In November 1973 Ronald Joseph DeFeo, Jr shot and killed six members of his family. The house where this terrible incident took place was 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville. Whilst DeFeo was incarcerated inside a correctional institute awaiting trial the house was placed on the market. Thirteen months would pass before anybody expressed an interest in buying the property. Despite being greatly reduced to $80,000 locals would not consider moving into the home and so it remained empty until George and Kathy Lutz bought it. The Lutz family may have thought they were embarking on a new chapter but they would flee from the building after twenty-eight days claiming that they had witnessed intense paranormal activity.
The various accounts given by Lutz family soon attracted media interest. After several reports on local and national TV George and Kathy Lutz sold the rights to their story to Jay Anson. Possibly sensing that following the enormous box office success of The Exorcist and The Omen the public might be hungry for more tales of demonic activity, Aston published his greatly embellished account of those twenty-eight days under the disingenuous title The Amityville Horror: A True Story. With copies of the book flying off the shelves, it was inevitable that a Hollywood production company would want to adapt this sensational tale for the big screen, the resultant film was a commercial success despite receiving a critical mauling. To date, nine sequels have been produced with the most recent being The Amityville Asylum.
For parapsychologists, the Lutz account of events which are said to have occurred within those twenty-eight days is deeply problematic. The absence of any independent scientifically verifiable data requires any conclusions about the veracity of the paranormal occurrence to be based solely on the family’s testimony. The published account has been altered in subsequent reprints and as we are unable to access a definitive version of what happened it may have no more claim to validity than other highly contested reportings, e.g; the Enfield Poltergeist.
UK audiences opinions on what, if anything, happened during those twenty-eight days may have been shaped by Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 film. A sensationalist movie produced by a master of low budget exploitation, Samuel Z. Arkoff, it’s brief absorption into British pop culture was compounded when a canny publisher sensed that a fast buck was to be made and rush-released a mass market paperback of Aston’s book. Across the land branches of Woolworths carried copies of the book ensuring that this highly contested version of events spent a few weeks in the UK best-seller charts.
Since 1979 the Hollywood version has been parodied numerous times in films and TV series. In 1986 Lovebug Starski scored a top twenty hit on the UK charts with a track that referenced events from the film, and threw in impersonations of Boris Karloff and William Shatner against an early Hip Hop backbeat. Whilst the house may have become a brand and generic trope the family at the center of this story drifted into relative obscurity. Forgotten for over thirty years, members of the Lutz clan would be wheeled out for occasional TV features and then return to their daily lives knowing that their moment in the spotlight was over.
At the age of ten Maryland native Eric Walter obtained a copy of Aston’s book. Fascinated with the dark tales of murder and ghoulish goings-on he soon started collating what evidence was in the public domain and shortly after his seventeenth birthday set up a website called The Amity Files that presented whatever factual information was available without prejudice. Visitors to the page were able to access various documents with no attempt by Walter to suggest that the events alleged to have occurred inside that house were genuine or fraudulent.
Three years after directing the horror rom-com The Lumberjack of All Trades, Eric Walter was contacted by a friend of Daniel Lutz. Eager to tell his version of events after more than forty years of misrepresentation, Daniel had engaged an intermediary to see if Eric Walter would be willing to direct a fair and balanced documentary. Timing was crucial as up until 2006 media rights had been strictly controlled by Daniel’s stepfather, George Lutz. Upon the death of Lutz Sr, the rest of the family were now legally free to talk about Amityville to media outlets. Eager to emerge from his step father’s shadow, Daniel wanted to tell anybody who might be interested in his personal experiences of living in that house.
Walter’s feature-length documentary, My Amityville Horror, is an intelligent and emotionally rewarding film. One which skilfully transcends the salacious aspects of the Amityville story and instead delivers a remarkable discussion on the validity of memory and a child’s susceptibility when confronted with destructive familial influences.
No matter how hard he may have tried, Daniel Lutz has never been able to escape from the legacy of events at 112 Ocean Avenue. A lifetime spent living with the spectre of a turbulent past has had a demonstrable effect on him and throughout the documentary it is all too apparent that he is visibly damaged by something but whether the cause of that trauma is spectral, result of childhood abuse or a consequence of years spent living with a lie is something that viewers will have to decide.
Now working as a UPS delivery driver, Daniel is a combative interviewee and in between demonstrations of his prowess as a heavy metal guitarist, he tells imponderable tales of levitation and possession. Appearing to believe very firmly in his testimony he bristles at the mere mention of doubt or having to provide evidence.
Editorial balance is provided by the inclusion of interviews with journalists who were first on the scene back in 1974. Possibly meeting again for the first time in decades, they compare professional experiences about covering the story and what they had learned about Daniel’s stepfather, George. Unable to reach a consensus, their roundtable discussion demonstrates how thoroughly they had investigated the history of the house and the Lutz family background.
Interviews with mental health professionals may make the viewer question how reliable their own memory is. Demonstrating how easily an individual’s process of recall may be tampered by external stimuli we are left to wonder if Daniel’s recollections have been shaped by seeing the various film versions of the story.
The late George Lutz is an ever-present presence throughout the documentary, details about his relationship with Daniel may be the key to unlocking the mystery about the alleged unearthly activeness. A once-mysterious figure, George’s motivations still cause considerable debate amongst aficionados and detractors. Was he the all American father who sought to protect his family from evil forces or did he have an ulterior motive?
An engaging film which will appeal to horror fans. My Amityville Horror makes no definitive claim on the history of 112 Ocean Avenue allowing believers to walk away feeling validated and doubters to also claim a victory. The presentation of evidence and refusal to take a firm stance elevates this film far beyond whatever exploitative documentaries are currently available. Illustrating how eroding it is to live with a personal trauma, the documentary presents a picture of a deeply troubled man and then offers up a multitude of reasons for the cause of the psychological scars.
My Amityville Horror is available to order from Amazon