The Amityville Hoax at 40

Robert E Bartholomew & Joe Nickell. Skeptic. Volume 21, Issue 4. 2016.

It has been 40 years since what is arguably the world’s most famous haunting. While it continues to be lauded by much of the paranormal world as a genuine case of demonic infestation, the facts tell a different story.

An amazing number of people continue to believe that the alleged events at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island, actually happened and represent proof of the supernatural. They often say, “But what about Amityville? How can you explain that?!” Their reaction is a testament to the power of film, TV documentaries, and books to influence popular opinion. Just because a claim appears in mass media does not make it true. Book publishing, film making, and television are businesses, and as such are often guided more by profit than truth seeking. This is especially so with Amityville, where both the book and film were promoted as “based on a true story.”

The Saga Begins

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 13, 1974, a 23-year-old car mechanic named Ronald DeFeo shot and killed his parents and four siblings as they lay in their beds. He would later claim that an “evil force” had possessed him to commit the murders. A jury rejected his “the devil made me do it” defense and he was sentenced to six consecutive life terms. The house was eventually sold for a mere $80,000 to the family of George and Kathy Lutz, who, along with their three children and dog Harry, moved in on December 18.1975. Twenty-eight days later, they abandoned the house, fearing for their lives. Or so the story goes.

The Lutzes were soon thrust into the media spotlight with the publication of Jay Anson’s international bestseller The Amityville Horror: A True Story, which first arrived in bookstores September 1977. The film by the same name was released in July 1979 and was so successful that it has spawned over a dozen sequels, and more are planned. Anson’s book has many storylines including a house built on an ancient Indian site where the sick and mentally ill were imprisoned and died. The haunting itself consisted of attacks by a powerful, unseen force, levitations, doors ripped from their hinges, and the appearance of an eerie, pig-like creature with glowing red eyes. And who can forget the priest who said that while blessing the house, he was slapped in the face by an invisible entity that ordered him to “Get Out!” In this article we address key claims about the “haunting” and attempt to answer the question: why does the myth of the Amityville haunting continue to endure?

A House in Search of a History

Jay Anson wrote that he and George Lutz talked to members of the Amityville Historical Society, who claimed that the site of the present-day house was once the location of great suffering as it was used by the Shinnecock Indians to house the sick and dying. He also wrote that the Indians considered the site “to be infested with demons.” Society members dismiss these claims as pure fiction, and deny having made any such statements. In fact, there is no record of the Shinnecock having ever lived in what is now Amityville. As one Society member observed: “I’ve lived in this area all my life, and I’ve never heard these stories before.” Anson’s assertion is a variation of the standard “haunted burial ground” claim that is so common throughout paranormal literature on haunted houses.

The evidence points to Anson and the Lutzes fabricating the haunted history of the house in an effort to get rich off the book. During the summer of 1979, attorney William Weber admitted that the Lutzes’ story was a hoax that they had created together. Weber said he came forward after the Lutzes had reneged on an agreement to collaborate on a book. Weber said the Lutzes created the story in an effort to get out of deep financial trouble. Believers are quick to point out that the couple passed lie detector tests. But there is a reason why polygraphs are inadmissible in a court of law: they are notoriously unreliable. One of the worst security breaches in American history involved Soviet spy Aldrich Ames, who passed multiple polygraphs beginning in 1986. He was not caught until 1994, and then only with the aid of electronic surveillance. He told investigators that the key to passing the test was to exhibit and maintain “a friendly relationship with the examiner…rapport, where you smile and you make him think that you like him.” The American Psychological Association has issued a statement on the status of polygraphs that reads, in part, “that there is little evidence that polygraph tests can accurately detect lies.” Hence, “the most practical advice is to remain skeptical about any conclusion wrung from a polygraph.”

Three Versions of the Same Account

Paranormal researchers often claim that a key reason to believe the Lutzes is that their story has remained consistent over time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jay Anson writes that one night George said he entered the bedroom and saw Kathy “floating two feet above the bed.” In a 1977 article that appeared before Anson’s book was published, respected journalist Paul Hoffman interviewed George who said that Kathy had “slid” across the bed “as if by levitation.” In September 1979, Lutz testified under oath in a US federal court in a lawsuit against Hoffman, during which he was asked to clarify what happened during the so-called levitation. Lutz then gave a third version of events: that Kathy had floated in the air, but it was only two inches above the bed. Which of these versions are we to believe? Presiding Judge Jack Weinstein eventually dismissed the lawsuit, noting: “Based on what I have heard, it appears to me that to a large extent the book is a work of fiction.”

The Failure to Corroborate Events

The haunting was allegedly supported by many people, from the police who were called to the house, to the priest who said he was ordered to “Get out!” by a mysterious voice.

Yet, according to official police records, and contrary to the book, law enforcement was never called to the house during the “haunting.” An early edition of the book stated that when George supposedly found mysterious pig-like footprints dotting the snow outside the house, Amityville police were summoned to investigate. Police describe this claim as “absolutely false.” Ironically, they would later be called on numerous occasions to deal with curiosity seekers who tormented the new owners to the point where police were assigned to watch over the house on weekends. In one instance, a stranger approached the house with a ladder and a container, climbed up to the rain gutter, scooped out water and took off. On other occasions, souvenir hunters have dug up chunks of lawn and even stolen shingles, presumably to have their own piece of paranormal history. Fed up with the constant intrusions into their private lives, the new owners, Barbara and Jim Cromarty, sold the house in 1979 and moved away. The Lutzes’ previous neighbors in nearby Deer Park, James Mullally and his wife, reported visiting them two weeks after they moved into the house when the demons were said to have been in full riot. Far from being exhausted from fighting off evil forces, they said that the Lutzes were jovial; they even gave them a tour. There was no hint that anything was amiss. Mullally later observed: “I remember my wife saying as we left if she were living in that house she wouldn’t be in as good a mood as Mrs. Lutz” due to the murders.

Journalist Rick Moran and paranormal investigator Peter Jordan interviewed the real-life priest, Father Ralph Pecoraro (Father Mancuso in the book). Pecoraro gave a very different version from what Jay Anson had claimed. Moran wrote that the priest “never said he saw anything in the house; however, he felt it was a very dark, possibly evil place, feelings that seemed to be telling him to ‘get out’ immediately.” Pecoraro later admitted that he had never even been inside the house, but had conducted a Catholic mass as a way of blessing the house from afar. During a lawsuit against Anson’s book in the late 1970s, Father Pecoraro testified under oath as to the veracity of the claims about him in the book. He said they were fictitious. In early 1977, six months before the publication of Anson’s book, journalist Paul Hoffman published an article on the haunting in Good Housekeeping. Curiously, the Lutzes had failed to mention anything about the dramatic claims of the priest-claims that were a centerpiece of the book and were used to promote the original film. However, Hoffman wrote that George Lutz said that he tried to exorcise the evil spirits in the house by visiting every room while reciting the Lord’s Prayer and shouting “Get out!” Even the most ardent believer would be forced to admit that this coincidence is highly suspicious.

Implausible and Illogical

There are many claims in the book that defy common sense. For instance, if demonic forces were wreaking havoc in the house, why remain with your entire family for nearly a month? Clearly, if what they claimed was true, their lives were in danger. There are numerous examples where the actions of the Lutzes were not commensurate with the threat. For instance, one morning at about 2 am, Kathy claimed that she had suddenly aged 40-years and looked like a 90-year-old woman. She later wrote about the event in the National Enquirer, which was essentially an ad for the book. She recounted: “Ugly creases and crow’s-feet scarred my face. I drooled all over my shriveled up, dried skin … I ran my fingers down my craggy face and touched my dry lips. I shivered and broke out in a cold sweat. I burst into sobs.” Kathy’s reaction to her accelerated aging, was to lie in bed with her husband and watch the snow fall for the next six hours, at which point, her face had returned to normal. Just imagine, you realize that you have aged so rapidly that you barely recognize yourself in the mirror. You are panic-stricken. It’s not an illusion as your husband confirms your condition. Most people in this situation would have phoned an ambulance or rushed their spouse to the hospital. Not the Lutzes. They remained in bed to enjoy a snow fall. At the very least, why not take a photograph or call friends in order to corroborate this remarkable supernatural event? Their story is beyond belief.

Even more implausible were the occasions when George found green slime oozing from the ceiling, walls and keyholes. At one point, he places some on his tongue and tastes it! Imagine, you have just moved into a strange new home and notice colored slime. In an effort to determine what it is, you put some in your mouth! Anson also wrote that green slime oozed from “an empty lock hole” in the playroom door. But when journalist Dennis Hevesi delved deeper, he learned that the same door did not have a lock hole or even a lock, “only an antique keyhole plate fastened over the spot where a keyhole might be drilled.” Curiously, Paul Hoffman’s Good Housekeeping article makes no mention of green slime, despite George and his children supposedly having dumped buckets of it into the Amityville River. Hoffman does describe a red substance that trickled from keyholes. Why didn’t the Lutzes take a photo of the supposedly supernatural slime or retained some to be analyzed?

A Poorly Constructed Hoax

Jay Anson claims that his book is based on interviews with police, historians, and no less than 35 hours of taped recordings with George and Kathy Lutz. In reality, it is riddled with factual errors. Meteorologist Tim Vasquez has examined claims in the book against weather and astronomical records. The discrepancies are glaring. Anson writes that on the evening of January 10,1976, George Lutz said that the house was pelted by heavy rain during an electrical storm. Weather records at nearby John F. Kennedy Airport reveal that at 8 pm, the sky was clear and the air mass was too stable and cold to support thunderstorms.

On another occasion, George described finding cloven hoof prints near the house in freshly fallen snow. Yet, records reveal that there had been no snowfall at the time. While everyone makes mistakes, the scale of these inaccuracies is remarkable. Of all the verifiable weather claims, Vasquez was able to confirm just one! There are also astronomical impossibilities. For example, at 3:15 am on Christmas morning, George said that he looked at his daughter’s window and saw a pig’s face staring back. At the time, he said “the orb of the full moon was like a huge flashlight, lighting his way.” Astronomer Liam McDaid of Sacramento City College, observes that while moonlight may visible at that location, the moon was still in its third quarter phase, so George Lutz could not have observed the orb of the full moon as claimed in the book. Also, local weather records reveal that the conditions at the time were “mostly cloudy.”

Assigning Blame

The old adage, “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story,” certainly applies to the Amityville saga. In 1977, Jay Anson told the New York Times that he had approached the book project “as a reporter, so that by the end of the book, you believe or you don’t believe. These are the facts. This is what happened to the family … to the priest. You make up your own mind as a reader.” While this is an admirable position, Anson’s actions are inconsistent with his claims of covering the story as a journalist would. A good reporter verifies information. In the book’s Afterword, Anson claims that many of the Lutzes’ “impressions and reports were later substantiated by the testimony of independent witnesses such as Father Mancuso and local police officials.” Balderdash. Both the priest and police were adamant that the story was untrue. A few phone calls to people mentioned in the book, a visit to past and present neighbors, and a quick trip to the Amityville Police Department or public library, would have revealed that something was seriously amiss with the Lutzes’ story. Peter Jordan says that Anson told him that writing the book was strictly a business proposition. “You’re one of those naysayers-one of those skeptics who likes to write non-ghost stories. I like to make money … and one day I predict that you are going to be sitting there broke, writing your little non-ghost stories, and I am going to be on an island out in the Bahamas or somewhere, with a truckload of cashmere sweaters.” Ironically, Anson died of a heart attack in March 1980, less than three years after the publication of his bestselling book.

The publisher of The Amityville Horror bears some responsibility for failing to verify basic information in a book claiming to be “a true story.” Publishers typically do this by vetting a manuscript with one or two respected authorities in the field. In this instance, it did not happen. When Newsday journalists Alex Drehsler and Jim Scovel contacted Random House for their reaction to the many errors and inconsistencies throughout the book, they were told that “authors are responsible for the content and accuracy of the writing, but that ‘many books are published in good faith which include errors.'” The Amityville affair is a tale of American greed involving a work of fiction that, for apparent financial gain, was marketed as fact. Nowhere in the more recent editions of the book do the publishers mention that the story has been discredited. Is it any wonder that many people still believe the claims in the book?

Why Does the Myth Endure?

The most remarkable aspect of the Amityville hoax is the stubborn persistence of the myth in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is seductive to believe in a universe filled with supernatural creatures, both good and evil. The myth has taken on a life of its own, disrupting the everyday existence of many of the residents in this small seaside village. The intrusions come in waves and coincide with the airing of the latest TV show or release of the newest film in the series. In Amityville, fictional events became real in their consequences and illustrate the power of myth. The Amityville story affords us valuable insight into the workings of the modern-day human psyche and its desire to believe. It is a story that is all too familiar to skeptics-exploitation by elements of the film, documentary, and publishing industries, eager to profit from human vulnerability. That is the real horror of what happened in Amityville.