A Creep-Show Ride of American Haunted House Lore
Author: Jay Anson
Sussing my way through a moldy collection of random horror paperbacks, I encountered The Amityville Horror; this one was the lurid old-school horror cover of a red tinged house with a flagrant demon’s tail swooping across the black cover and around the text. I was on the hunt for another of my self-indulgent horror reads and had heard this title frequently mentioned without ever truly gaining a scope for what the book was about. It opens as a self-proclaimed true story, although the hype of being better than The Exorcist, because it is both terrifying and true, puts readers antennas up to the possibility of a not so subtle hoax. Nevertheless, seeking more fiction than fact and mostly being into it for the sheer entertainment, I kicked back into the dark of a long winter night and began.
The story is essentially well known to everyone (except the few cloistered souls such as myself.) In 1975, post a horrific multiple murder where a disturbed son (Ronald DeFeo Jr.) slaughters his innocently sleeping family, the all-American, non-superstitious Lutz family snaps up a star deal on the luxury murder house, 112 Ocean Avenue, on Long Island. Complete with the cheap furniture of the previous, now gruesomely killed inhabitants, everything is ready for the Lutz family (a mother, father, three children, and one dog) to move in. Meanwhile, the blockbuster trial for the young DeFeo is ongoing and despite the legal red-tape of buying a house from an heir that has inherited due to patricide, everything seems to go smoothly.
A beautiful Dutch Colonial, 112 Ocean Drive is hardly sinister and the formerly Christian (albeit admittedly lapsed Lutzs) don’t feel any bad vibes, despite putting their children in the same beds where 13 months prior, someone else’s sleeping children were murdered. Friends and family, however, were less than eased and after much pressure and begging from family, on move-in day, Father Ray is invited to officially bless the house. And the rest, as they say, is grisly paranormal history resulting in a panicked midnight dash from the house just 28 days later.
Despite its veracity (admittedly in serious question after just a few minutes of Googling and reading about the Lutzs’ failed million dollar plus lawsuits for infringement), The Amityville Horror has that cheesy yet irresistible verve of the late night ghost hunter stories. What surprised me is that I usually hate the recorded-on-camera did-something-go-bump jump-scares of cheaply done docudramas. Yet. . . I couldn’t leave the book alone and the more outrageous the claims, from china dogs moving and biting to stinking rooms filled with sacrifices, to shot-gunned demons, to hints of ancient Indian grounds where the insane were left to perish, I was all in and breathless on top of it.
Part of it is the telling – a matter of fact varnish, mostly reporting, with a pretty constant veer into kitschy jump-scare tricks and (admittedly, not so great) fervent exclamation marks. It was just trying so hard to be teasing and scary without really showing anything that it actually worked – a bit too well. I had a blast. I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to look up 112 Ocean Drive and admittedly ruin my roller coaster terror ride by sussing out the details of the story. I wanted sequels. Prequels. Haunted tours. Good Lord, I know better. And yet, somehow, perhaps because the book just whole heartedly embraces its sensationalistic flair with a no-bones-about-it fake journalism air, I really wanted to believe. Shameful, I know. Yet, true. And normally, this type of book embodies everything I hate in “real” storytelling. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next and what easily avoidable yet decidedly bizarre danger the Lutzs’ would put themselves hip deep in.
Is it particularly well written? Nope. Are the real live “people” anything more than amorphous shapes in danger – nope. Are we able to feel close to the Lutzs or feel their emotion or at least fear on their behalf – again, nada. Does it give a nice tied up ending, or at least a few answers to the mysteries, such as the pig-demon, the multiple different presences in the house (none of whom were good), or the continued post-moving hauntings – no, again. Yet all this just left me impassioned to read more instead of getting angry at obviously being tricked. I can’t truly explain it. Many of the Lutzs’ decisions don’t even make sense, from not telling each other about terrifying events to deliberately antagonizing entities they knew to be powerful demons; I criticized and shook my head but I never stopped turning pages and sneaking in extra reading time. I guess everyone has to have one favorite bad book, and this one is mine. It’s no Exorcist, but it’s a fun little creep-show of a ride and some original American urban lore. I’ll probably seek out some even more ridiculous follow-up books, by even less trustworthy sources.
– Frances Carden
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