Reviews / January 24, 2018
There are two Amityville horrors. The first happened in the pre-dawn hours of November 13, 1974, when 23-year-old Ronald Defeo Jr. shot and killed his father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters while they slept. He confessed to the murders the following day, and during the trial told the court that “voices” told him to do it. The second happened when a young couple, George and Kathleen Lutz, moved into the former Defeo residence with their three children on December 18, 1975, subsequently fabricating and selling a demonic infestation story because they needed the money.
Over the last 40 years, Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror and its several sequels, prequels, and film adaptations have crept into the American horror lexicon, the iconography of Long Island’s 112 Ocean Avenue just as potent and recognizable as Camp Crystal Lake and the Overlook Hotel, and it hardly matters that the book is not the “true story” it purports to be. It’s a quick and painless read, and parts of it are quite spooky: the “masculine voice” telling Father Mancuso “with terrible clarity” to “Get Out!” (Mancuso is based on Reverend Ralph Pecoraro, who says he never visited the house); the infestation of winter-time flies (previously reported by the Defeo family); Missy’s imaginary friend Jodie, an apparent pig-demon whose red eyes gleam through the now-famous quarter-moon windows; the excrement-smelling “red room”; the green slime oozing from the walls and keyholes; levitating bodies; inverted crucifixes; the clamor of an invisible marching band. Most of it was simply ripped from previous bestsellers like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist (for which Anson wrote a featurette) and The Shining, and the same types of “manifestations” continue to materialize today, as seen in the successful (and execrable) Paranormal Activity and Conjuring franchises. We are simply afraid of these things now; it hardly matters how sloppily or mindlessly they are delivered to us.
What really happened is not just frightening, but tragic. Instead of being a story about a family terrorized by a malevolent supernatural entity, The Amityville Horror is a portrait of the slow suffocation of the American middle class and the American small town, of violent men and their inseparable relationship with “traditional family values,” of a couple’s blithe vanity and selfishness at the expense of their “eroding” family. When the story opens, George’s land surveying business, passed down to him from his father, who inherited it from his father, is failing. (Ronald Defeo Jr. was also the beneficiary of a multi-generational family business.) In the late 1970s, mortgage rates reached an all-time high because of runaway inflation, taking homes out of reach for most families—the Lutzes paid twice their limit for 112 Ocean Avenue. As George (through Anson) admits on his first night in the new house:
The taxes in Amityville were three times higher than in Deer Park… How the hell was he going to pay for all of this? The construction business was lousy on Long Island because of the tight mortgage money… If they aren’t building houses and buying property, who the hell needs a land surveyor?
The three children—Chris (age 7), Danny (age 9), and Melissa or “Missy” (age 5)—are Kathy’s from a previous marriage. While George dotes on Chris’s “soulful” eyes, “Daddy’s girl” Missy, and the “three nice kids I’ve got” on page 23, by page 26 the lot have “become brats, misbehaved monsters… unruly children who must be severely punished.” After cracking a window in the upstairs “playroom”—in which they are constantly left alone—Kathy “exploded and together with her husband, beat Danny, Chris, and Missy with a strap and a large, heavy wooden spoon.” After the boys got in a fight “for the first time, ever“—which is certifiably impossible, as anyone with kids knows—she “slapped each boy in the face—hard…” On another occasion, Kathy threatens them by invoking the looming patriarch: “You know who dishes it out around here…” This violence, as well as Kathy’s “depression” and George’s slovenliness, laziness (the “men on his staff” do all the work; he simply cashes the checks), and unpleasantness, are attributed to a “collective personality change” the family undergoes immediately after moving in to the new house. The children had never been “wild” and “unmannered” when they lived in Deer Park (Long Island), Kathy notes with surprise, although we find out later, when Danny and Chris threaten to run away from home, that they had done so before—“when they lived in George’s residence in Deer Park.”
And then there’s the omnipresent “financial problems,” with George almost immediately “beginning to choke with the pressures of mounting bills.” And yet there is no mention of selling his “twenty-five-foot cabin cruiser” or his “new speedboat.” (Ronald Defeo Jr. also had a speedboat, one of many bribes from his father, who was reportedly controlling and abusive.) The “third bedroom on the second floor,” Kathy says—originally pegged for the site of her “Transcendental Meditation”—“would also serve as a dressing room and storage place for her and George’s growing wardrobes.” George had been meditating for two years, we find out, after he split with his first wife and attended “sessions of group therapy.” When a man holding a six-pack and wearing corduroy pants and construction boots shows up at the door to welcome them to the neighborhood, “it struck George that he didn’t look like a neighbor who would own one of the large homes in the area.”
In a way, the myth of the demonic haunting is how we deal with the repellent reality of the inhabitants of 112 Ocean Avenue. “Once I started, I just couldn’t stop,” Defeo said of the murders he committed. “It went so fast.” It’s a fitting embodiment of the era, as the political violence and post-war plenty of the 1960s bled into the decade of the serial killer, the decade of urban squalor, the decade of escalating economic calamity. As for the Lutz family, they fled Amityville after 28 days and moved to California. George and Kathy divorced in 1988, after a continuous series of lawsuits and countersuits, one of them involving Defeo Jr.’s defense attorney, William Weber, who admitted that he and the Lutzes concocted The Amityville Horror “over many bottles of wine.” The kids, of course, paid the price. Christopher and Daniel—the first left home at 16, the second was homeless for a number of years—have since gone on record to say that their father “abused” and “exploited” them—and was “extremely curious of everything paranormal” long before he moved into the Amityville house. The misbehaved monsters, as always, are corporeal: all too human.