Sept/Oct 2006


NOTE: Joe will return with a new column in November. This month we have Sheryl's youngest son Dan as a guest-columnist.

A True Story?

It was thirty years ago when Jay Anson began to write his very first book, The Amityville Horror. Recounting a family's terrifying month-long ordeal in a haunted house, the book not only became a nationwide best-seller, but also spawned a motion-picture blockbuster, leading to eight filmed sequels, making it one of the first and largest major movie franchises.

As a haunted house story, the book is quite tame; but what truly frightened and caught the imagination of the public was its subtitle: "A True Story." These events weren't crafted by the imagination of Poe, Bradbury or Lovecraft—they supposedly really happened to an innocent Long Island family—the Lutzes.

But was it actually a true story?

A year after the Lutzes fled, the house was purchased by the Cromarty family, who claimed their new home was perfectly normal. The only negative forces they encountered were the curiosity-seekers which flocked to the house, frequently causing commotion in the neighborhood at all hours of the night.

In the early 1980s the Cromarty family appeared on the television show That's Incredible in an effort to dispel the notion that their home was some sort of demonic passageway to Hell. They gave a tour of the house, claiming certain features (which were noted as being damaged in Anson's book) were, in fact, original, un-repaired and never broken. To the casual viewer this might have been enough evidence to prove Anson's book was a fairy tale—but can you really prove that the front door of a house never came off its hinges 4 years prior by tapping on its frame with the handle of a screwdriver?

Perhaps the most telling portion of the That's Incredible episode came when Mrs. Cromarty talked about the priest (the one whose blessing of the Lutzes' home was supposedly interrupted by a demonic voice ordering him to "get out"). She claimed the priest testified in federal court that while he did bless the house, he never suffered from sores on his hands nor experienced any of the other afflictions mentioned in Anson's book. This was immediately followed by a voiceover stating that "no such denial by the priest could be found in the transcript of the trial." Furthermore, the priest had given an interview for the TV-series In Search Of, where he confirmed on-camera that he did, indeed, suffer the afflictions mentioned in Anson's book.

Was Mrs. Cromarty misinformed, or was she deliberately spreading misinformation about the case in an attempt at stopping the influx of paranormal tourists (referred to by locals as the "Amityville Horribles") from the ongoing invasion of their quiet Long Island neighborhood?

The trial, at which Mrs. Cromarty claimed the priest had testified, was between the Lutzes and former DeFeo attorney William Weber. Mr. Weber was the defense attorney during the trial of Ronnie DeFeo, the young man who was found guilty of murdering his family of six in that same house (a year before it was purchased by the Lutz family). After fleeing their home in January of 1976, the Lutzes sought out William Weber, thinking he might be interested in their experiences. During their month-long stay in the house the Lutzes noticed a change in their individual personalities, and felt that perhaps Ronnie DeFeo might have been controlled by the demonic forces they encountered—after all, that might explain why someone would commit such a heinous act against loved family members.

According to George Lutz, William Weber seemed less interested in helping his former client, but was rather more interested in including the Lutzes' haunted house story in the book he was planning to write about the DeFeo trial. Eventually a contract was drawn, but the Lutzes balked at some of the provisions, including the fact that convicted mass-murderer Ronnie DeFeo would receive a percentage of the profits. All dealings between the two parties ended soon after the Lutzes were pressured to participate in a press conference held in William Weber's office.

Shortly thereafter, George showed a copy of the Weber contract to a friend. Thinking George was looking for a book deal, this friend put him in contact with an editor he knew at Prentice Hall, which led to Jay Anson writing The Amityville Horror.

Soon after Anson's book became a nationwide phenomenon, Weber started claiming he had helped create the ghost story with the Lutzes, and was now suing for breach of contract over the failed book deal between the parties. The case was settled out of court after a long 2-year process, and no, the priest didn't testify.

It is important to note that while William Weber stated that he knew for a fact the haunted house story was false (because, as he claimed, he supposedly helped to create it), he nonetheless had a provision in his contract whereas the Lutzes would submit to a polygraph test (to judge if the story was true) which, if they failed, would result in the Lutzes losing not only their share of the book profits, but their house and anything else they owned deemed to be an artifact of their story. The question remains: if Weber and the Lutzes knew the story was false, why then would Weber put this clause into the contract? Furthermore, how could Weber expect the Lutzes to ever sign a contract which would have automatically given away their home and the rights to their story for absolutely no compensation at all? That clause in the contract only made sense if Weber and the Lutzes did not create a fake haunted house story together...

Curiously enough, the Lutzes did end up taking a polygraph test in regards to the haunting. The test was conducted in 1979 by Michael Rice and Chris Gugas, both considered among the top in their field. They passed with flying colors.

Over the years, people have claimed the Lutzes created their story purely as a money-making venture. If this were the case, then the Lutzes were very clever to devise a story that hasn't been conclusively proven as a hoax in over 30 years. But if they were so clever, then why didn't they become rich from it? Surely they would have planned it all out to ensure they received the lion's share of any and all profits. The people who got rich were Jay Anson and the film producers, not the Lutzes. And if the Lutzes were so clever, wouldn't they realize what an incredible long-shot it was for their book to actually make money in the first place?

Others have speculated that the Lutzes were deep in debt after purchasing their Amityville house, and faked the haunting story as an excuse to abandon their expensive new home. In reality, both George and Kathy had each sold their previous homes and came out ahead financially in the deal. In fact although the Lutzes fled their home in January of 1976, they continued making payments on it until June or July.

So is Jay Anson's book a true story? Technically, no. Jay rearranged the events and admitted to using literary license while writing his book. There was no slime oozing from the walls in real life, and the Lutzes didn't take Danny to the hospital when the window slammed down on his hands. At best, Jay's book should be considered as being "based on a true story."

But did a haunting really happen? That we don't know. There is no proof that a haunting ever happened in Amityville. Due to its very nature, it is next to impossible to prove that ghosts even exist. However, if it was all a hoax, then there should definitely be proof of that—a weak link, a forgotten clue, something. To date many have theorized and given their opinions on the matter, but so far no one has proven the Amityville Horror to be a hoax...

—Dan Nolte