The most famous haunted house in the world, a 1928 Dutch Colonial structure with two cursed eyes for attic windows, is perched on a waterfront lot on Ocean Avenue in the town of Amityville on Long Island, N.Y.
You can thank six real-life murders, Jay Anson's best-selling book and a subsequent string of Hollywood horror movies for that. Anson's book sold 10 million copies.
The original 1979 version of The Amityville Horror, co-starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger, generated $86.4 million at the box office in the U.S. and Canada, ranking as a blockbuster in its era. Quickly there were sequels, including Amityville II: The Possession (1982) and the cheesy Amityville 3-D(1983), which sloganized: "The gateway to Hell is always open."
Now Amityville and its House of Horrors is back in the news. The same boutique production team that re-made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- another picture very loosely based on a true story-- has re-made The Amityville Horror. Once again, the saga is being hyped as "a true story" -- a powerful, even intoxicating part of the hard sell for horror.
"As a company, we're attracted to true-life stories," co-producer Andrew Form says in Los Angeles, "or at least stories that are rooted in truth because, if it feels more real to you as a viewer, it has a deeper effect. We've been brought a lot of horror films but the only ones that we're really interested in are ones that have a basis in truth."
How much reality is in The Amityville Horror? If it is akin to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not much. In that case, the real-life inspiration was not even a Texan. Instead, it was a psychotic Wisconsin farmer, Ed Gein, who robbed graves, killed people and collected body parts in the 1950s. But a movie called The Wisconsin Graverobber just doesn't sound sexy. Meanwhile, the Gein case also inspired the mother-loving Bates character in Psycho and the killer-flayer Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs. Other horror movies are even more remote from the truth with one claiming it was based on "a true story" because an ancient myth was behind the script. Is the truth in Amityville as tenuous?
"It's true enough," British director Andrew Douglas, who was hired to bring his stylish gloss to the project, "and then, after that, it's a kind of author's conceit, I think."
Douglas, calling himself a secular European, asks rhetorically: "Do I believe in ghosts? No! I believe in ghosts as much as I believe in God, really. (But), as an intellectual leap, I'll 'believe' in ghosts in order to make the best possible horror film. I think it is legitimately a true story but, as storytellers, we also elaborate on what is true."
Horror is intensified when people believe, Douglas says. "I think if horror exists in a Van Helsing world, for example, clearly a fantasy world, then that's a certain kind of film. But, if it exists in a familiar world, I think it has a lot more potency. I means it can happen to you.
"I think some of the power of the original Amityville (movie) is that there is a place called Amityville and it is a suburb of New York and there was a grotesque murder there, the result of which a young couple that moved in was scared out of their wits because they 'saw' certain things. There were one-and-a-half very real things that happened."
The murders are still notorious and have been called "the day that lives in infamy." At 3:15 a.m. on a stormy night in November, 1974, Ronald (Butch) DeFeo Jr. grabbed a shotgun and murdered his parents, two brothers and two sisters, later claiming demonic voices in the house told him to do it and that he could not stop: "I felt somebody was inside moving me," DeFeo said in a recorded 1979 interview from prison, where he is serving six consecutive life sentences.
In December of 1975, newlyweds George and Kathy Lutz and her three children from a previous marriage moved in to 112 Ocean Ave. (the address has since been changed and the "eyes" replaced with squared windows to disguise the real house, which is now occupied a family which hates publicity). The Lutzs knew about the murders but the place was a bargain at $80,000. The Lutzs suddenly fled the house and almost all their possessions 28 days later, claiming that the house was possessed by demons and that such fantastical and evil things had happened that they could not stay.
The real George Lutz, who was played by Brolin in the original movie and by rising Canadian star Ryan Reynolds in the re-make, told interviews for The History Channel that: "We left the house because the house became uninhabitable."
Kathy Lutz said in the same show, Amityville: The Haunting, that they were terrorized and cannot any longer detail how that happened: "To describe fear, and the depth of what fear can do within you, is hard to verbalize."
Kathy Lutz, who was eventually divorced from George, is now deceased. Australian actress Melissa George, who plays her in the re-make, never had a chance to meet her. "She wasn't very well so there was no meeting," George says. "I just read her diaries of what she went through and just sort of based it on that. Then, week one (of shooting in Wisconsin, of all places), she was gone. It was very freaky actually. It was a very sad day for everybody."
There is still intense curiosity and controversy about what really happened to the real Lutz family. Psychic and so-called demonologist Lorraine Warren, who investigated the Amityville house with husband Ed Warren, is absolute that strange things happened to the Lutz's and to many other families which lived in the house before. "I don't think the Amityville house was haunted," she says in L.A., "I know the Amityville house was haunted."
But not by ghosts, Warren says. Instead, she and her husband believe there is, or was, an intelligent demonic presence there that preyed on people, some more than others.
"What a home like this will do is affect people on their weakest, most vulnerable levels. (Ronald) DeFeo was weak, vulnerable, a drug addict, hated his father. He was just a strange dude." So it is not hard to believe he was driven to murder, she says. Then the Lutz family suffered. "It shows you the power of the forces that were at work there."
Ed Warren, who was not available for the L.A. interview day, told The History Channel interviewers: "For the believer, no evidence is necessary. For the atheist and the skeptic, no evidence is possible."
But Roxanne Salch Kaplan, co-author with her late husband Stephen Kaplan of the book The Amityville Conspiracy, claims the Lutz story is a hoax and that the Warrens are fakes. "Ed and Lorraine Warren, I think, are the biggest phonies," she said in a second History Channel program, Amityville: Horror Or Hoax? Kaplan also said the Warrens are "the most dangerous people around because they are the type of individuals that scare people out of their homes."
But Ed Warren said of Stephen Kaplan: "The man was as phony as a three-dollar bill." That level of discourse is pointless, of course. But it demonstrates how intense the debate remains. On the new DVD of the original movie, parapsychologist Hans Holzer, who also investigated the Amityville house, dismisses both the Kaplans and the Warrens and claims that his scientific investigation shows that the house is affected by "poltergeist phenomenon."
He claims that is because the house is located on the site of an ancient Montaukett Indian burial ground and that a chief, whose buried body was uncovered in a 1904 flood, is furious that his skull was ripped off and that the site was disturbed. "Nobody had the right to live on this land," Holzer says in his DVD commentary. It was no surprise that the Lutz family later fled the house built on the same foundation, Holzer says of their problems.
"Those things really happened." But he refuses to call it "a haunting," preferring to say, "It is a disturbance."
His research shows that an earlier 1782 house belonging to missionary John Ketcham, an alleged witch banished from Salem, had stood on the property until it was moved to a nearby street early in the 20th century. That house, too, experienced the poltergeist problem until it was moved, Holzer says. "The land was the culprit, not the house."
Trouble is, all that is speculation. Records of the Ketcham connection and Salem expulsion are sketchy. Yet, in the new movie, he is shown in flashbacks as a torturer of abused native peoples, part of the way the horror is intensified.
"Hollywood always decides to embellish and improve the story," Holzer says on his Amityville commentary, "which is a big mistake because nothing is stranger than the truth."
The reality is that nobody knows how much to believe. But there are fragments of the truth in The Amityville Horror.