Autumn Classics: The Amityville Horror (1979)

The tall tale that gave birth to a horror cottage industry turns 40.

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Autumn Classics: <i>The Amityville Horror</i> (1979)

In the time of year when the winds grow sharp and the shadows grow long, lovers of film often turn to the creepy, dreary, and melancholy movies of autumn. This October, Ken Lowe is remembering four of these Autumn Classics that are reaching major milestones. You can catch up on all previous entries here.

Ghosts are not real. This is somehow really controversial. For whatever reason, people want, desperately, to believe in spirits. That, more than the effects or the performances, is what lured audiences to theaters in 1979, a couple years after the words “based on a true story” had helped copies of Jay Anson’s ostensibly nonfiction book The Amityville Horror fly off the shelves.

The Amityville Horror is not nonfiction because it is about a family surviving a haunted house, and, again, ghosts are not real. However, because people want so fervently to believe in this kind of thing, or at least have fun pretending they do, we are still to this very day getting movies based off an admitted hoax.

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The movie begins right off with the unexplained mass murder of a family in a distinctive-looking house in Long Island in November of 1974. A year later, the Lutz family of George (James Brolin), Kathy (Margot Kidder) and their three kids move in for the exorbitant-at-the-time price of $80,000. The house, they are told, was the site of a murder, and that’s why they can afford even that steep price. In a matter of days, things start going bump in the night, their daughter makes an imaginary friend named Jody (who is totally not a demon or anything), and the efforts of the local pastor (Rod Stieger) are thwarted by eldritch swarms of flies and snarling demonic voices that demand he GET OUT.

The spooky incidents get increasingly violent and unpredictable, though they don’t have a strong or coherent through-line either: Presumably, they are totally not made up, and the messiness of life (and not the fact that they are total made-up bullshit) are the reason they seem scattershot.

Because they’re so closely based on the incidents in Anson’s book, a lot of the individual scares are never really contextualized or explained. In one instance, Kathy just randomly appears to her husband as if she’s some wrinkled hag, and then the fit passes. At various points, Kidder’s character has dreams or hallucinations that seem to be premonitions of doom and at others she’s totally oblivious to the danger around her. At other times it seems like their daughter, Amy (Natasha Ryan), is going to be possessed and turned into a little psycho axe murder child, but that never really pays off either. The entire trajectory of the film suggests that Jack, like Jack Torrance in the following year’s The Shining, is going to go nuts and chop his whole family up, and again, this does not ever happen.

The reason it doesn’t, of course, is that this is based on a true story and this did not happen in real life (because none of it did, because ghosts are not real). The result is a haunted house horror ride of a scary movie, filled with plenty of spooky happenings and harrowing performances, but little in the way of any coherent themes.

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It worked nonetheless, though. Raking in a for-the-time sizable $86 million when it debuted. The whole draw was that it was a true story, something repeated even by Melissa George in the run up to her performance as Kathy Lutz for the 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds. So it’s important to remember that it’s basically been a revealed and acknowledged hoax almost since the very beginning. A variety of factual errors and inconsistencies have been pointed out. While it’s certainly easy to say you saw or heard an apparition or experienced some ephemeral paranormal event, it’s a lot harder to claim doors were ripped from their hinges when investigators could plainly see that they never were.

Some facts surrounding the circumstances are certainly true: Ronald and Louise DeFeo and four of their children died at the hands of family member Ronald DeFeo Jr., who shot them all to death. He’s spent the last 39 years behind bars for it, occasionally resurfacing again when his parole is denied. Beyond that, the book and the movie read like an attempt to throw every possible wild claim at the walls and see what sticks: The vengeful spirits of Native Americans probably were not the cause of any happenings, supernatural or mundane, considering that the tribe in question never really lived in the area and also that ghosts are not real.

One of the major subplots of the movie is the Catholic priest who makes several abortive attempts to bless the house. Interviews with the priest who purportedly did so reveal that he never saw anything out of the ordinary there, and mentions of police response to the hauntings were apparently not important enough to make it into any police reports.

Eventually DeFeo’s lawyer admitted that he and some others fabricated the whole thing. By then, of course, it was already a horror cottage industry, with year after year of low-rent sequels diluting the name.

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Among those who saw opportunity in the hoax were paranormalist investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, whose names you’ll be familiar with if you’ve seen any movies in the rapidly expanding The Conjuring series. The husband-and-wife paranormalist team at one point inspected the house, and it’s a part of their brand, used to this day to spin off spooky movies. Some are among the best thing to come out when they did, while others are total trash.

Despite a really dubious pedigree, The Amityville Horror is a fun, creepy watch that is held back only by some structural imperfection, and it’s no wonder so many filmmakers want to go back and give it another go. There’s a story lurking in here about a man who has stepped into the role of surrogate fatherhood, a metaphor about the difficulty of starting a new life in a new house in a new town. There are ghosts lurking in these places—metaphorical ones because, as we know, ghosts are not real. That’s all lying somewhere beneath all of this, and it could’ve shone through had the original spinners of this yarn just stripped “based on a true story” off the cover and told it the way it should’ve been told.

For a haunted house tale from the dark part of the year, though, it’s a genre staple.


Kenneth Lowe is not some pink-cheeked seminarian who doesn’t know the difference between the supernatural and a bad clam. He’s also a regular contributor to Escapist Magazine, and you can also follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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