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Was 'The Amityville Horror' A Hoax? The True Crime Story Behind The Famous Haunted House
Claims about the veracity of the statements made in the 1977 "Amityville Horror" book have been debated for decades. But what really happened to the Lutz clan at the house where Ronald DeFeo Jr. had murdered his family?
The story surrounding the Lutz family and their December 1975 purchase of—and prompt departure from—a supposedly haunted house on Long Island has been the subject of endless speculation. But was this spooky ordeal, popularized by a book and then a handful of films, inspired by a true crime—or just an elaborate hoax?
Two years before the Lutz family's infamous flight, Ronald DeFeo Jr. entered Henry's Bar in Amityville, Long Island, New York, and claimed his family had been shot to death. An investigation into the home at 112 Ocean Avenue revealed that six people had been fatally shot.
DeFeo maintained that his family had been the victims of a mob hit, but his testimony broke down under scrutiny. The next day, he confessed to being the perpetrator behind the slayings.
After mounting an unsuccessful insanity defense, DeFeo was found guilty of six counts of murder on November 21, 1975. He was eventually sentenced to six concurrent sentences of 25 years to life, according to CBS New York.
Almost two years later, in September 1977, author Jay Anson’s "The Amityville Horror" would detail the spectral terrorism faced by the subsequent occupants of 112 Ocean Avenue.
Since its publication, almost every detail of the book has come under scrutiny, leading to a plethora of lawsuits from various people described in it, the Washington Post reported in 1979.
In the book, Anson claims that the house was vacant for 13 months after the DeFeo murders. But in December 1975, George and Kathleen Lutz would purchase the property for $80,000—considered a bargain at the time. They were informed of the house's macabre history before making the final decision to buy the Dutch Colonial home.
Despite having the house blessed by a priest immediately upon moving in, George, Kathleen, and their three children were said to have experienced a handful of unexplained phenomena.
George, for example, claimed to wake at 3:15 am every day—the exact time the murders had allegedly occurred; daughter Missy began speaking to an imaginary — or perhaps demonic — entity named "Jodie;" Kathy even claimed to have levitated above her bed, arising from the disturbance with welts on her chest.
On January 14, 1976, Anson claimed the Lutz's had reached their breaking point. They left the home and all of their possessions behind following a final night they have refused to describe in detail.
The Lutz family has since taken and passed lie detector tests to confirm the veracity of the claims they have made about the property, according to The Telegraph.
But following owners of the house have stated that they never experienced anything remotely similar to the disturbances the Lutz’s supposedly were subject to.
"Nothing weird ever happened, except for people coming by because of the book and the movie," James Cromarty, who lived in the house from 1977 to 1987, told The Telegraph.
Still, the story of the Lutz haunting has inspired over a dozen horror films, the first of which was made in 1979 and starred James Brolin and Margot Kidder as George and Kathleen. The depictions of the supernatural events described in Anson's books have ranged greatly throughout the movies released over the years.
Explorations from notable paranormal investigators The Warrens (who would go on to serve as the inspiration for "The Conjuring" series of horror films) led to the duo concluding that evil forces were at work after an infamous "psychic slumber party," during which they claimed to have obtained photographic evidence of a ghost, according to ABC News.
"This was no ordinary haunted house. On a scale of 1-10, this was a 10," said Ed Warren in the 2000 documentary, “Amityville: Horror Or Hoax."
Meanwhile, several other investigations into the Lutz ordeal have produced vastly different conclusions. A book by parapsychologists Stephen and Roxanne Kaplan asserted that the stories allegedly invented by the Lutz family amounted to an attempt at deliberately defrauding the public for profit, according to The New York Times, noting several glaring discrepancies in the various accounts of the event. They allege that the Lutz couple had concocted the occult happening for the purposes of cashing in on related media attention.
Fact-checking website Snopes has gone so far as concluding that the claim "The Amityville Horror" book and subsequent films are based on true events is entirely false. Snopes notes that Butch DeFeo’s lawyer, William Weber (pictured above), admitted that he, along with the Lutz’s, “created this horror story over many bottles of wine" in the hopes of gaining a new trial for his client.
Joe Nickell, a skeptic who professionally debunks paranormal phenomena, has been ready to dismiss the debate surrounding the house.
"The bottom line is that ... it was a hoax, or is, simply, at best, a matter that's not proven. And that's not very good for America's most famous haunted house," Nickell told ABC News.
But George Lutz continued to disagree with the dismissals of his story in "Amityville: Horror Or Hoax."
"I believe this has stayed alive for 25 years because it's a true story. It doesn't mean that everything that has ever been said about it is true. It's certainly not a hoax. It's real easy to call something a hoax. I wish it was. It's not," Lutz said.
Laura Didio, a journalist who was writing about the experiences of the Lutz family when the first conspiracies broke, has also cast doubt on attempts to unmask the Lutz’s.
"One of the things that struck me about their story is that they seemed genuinely frightened and genuinely moved by whatever had happened to them in this house," said Didio in "Amityville: Horror Or Hoax."
If the Lutz family truly does consider their experiences truthful despite massive evidence to the contrary, to what extent can the whole ordeal be dismissed as an elaborate con?
This is precisely the question the 2013 documentary “My Amityville Horror” asks. Interviews with Daniel Lutz, the child of Kathleen who survived the alleged phantasmatic onslaught, show a man disturbed by his past.
"This is not something I asked for," Daniel says in the film. "I've been running away from it, and it finally caught up with me."
Daniel discusses the abuse he suffered at the hands of his step-father and the patriarch's alleged dabblings in Satanism long before the media began paying attention to the family. Daniel's attestations are clearly based on foggy recollections of dark tomes George was allegedly seen reading, and the validity of his testimony is questionable, if not moving. But Daniel continues to maintain the accounts given by his mother and step-father in various books and interviews.
"At some point it doesn’t even matter if ghosts terrorized the Lutz family, because Daniel believes it so wholeheartedly, and listening to him tell his tale becomes its own kind of truth," noted Indiewire critic Drew Taylor in his review of the documentary.
Perhaps the question of whether the haunting was a hoax or not is too simplistic.
The house at 112 Ocean Avenue has been vastly remodeled since the late 70's and no longer resembles the structure depicted in the films. It was purchased by new owners for $605,000 in 2017, according to Newsday.
As for the Lutz couple themselves? Kathleen died of emphysema in 2004 and George died of heart disease 2006 after the two divorced in 1980.
DeFeo remains incarcerated.
[Photos Credits: Paul Hawthorne/Getty, Associated Press]