Island, I clearly remember all the hoopla that accompanied the release of this book. I clearly remember being terrified when I overheard my parents' friends talking about the events documented in the book during a visit to our home.

    1977 was the year of Star Wars, the Son of Sam, and the Amityville Horror here in New Work--and I don't think I've been right ever since!

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  2. Yep, I used ideas for my Cthulhu games many years later. loved the book and wanted to believe, even though I didn't (I think).

    Movies were so-so, but the original had a grand "get out!"

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  3. I've not read the book but remember the movie as fun.

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  4. And how, exactly, do you know this 'strangely believable' story to be untrue? All good fun, indeed.

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  5. And how, exactly, do you know this 'strangely believable' story to be untrue?

    I think it's the details we can independently corroborate don't match what's presented in the book. That raises seriously doubts about the Lutzes' truthfulness. Combine that with the claims by William Weber, Ronald DeFeo's defense attorney, that he helped the Lutzes concoct the whole story and the inconsistencies in the testimony of Father Pecararo (Father Mancuso in the book) over the years and there's plenty of grounds for doubting this is "a true story." Plus, for a house as supposedly haunted as 112 Ocean Drive, you'd think it'd still be haunted and yet no one except the Lutzes (who lived there a very short time) has ever claimed to have experienced anything supernatural in origin.

    I'm a skeptical sort, I admit, but I'm also quite willing to credit tales of the supernatural when there's reason to do so. The Amityville Horror is well told and fun but it also contains a lot of details that don't stand up to scrutiny, which is why it's generally considered, even by people professionally inclined to such things (like paranormal investigation Stephen Kaplan), to have been a hoax.

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  6. http://www.snopes.com/horrors/ghosts/amityville.asp

    Butch DeFeo's lawyer admitted having come up with the story along with the Lutzes, hoping to get a new trial for his client under a demon possession defense.

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  7. Totally agree... this is a book that completely grabbed my imagination when I read it. There is a journalistic style to the presentation, combined with the, just this side of plausible, story that made it so compelling.

    It's a great source of inspiration.

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  8. The flies on the window thing kills me. If you have ever lived in the country, you would know that flies showing up on your windows in the middle of winter is a totally normal occurrence. They're known as attic flies, and they live in the siding of houses. They warm up on windows when the sun is shining on them. Totally a gross nuisance, but common nonetheless.

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  9. If you really want to get freaked out about The Amityville Horror, do yourself a favor and look up the episode of the old "In Search Of..." series on Youtube (yes, with the great Leonard Nimoy as narrator). That episode is really creepy, a real treat to watch.

    The link below is part 1:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diKXTVMTXKU

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  10. "And how, exactly, do you know this 'strangely believable' story to be untrue? All good fun, indeed."

    Uhh because it has to do with ghosts, hauntings, and demons? Sorry couldn't resist.

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  11. Yep, I used ideas for my Cthulhu games many years later

    I've only just noticed that the classic Call of Cthulhu scenario "The Haunting" borrows a great deal from The Amityville Horror. I've been familiar with both for years, but never made the connection until today.

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  12. They're known as attic flies, and they live in the siding of houses.

    Ah! We had those flies in the farmhouse I grew up in, and always wondered if there's a name for them. I don't think they lived in the siding, but in the window trim -- brick house.

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  13. I think the Lutz' themselves came clean about it a few years ago if I recall correctly.

    This book was one of only I few books I have ever known that even people who didn't like to read would show up with a copy of at school when I was a kid. Toss in there The Exorcist (I had a friend in elementary school, Catholic school, who got in a lot of trouble for having that book) Jaws, and much later Jurrasic Park as books everybody seemed to be reading during their popular periods.

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  14. This book scared the bejeebus out of me when I was 12. I reread it a few years back and laughed at myself, but it was one of the scariest things I'd ever read and was awesome (even if fake).

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