The Real Amityville Horror
America's most popular true ghost story was a hoax.
by Brian Dunning
January 11, 2007
In the small town of Amityville on New York's Long Island, on a dark evening in 1974, 23 year old Ronald "Butch" DeFeo burst into a bar and declared that his entire family had just been shot. Police discovered six bodies in the DeFeo home at 112 Ocean Avenue, and what's more, the subsequent investigation revealed that Butch DeFeo had himself killed them all: both his parents, and his four younger siblings, with a Marlin rifle. Despite DeFeo's claim that strange voices in his head compelled him to commit the murders, he was convicted of all six murders and remains imprisoned to this day.
Just over a year after the murders, the home was purchased by newlyweds George and Kathy Lutz, who moved in with their three children. The house was sold furnished so all of the DeFeo's furniture was still there, just as it had been on the night of the murders. George Lutz had heard of the murders, so just to be on the safe side, they called a priest whom Kathy knew, to bless the house. The trouble began when the priest was driven out of the house by an angry disembodied voice, and received stigmatic blisters on his skin. The family daughter reported a friendly pig named Jodie, who later began making appearances to the rest of the family through windows. A sculpted lion came to life and walked around the house, and even bit George Lutz. The apparition of a demonic boy appeared and was photographed, which you can find online. Angry red eyes looked into the house at night, and left cloven footprints in the snow. George Lutz woke up in a sweat every night at the same hour the DeFeos were murdered. Stephen Kaplan, a local parapsychologist, was called in to investigate. Powerful forces caused doors to explode off their hinges. Kathy developed strange red marks on her chest and levitated two feet off her bed, and George saw her transform into a hideous old hag. Green slime oozed from the walls of the house, and a crucifix on the wall constantly rotated itself upside down. And, in one final night of terror that the Lutzes have never even been able to describe, the family was driven out of the house, never to return. Their stay had lasted only 28 days.
The events are not surprising, since a few hundred years before the Defeos were murdered, the local Shinnecock Indians used the same property as a sort of insane asylum for their sick and dying. Negative demonic energy was nothing new to the Amityville Horror house.
So what happened next?
George Lutz, whose business was failing (ostensibly as a result of the distraction of the haunting), hoped to find a silver lining and called up the publisher Prentice-Hall. The Exorcist had come out only two years before and had been wildly successful, putting things like demons and abused priests firmly in the public consciousness, so Prentice-Hall was keen to capitalize on the Lutzes' experience. The publisher engaged author Jay Anson to write the book The Amityville Horror, and the rest is history. The book and subsequent nine motion pictures were highly successful, though most critics agree that the movies were all stupid.
Where it started to get murky was a meeting that George Lutz had during his 28 days in the house. The man he met with was William Weber, who was no other than Butch DeFeo's defense attorney. Who initiated the meeting is not clear. According to William Weber's admission in later years, what transpired in that meeting was an agreement that served both men's interests. The story of the haunting was concocted, based in part upon elements from The Exorcist. George Lutz stood to gain from the potential commerciality of a ghost story based upon the DeFeo murders, and Weber would have a new defense for his client: Demons, as evidenced by the Lutzes' experience, caused Butch DeFeo to murder his family, at least in Butch's own mind.
Prior to the publication of the book, Lutz and Weber set out to publicize the haunting to the best of their ability. The most notable success they had was a television crew from Channel 5 in New York who brought a pair of psychics, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who reported on camera that the house was plagued with malevolent spirits. Other psychics also visited the house on different occasions, and by the time the book came out, the groundwork for a bestseller was well laid. To this day, the Warrens maintain that the Amityville Horror was a genuine haunting, and they describe their experience on their website warrens.net.
Once enough money had been made by the book, the lawsuits began. Lutz and Weber sued each other and just about everyone else under the sun, with claims such as breach of contract, misappropriation of names, and mental distress. The judge eventually threw everything out of court, along with a stern lecture about the book being a work of fiction based in large part upon Weber's suggestions and the popularity of The Exorcist.
Let's back up a moment to Stephen Kaplan, the parapsychologist whom the Lutzes called in during their brief stay in the house, per Lutz and Weber's marketing plan. As it turned out, Kaplan didn't buy the Lutzes' story, and concluded while he was there that he was being hoaxed. Later, when Anson's book became so popular, Kaplan became concerned that the Lutzes' story, which he considered bogus, would give paranormal research a bad name, so he wrote his own book called The Amityville Horror Conspiracy in which he laid out more than 100 factual inconsistencies.
Among these inconsistencies was that the Shinnecock Indians, or any other native tribes, never lived anywhere near present-day Amityville. The nearest Shinnecock settlement was 70 miles away, even according to the Shinnecocks themselves, and you can find their website at shinnecocknation.com.
Father Pecoraro, the priest who tried to bless the house when the Lutzes moved in but was allegedly attacked, reports that nothing unusual happened during his visit and no attack or evil threat of any kind took place, although he did express a concern about evil spirits to George Lutz based on the house's history. Some reports, including one affidavit by Pecoraro himself, state that he never visited at all but only spoke to the Lutzes over the phone. As a result, author Jay Anson created a new priest for the book, Father Mancuso. The only priest who ever got blisters and a ghostly warning was a fictitious character.
There were many other inconsistencies. No doors or windows in the house were found to have ever been ripped off their hinges; all were found undamaged and securely mounted with their original hardware. The local police department records indicate no calls or visits to the property during the 28 days, despite a number of such events in the book. The same goes for disturbances affecting the neighbors. No snow fell during the period, which strains the cloven hoof prints in the snow. In short the book was full of episodes that created physical evidence, but none of that alleged evidence has ever withstood any scrutiny. Indeed, everything that was falsifiable was easily falsified by Kaplan and numerous other investigators. It should be noted that the Warrens, who enjoyed their best public exposure during their televised visit to the house, consider Kaplan's book to be false and to be simply his own attempt at self-serving publicity.
If you've ever listened to this podcast before, you know what my recommendation is when you encounter claims that are far fetched or that violate physical laws: Be skeptical. In the case of the Amityville Horror, plenty of evidence exists to indicate that none of the events in the book happened, and the only evidence that anything did happen are anecdotal personal accounts by parties with clearly vested commercial interests. If you want to read the book — and most readers report that it is a great scary story — enjoy it for a work of fiction that launched one of pop culture's most engaging and long-lived ghost stories.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Real Amityville Horror." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
11 Jan 2007. Web.
19 Apr 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4020>
References & Further Reading
Anson, Jay. The Amityville Horror. New York: Pocket Books, 1977.
Borzellieri, F., Capo, F. It Happened in New York. New York: Globe Pequot, 2006. 130-135.
Carroll, Robert Todd Carroll. The Skeptic's Dictionary: A collection of strange beliefs amusing deceptions, and dangerous delusions. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. 158-159.
Kaplan, Stephen, Kaplan, Roxanne Salch. The Amityville Horror Conspiracy; 2nd Edition. Laceyville: Toad Hall / KatcoMedia, 1995.
Osuna, Ric. "Revealing the Facts." The Amityville Murders. The Amityville Murders, the Official Website for the Amityville Murders, 8 Mar. 1999. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. <http://www.amityvillemurders.com/facts.html>
Radford, Benjamin. "The Amityville Horror." Snopes.com. Snopes.com, 15 Apr. 2005. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. <http://www.snopes.com/horrors/ghosts/amityville.asp>
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