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The Amityville Horror—A 50-Year Old Lie That Won’t Die

Jay Anson’s haunted-house yarn was a highly lucrative hoax, but it struck a popular chord amid the financial precarity of 1970s America.

· 26 min read
The Amityville Horror—A 50-Year Old Lie That Won’t Die
The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979)


On December 18, 1975, the Lutz family—George, Kathy, and their three young children—moved into a large house in the town of Amityville on Long Island. “Twenty-eight days later,” writes Jay Anson in the opening paragraph of his 1977 book, The Amityville Horror, “they fled in terror.” Anson’s book purports to be a nonfiction account of the various supernatural occurrences that drove the Lutzes from a luxurious, three-story, 4,000-square-foot home that boasted a heated swimming pool, a full basement, a detached garage, and a boat house. 

Although the Lutzes lived in the house for less than a month, their story gave birth to an enormous pop-cultural cottage industry that now includes dozens of films (a Wikipedia page titled “Works Based on the Amityville Haunting” lists 46 separate movie titles) and numerous books (the same page lists ten official titles, but numerous other unofficial books have been inspired by the success of Anson’s story and the subsequent 1979 film adaptation). Last year, the MGM+ streaming service released a four-part documentary called Amityville: An Origin Story. And later this month, a new 4K UHD/Blu-ray edition of the 1979 film adaptation of Anson’s book is scheduled for release.

The original film was directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke and The Drowning Pool) and starred James Brolin and Margot Kidder as George and Kathy Lutz. It became the second-highest grossing film in America for the year 1979, behind only Kramer vs. Kramer, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The new Blu-ray release includes an abundance of extras, including audio commentary by various film authorities and parapsychology experts, interviews with the screenwriter (Sandor Stern) and the composer of the score (Lalo Schifrin), among other goodies.

Thanks to Anson’s book and Rosenberg’s film, the haunting of the Lutz family became one of the best-known nightmares of the 1970s, a decade filled with chilling true-crime stories (Patty Hearst, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, the Zodiac killer, the Golden State killer, Ted Bundy, the BTK killings, two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford, and so on). When the decade began, the most notorious address in America was 10050 Cielo Drive in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles, where actress Sharon Tate and five others were murdered by followers of Charles Manson. By the end of the decade, the most notorious address in America was 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York, 2,831 miles from Benedict Canyon.

The story of The Amityville Horror continues to exert enormous influence on contemporary popular culture. Director James Wan’s hugely popular 2013 film The Conjuring was inspired by the real-life careers of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators (she was a self-described clairvoyant and he was a demonologist) who spent decades looking into apparent cases of demonic possession, haunted houses, and other supernatural phenomena. The Warrens’ most famous investigation involved the house at 112 Ocean Avenue, and they are mentioned in Anson’s 1977 book. A heavily fictionalized account of that investigation is dramatized in The Conjuring 2, released in 2016 and also directed by Wan.

In 2005, Ryan Reynolds starred in a re-make of the original film version of The Amityville Horror, which was also a big commercial success. Likewise, the 2022 Netflix TV series The Watcher, which racked up enormous viewing numbers, seems to have been inspired by the Amityville haunting (it, too, was “based on actual events” that plagued an attractive young family after they moved into to a very expensive dream house within commuting distance of New York City).

The Lutzes’ story shows every sign of being just as popular in the 21st century as it was in the 20th. But the continuing cultural prominence of The Amityville Horror and its many offshoots is somewhat baffling when we stop to consider that the story was almost certainly a hoax—nonsense concocted by the Lutzes and a few other collaborators and then passed off by their publishers at Prentice-Hall as a true account of an actual haunted-house experience.


The story does begin with a genuinely terrifying event. On November 13, 1974, at about 3:15 a.m., 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo, Jr., murdered his mother, his father, his two brothers and two sisters as they slept in the family home at 112 Ocean Avenue, in Amityville, New York. He shot each of them dead with a hunting rifle. Much later that day, at about 6:30 p.m., DeFeo showed up at his favorite local watering hole, Henry’s Bar, and told a gathering of people that his family had been killed and he needed help. Friends and acquaintances followed him back to the family home where they discovered the bodies of all six members of Ronald’s immediate family in their beds.

The police were called. Ronald’s father had worked at an automobile distributorship owned by his father-in-law. Both men were said to have ties to the mafia, and suspicion arose that the massacre might have been mob-related. But the police were able to get a confession from Ronnie fairly quickly. A chronic drug user and petty thief who had been physically abused by his father for many years, Ronnie told investigators that he had killed them all. On November 21, 1975, he was convicted on six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2021, aged 69. Over the years, he frequently changed his story about the murders, eventually claiming that he had only killed his sister Dawn, after she shot dead the other five.

None of this backstory receives much attention in Anson’s book, which begins roughly 13 months later, when George and Kathy Lutz move into the former DeFeo residence on December 18, 1975. Both had been married before, and Kathy had three children from her first marriage: nine-year-old Daniel, seven-year-old Christopher, and five-year-old Melissa (referred to as “Missy” throughout the book). George, an ex-Marine, operated a land-surveying company called William H. Perry Inc., which was founded by his maternal grandfather and later owned by George’s father. When Kathy met George, she was working as a waitress at an eatery called the 66 Diner. They eventually began dating, and married in July 1975.

After the marriage, Kathy quit her job to become a full-time housewife and mother, and George formally adopted her three children, changing their last names from Quaratino to Lutz. Almost immediately, the couple began house-hunting. Ordinarily, the Amityville property would have been much too expensive for them, but the notoriety of the DeFeo murders had seriously diminished its value. The listing agent was asking $100,000 for the place. The Lutzes offered $80,000 and the sellers accepted. Adjusting for inflation, that $80,000 would be about $460,000 today, still a bargain for such a luxurious house—Zillow estimates the property’s current resale value at roughly $1,067,000.

Kathy worried that they wouldn’t be able to afford the mortgage payments, but George said he’d make it work by relocating his surveying business into the home’s basement. He noted that he would also save money by owning a home with a boathouse, since he owned two boats for which he had to pay monthly mooring fees at a nearby marina. And so, a week before Christmas, the Lutzes moved in and invited a Catholic Priest named Father Pecoraro to bless it for them.

In the book, the priest who blesses the house is renamed Father Mancuso. Anson gives the priest a great deal of attention, even though he does almost nothing of importance. When Mancuso first shows up to bless the house at 112 Ocean Avenue, he hears a disembodied voice hissing, “Get out!” It frightens him so much that he leaves and never returns. Over the next 28 days, as all sorts of terrifying supernatural events plague the Lutz family, George telephones Father Mancuso repeatedly, begging him to return and perform some sort of religious rite to rid the house of its demons (according to Anson, a Catholic priest is technically only allowed to exorcise demons from a human being, not from a house or any other inanimate object).

In William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, the priests behave heroically, but the cops and clergy in The Amityville Horror are portrayed as cowards. Father Mancuso contracts the flu after departing in haste from the Lutz house, and he uses this (and other less believable maladies) as an excuse never to return. When he begins to feel guilty about ignoring George’s pleas for help, Mancuso turns to his priestly superiors, including his Bishop, all of whom instruct him to have nothing to do with the Lutzes or the house at 112 Ocean Avenue. Several local cops also suspect that things are not right there. One of them occasionally parks across the street and witnesses disturbing goings on through the curtains, but he opts not to get involved.

And what were these disturbing goings on? A random hodgepodge of kooky events, really. George hears a marching band playing in the house, but when he runs to where the music is coming from, it stops. Little Missy claims to have made friends with a pig named Jodie, which has red eyes that glow in the dark. George and Kathy don’t put much stock in this harmless fantasy until they find cloven hoof prints in the snow of the backyard resembling those of a large pig. And every morning, like clockwork, George spontaneously awakens at 3:15 a.m. (roughly the time of the DeFeo murders, though George supposedly didn’t know this) and feels compelled to go outside in the freezing cold and check on his boathouse.

One night, George looks up at Missy’s second-story window and sees her watching him as he makes his way across the yard. Behind Missy, George sees a floating pig. Although the events of The Amityville Horror take place in the middle of a particularly bitter winter, the house and grounds are plagued by houseflies. Parts of the house become unbearable due to the overpowering smell of feces or decaying bodies. Windows and doors open by themselves and let in freezing draughts of air, but even when they are closed, George frequently feels unbearably cold.

George Lutz (James Brolin) and his wife Kathy (Margot Kidder) in Stuart Rosenberg’s adaptation of The Amityville Horror (1979).
George Lutz (James Brolin) and his wife Kathy (Margot Kidder) in Stuart Rosenberg’s adaptation of The Amityville Horror (1979).

A green goo that Anson describes as looking like lime Jell-o oozes from the walls at one point (the filmmakers turned this substance into blood). Objects seem to move about of their own accord—most memorably, George trips over a large ceramic lion in the dark after it somehow moves from the corner of the living room to the doorway. Several times, George wakes up in the night to find his wife levitating above the bed. Not wanting to frighten her, he places his arms beneath her, whereupon the weightlessness leaves her body and he lowers her back onto the bed without waking her.

Weeks later, after they have moved in with her mother, Kathy wakes up in the middle of the night and finds George floating weightlessly around the bedroom. On another occasion, she wakes and discovers that she has turned into a toothless 90-year-old hag (fortunately, by morning, she is an attractive 30-year-old again). George and Kathy both report feeling icy fingers touching them from behind, only to turn around and find no one there.

These mystifying experiences become repetitive after a while. To break the tedium, Anson keeps returning to Father Mancuso who seems to have been included in the story to pad out its length and evoke memories of The Exorcist. Mancuso complains about his ailments, hides in his mother’s house, makes plans to visit relatives on the other side of the country, and dodges George’s phone calls. Despairing of reaching the priest, the Lutzes flee their new home in the middle of the night, leaving all their clothes, furniture, and other belongings behind.


In the MGM+ documentary series, The Amityville Horror film is described as part of an unholy quartet of hugely successful horror films that were released over a period of about a decade. The other three were Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (the seventh highest grossing film of 1968, directed by Sharon Tate’s husband), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (the highest grossing film of 1973), and Richard Donner’s The Omen (the sixth highest grossing film of 1976).

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Of these, only The Amityville Horror claimed to be a true story (William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist was inspired by an actual 1949 exorcism of a 14-year-old boy, but the book was heavily fictionalized and marketed as such). The first two of the unholy four were based on highly regarded novels. Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby was the seventh bestselling novel of 1967, and won plaudits from literary luminaries like Truman Capote. Blatty’s The Exorcist was the second bestselling novel of 1971, and the New York Times noted that it “is as superior to most books of its kind as an Einstein equation is to an accountant’s column of figures.”

The Omen was made from an original screenplay by David Seltzer, but Seltzer subsequently novelized his script and the book was released two weeks before the film to give the impression that the movie was based on a novel (a common practice at the time). Although a mere novelization, Seltzer’s book is highly regarded by many pop-fiction fans in general, and by lovers of novelizations in particular (Quentin Tarantino rated it his third favorite film novelization of all time).

Only The Amityville Horror is based on a book that almost no one ever praised as a gem of American popular culture, written by an author with virtually no other significant contributions to either literature or cinema. Which is not to say that Anson’s book is a complete dud. It was wildly successful from the moment of its publication. Prentice-Hall’s hardback version, published in July 1977, had already been through 13 editions by March 1978.

The Bantam paperback edition was even more successful. Published in August 1978, it went through ten printings before the month was up. By February 1979, it was in its 17th paperback printing. My copy is a 1979 Bantam movie tie-in edition, and anecdotal experience tells me that America’s used bookstores contain more copies of that edition than of the original Bantam edition. This means the book probably sold more copies after the film’s release than before it, even though it had already been a bestseller for about a year by then.

According to a website dedicated to the Amityville phenomenon, Anson’s book ultimately sold more than 11 million copies—roughly the same as The Exorcist. By comparison, Rosemary’s Baby—published more than a decade before Anson’s book and the bestselling horror novel of the 1960s—has sold only about four million copies to date. David Seltzer’s The Omen sold about 3.5 million copies in its first year of release, making it the bestselling novelization ever up to that point (it would later be surpassed by William Kotzwinkle’s E.T. novelization and several others).

So, Anson’s book was, commercially at least, much more successful than two of the other books that inspired the unholy film quartet. Although it is never likely to be mistaken for great literature, it is highly readable and Anson deserves some credit for managing to produce an entertaining potboiler under difficult circumstances.

According to Amityville: An Origin Story, the idea for the book was first proposed to the Lutzes by Ronald DeFeo, Jr.’s defense attorney, William Weber. In the documentary, Weber comes across as a sleazy huckster. He learned about the Lutzes’ experiences when they were reported on a local news station in New York shortly after the family abandoned 112 Ocean Avenue. A year before the DeFeo murders, The Exorcist had become the highest grossing American film of all time, surpassing The Godfather, which set the previous record in 1972. Weber apparently believed that a story combining the rumors of mob involvement in the DeFeo murders and the Lutzes’ paranormal experiences at 112 Ocean Avenue would be pop-cultural gold.

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He and the couple then came up with some of the events reported in the book “over several bottles of wine.” (In May 1988, Weber told a TV program called “A Current Affair” that, “We took real-life incidents and transposed them. In other words, it was a hoax.”) He then presented the Lutzes with a contract stipulating that he would hire a writer to interview Ronald DeFeo, Jr. and George and Kathy Lutz. But the contract guaranteed Ronald DeFeo five percent of the book’s profits, which the Lutzes claimed they couldn’t stomach. (By 1977, the State of New York’s so-called Son of Sam Law would make it illegal for someone like DeFeo to profit from a book about his crimes.)

What’s more, the contract also gave Weber complete control over the Lutzes’ story. If they signed it, the Lutzes would be forever barred from saying anything about their Amityville experiences without first getting approval from Weber. So, they rejected Weber’s offer and allowed a friend of theirs with publishing connections to find another taker for their story. Eventually, this friend convinced an editor at Prentice-Hall to accept the project, and they hired Jay Anson, a journeyman reporter and documentarian with no previously published books to his name. The New York Times reported in 1992:

After the movie’s release, Mr. Weber sued the Lutz Anson Group, the company the Lutzes formed with the co-author of “The Amityville Horror,” Jay Anson, for, “in layman’s terms, stealing ideas,” the lawyer testified. He sought $60 million, and settled out of court for $2,500, Mr. Weber said. He also said that he received a total of $15,000 for his services in connection with the book and the movie.

Anson’s task was made difficult by the fact that the Lutzes did not want to sit for an interview with him. Instead, they recorded roughly 45 hours of observations about their Amityville experience on cassette tapes. These, they insisted, would be the last words they’d ever say about the experience (a pledge that did not turn out to be true), and the recordings became the primary source of Anson’s book. He also interviewed Father Pecoraro and several of the police officers involved in the DeFeo murder investigation.

An afterword appended by Anson to the book begins, “To the extent that I can verify them, all the events in this book are true.” It’s hard to know what he meant by this—how does one “verify,” for instance, a report of levitation supposedly witnessed by a single person? Anson’s book duly attracted a great deal of skeptical commentary from dubious fact-checkers. A check of the weather records in 1975 disclosed that there was no snow on the ground in Amityville the day that Anson claims the Lutzes found cloven hoof prints outside the house. Much of what Anson says about Father Mancuso was never reported by Father Pecoraro, which probably explains why Anson decided to change the priest’s name.

Of the Lutzes’ three children, only Christopher (who now goes by his birth name, Quaratino) spoke to the makers of Amityville: An Origin Story. But the story he tells of his life as George Lutz’s stepson bears little relationship to the story found in Anson’s book. He and others who knew the Lutz family at the time say that levitation and red-eyed pigs and marching bands were never mentioned by George or Kathy until after the publication of the book. Weber claims (in archival footage found by the documentarians) that when he was discussing a possible book deal with the Lutzes, they mentioned very few of the fantastical occurrences that later filled the book.

Jim and Barbara Cromarty, who bought the house after the Lutzes surrendered it to the bank that held the mortgage, insisted that nothing supernatural happened during their time at 112 Ocean Avenue. In the book, Anson describes the Lutzes having to replace the locks and hinges on doors that were mysteriously blown out of their jambs and windows that blew out of their frames. But the Cromartys insisted that they found no evidence of this. The hardware on all of the windows and doors, according to the Cromartys, was old and appeared to be original to the house.

Anson claims that George researched the history of his property at the local library and discovered that it rested on a site that was once used by the Shinnecock Indian tribe to house sick, insane, and dying Indians. The Shinnecock Indians still have a presence on Long Island and they insist that the claim is untrue. Although Anson mentions that the site was used as an asylum of sorts by the Shinnecocks, he writes that it was never used as a grave site. The 1979 film, however, does make this claim. According to a Native American scholar interviewed in the MGM+ documentary, the film is the source of the “Indian burial ground” horror trope that subsequently cropped up in The Shining, Pet Sematary, and many other pop-cultural properties.

But then, if The Amityville Horror was neither particularly well-written nor convincing as a true story, how did it become such a cultural juggernaut in the late 1970s?


Like the other members of the unholy quartet, Anson’s book (and Rosenberg’s subsequent film) managed to tap into specific fears of middle-class Americans during the mid-to-late 20th century. In 1966, Time magazine ran its most famous cover, which simply featured the words, “Is God Dead?” Mia Farrow’s character in Rosemary’s Baby is seen reading a copy of this issue in Polanski’s film. As the conformity of the 1950s gave way to the more permissive attitudes of the 1960s, Rosemary’s Baby spoke to young married people anxious about bringing a child into a Godless world.

In an earlier article for Quillette, I argued that William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist is best understood as an allegory about the harm that no-fault divorce would do to America’s children, particularly the so-called latchkey kids of Generation X. And what Rosemary’s Baby did for (or against) childbirth, The Omen did for the idea of adoption. What if the sweet child you bring into your family turns out to be a vessel of evil? The Omen also applies more broadly to all of the non-blood-related relatives being brought into American families via divorce, remarriage, blended families, cohabitating unmarried couples and so forth.

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The Amityville Horror combined several elements of the other three books (divorce, remarriage, blended families) with a new terror: bad real estate. By the 1970s, the net worth of most American homeowners was tied to the value of their homes. And as various economic crises blighted the decade—oil embargoes, inflation, high unemployment, skyrocketing mortgage rates—the American family home, once the stuff of sentimental paintings by Norman Rockwell and movies by Frank Capra, assumed a sinister character for a lot of husbands and wives.

As unemployment climbed and many Americans lost their jobs, they found themselves unable to pay their mortgages. Mortgage rates also climbed, making it difficult to sell property or to tap into any equity it may have accrued. And every time a home needed a major repair—a new furnace, a new roof, rewiring, replumbing—many people probably felt as though they were under attack from a hostile presence, just as the Lutzes claimed to be. In the 1970s, the American Dream became an American Nightmare for those who were struggling financially (which almost all non-wealthy Americans were by the end of the decade).

Naturally, Stephen King was one of the first prominent writers to remark on this phenomenon. In Danse Macabre, his 1981 nonfiction survey of the horror genre, King writes, “Fiction is full of economic horror stories; although very few of them are supernatural. … I only want to discuss one movie in this context, The Amityville Horror”:

There may be someone in some backwater of America who doesn’t know that this film, starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, is supposedly based on a true story (set down in a book of the same name by the late Jay Anson). I say “supposedly” because there have been several cries of “hoax!” in the news media since the book was published, and these cries have been renewed since the movie has been released—and almost unanimously panned by the critics. Despite the critics, The Amityville Horror went on to become one of 1979’s top-grossing movies.


[T]he picture’s subtext is one of economic unease, and this is a theme that director Stuart Rosenberg plays on constantly. In terms of the times—18 percent inflation, mortgage rates out of sight, gasoline selling at a cool dollar forty a gallon—The Amityville Horror, like The Exorcist, could not have come along at a more opportune moment.

King then describes a scene from the film (also in the book) in which $1,500 in cash inexplicably vanishes before an engagement party thrown for Kathy’s brother and his intended. This inspires a panic among the adults of the family, who don’t know how they will pay the caterers:

Everything which The Amityville Horror does well is summed up in that scene. Its implications touch on everything about the Bad House’s most obvious effect—and also the only one which seems empirically undeniable: little by little, it is ruining the Lutz family financially. The movie might as well have been subtitled The Horror of the Shrinking Bank Account.


At the conclusion, the house seems to literally tear itself apart. Windows crash in, black goop comes dribbling out of the walls, the cellar stairs cave in... and I found myself wondering not if the Lutz clan would get out alive but if they had adequate homeowner’s insurance.

Here is a movie for every woman who ever wept over a plugged up toilet or spreading water stain on the ceiling from the upstairs shower; for every man who ever did a slow burn when the weight of the snow caused his gutters to give way; for every child who ever jammed his fingers and felt that the door or window that did the jamming was out to get him. As horror goes, Amityville is pretty pedestrian. So’s beer, but you can get drunk on it.

“Think of the bills,” a woman sitting behind me in the theater moaned at one point… but I suspect it was her own bills she was thinking about. … [T]he main reason that people went to see it, I think, is that The Amityville Horror, beneath its ghost story exterior, is really a financial demolition derby.

Think of the bills, indeed.

Contemporary declinists tend to locate the beginnings of American decadence in the 1970s, a decade in which American labor unions began their slow loss of membership, wages began to stagnate, Watergate weakened America’s faith in government, Vietnam weakened America’s faith in the military, and corporations began to prioritize shareholder value over good corporate citizenship. The Amityville Horror is filled with details that symbolize decay and corruption: flies, the stench of feces and rotting flesh, body horror, crumbling houses, weakening family ties, dying businesses, faithless religious professionals.

As a writer, Jay Anson wasn’t as skilful as Ira Levin or William Peter Blatty or even David Seltzer. But he didn’t need to be, because a zeitgeist-defining story had fallen right into his lap. And for better or worse, when this opportunity arose, Anson knew exactly what to do with it. Since I tend to be skeptical of all supernatural claims, I take it for granted that almost none of the sensational events depicted in the book actually happened. Nonetheless, the book feels real to me, like a story culled from actual experience.

In 1979, when I first read it, I was unmarried and childless, and I did not own a house. Back then, The Amityville Horror struck me as just another mildly amusing piece of pop-fiction. In 1980, I got married, acquired two stepchildren, and bought a house. Alas, we became homeowners at a horrible economic moment and we lost the house in foreclosure a few years later. My wife and I eventually lost our jobs and spent several years dragging my stepdaughters from one rented home to another, usually just one step ahead of the bill collectors. Forty-four years later, my stepdaughters have thrived and my wife and I are once again homeowners. But when I recently re-read The Amityville Horror, all the dread and insecurity of my early years as a husband and stepfather came rushing back to me.


There is another aspect of the book that not even Stephen King picked up back in its heyday. I might not have detected it either had I not watched Amityville: An Origin Story before re-reading the book. In the documentary, Christopher Quaratino (Kathy Lutz’s son) says that George Lutz was an abusive stepfather and husband. This allegation is supported by a psych assessment conducted during the annulment of George’s first marriage, which reports that George was physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive to his first wife. He tried to control her every action, and wouldn’t even permit her to speak unless he spoke to her first.

Kathy and George divorced in the 1980s. She died of emphysema in 2004 at the age of 57, and George died in 2006. But to his dying day, George continued to torment his estranged stepson Christopher, telling people that Christopher was trying to murder him telepathically. For his part, Christopher recalls that George was a lazy man, a poor breadwinner, a bad husband and father, and very litigious. This may sound like the rancor typically directed towards one’s mother’s ex-husband after a family break-up, but re-reading The Amityville Horror after watching the documentary, I found that pretty much every charge Christopher levels against George is right there in Anson’s book.

George completely neglects his surveying business after he and his family move into 112 Ocean Avenue. His employees are furious because they cannot get him to come into the office or even return their phone calls. The IRS suspects that he has been claiming business deductions to which he isn’t entitled and it wants restoration. And after buying the house with a promise that he would move his business into the basement, he never makes any effort to do so. George is stingy about spending money on his wife or stepchildren, but he owns all kinds of expensive toys, including a Harley-Davidson chopper and two boats.

George is a big and powerful man, an ex-marine and with a black belt in jujitsu, and he frequently punishes his stepchildren with violence. Kathy not only seems to countenance this abuse (parents using corporal punishment to discipline their children wasn’t uncommon in the 1970s), she often threatens her children with it, telling them that if they don’t shape up, she’ll have George beat them when he gets home. Sometimes, she even participates in the abuse:

When it came to the children, Kathy fell into the same mood. She was tense from her strained relationship with George and from the efforts of trying to put her house in shape before Christmas. On their fourth night in the house, she exploded and together with her husband, beat Danny, Chris, and Missy with a strap and a large, heavy wooden spoon. The children had accidentally cracked a pane of glass in the playroom’s half-moon window.

These kids were, respectively, nine, seven, and five years old. The book doesn’t mention any sort of sexual abuse, but hints can occasionally be detected between the lines. For instance, Anson mentions that George had “helped Missy take her bath,” something that I certainly would never have done with either of my young stepdaughters. Likewise, although everyone in the house occasionally complains about the cold (despite a thermometer reading of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit), George seems to be cold all the time, and occasionally gathers the entire family into his bed at once, insisting that he needs their additional body warmth.

The documentary left me with a great deal of sympathy for Kathy. It is full of scenes in which the couple, now famous because of the book and film, appear on nationwide talk shows (Good Morning, America; The Merv Griffin Show; The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder) and answer questions about their alleged ordeal at 112 Ocean Avenue. Kathy delivers rote and obviously well-rehearsed answers to the questions she is asked while George watches her with something like paternal approval. George’s controlling behavior is evident in Anson’s book, but back in the late 1970s, readers may have assumed that this was the effect of a personality change brought about by the house itself.

The nature of Kathy’s hallucinations (or supernatural experiences, if you must) often differ greatly from those experienced by George. On at least one occasion, she experiences a man sneaking up behind her and wrapping her in an embrace so tight that it hurts. “Kathy sensed that a man was holding her, increasing the pressure as she struggled. ‘Let me go, please!’ she whimpered. … Escape was impossible and she felt she was going to die. The pressure on her body became overwhelming and Kathy passed out.” It doesn’t take a psychologist to deduce that what haunted Kathy Lutz at 112 Ocean Avenue wasn’t the ghosts of the DeFeo family or dead Shinnecock Indians but fear of her overbearing husband.

Throughout the book, Kathy often tries to slip away from the house to visit her mother in a nearby town. But George repeatedly thwarts this plan, telling her that the car is acting up, or that the weather is too bad to drive in, or that the kids need her attention, or that the hour is too late. Kathy’s longing to see her mother becomes more and more pressing as the book progresses, but only occasionally is she able to actually satisfy it. And when she does visit, it is almost always with George, who does whatever he can to keep the encounter brief.

Here’s a representative scene:

After they had finished dinner, Kathy told George that she really wanted to return to her mother’s until she felt the house was safe to live in. George reminded her that it was ten degrees above zero outside and snow was forecast by morning. Even though East Babylon [where Kathy’s mother lived] wasn’t too far up the road, he didn’t think she could make it from her mother’s house back to Amityville in time to get the boys to school in the morning.

George then goes out to spend the evening pounding down beers by himself at Witches’ Brew, his favorite local saloon (skeptics of Anson’s book point out that no bar of that name ever existed in Amityville).

The theme of abuse is dealt with explicitly in Damiano Damiani’s nastier (and even sillier) 1982 prequel, Amityville II: The Possession, which features scenes of domestic violence and incest. Surly patriarch Anthony Montelli (Burt Young) viciously beats his wife and small children with his fists and belt. Meanwhile, the family’s eldest son seduces his younger teenage sister after he becomes possessed by the house’s demonic spirit. It is likely that screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace was inspired as much by Anson’s original and Stephen King’s novel The Shining (also published in 1977) as he was by Hans Holzer’s account of the DeFeo killings, on which the film is ostensibly based.


Rosemary’s Baby warned of the dangers of bringing children into a society that seemed to be going to hell. The Exorcist warned of the dangers that awaited the children of divorce. The Omen warned of the dangers of adoption. Then came The Amityville Horror, which illustrated the dangers of all three, and then threw financial precarity and the downsides of homeownership into the mix.

The stories of supernatural activity are obviously bunk. There were never any marching bands, floating pigs, or a demon with horns and a white peaked hood on its head (did I forget to mention that?) at 112 Ocean Avenue. The book is a pretty unremarkable piece of writing and the events it recounts are mostly ludicrous. But somehow The Amityville Horror managed to capture the mindset of financially strapped middle-American homeowners of the 1970s better than almost anything else written about the subject. You can pore over dozens of nonfiction works about the 1970s, and read every article published by the New York Times about middle-class America’s financial anxieties, but few of these sources will bring the topic to life as vividly as Jay Anson’s silly book.

Thanks to a housing shortage, NIMBYs, high interest rates, and runaway real-estate inflation, the American Dream is still a nightmare for many Americans. Since the year 2010 or so, cell phones and social media have led to an unprecedented increase in mental illness among America’s children and young adults. As a result, it is unlikely that allegories patterned after The Amityville Horror will lose their potency or their popularity any time soon. Good fiction has been described as “a lie that tells the truth.” And by that measure, Jay Anson’s shoddy book might even be a masterpiece.

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