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The Amityville Hoax

Originally, I was going to write something about UFOs this week, since it seems like that's what the people want to read, and something about ghosts not being real next week. On the other hand, it occurred to me that I'd look like one big Halloween party pooper if I did that, so my regular tripe on UFOs will have to wait till next week. This week, I'd like to write about the surprisingly bland truth behind the so-called Amityville Horror. You know, to get you all in the mood for Halloween.

Amityville is a pleasant town on Long Island, to the extent that such a place can exist. In the autumn of 1974, however, it was the scene of a rather grisly killing. A man by the name of Ronald DeFeo went on a late-night rampage, killing his parents and a handful of siblings with a hunting rifle. This is where lovers of the occult are quick to mention that even though he was firing off a high-powered rifle indoors, none of his family woke up as he went from room to room shooting them. In the defense of reasonable people everywhere, I'll just mention that after living 5 years in the city of Philadelphia, nothing short of a mortar attack wakes me up any more. I'm sure native New Yorkers have the same ability - not being able to hear gunshots or see bums and prostitutes is like an evolutionary adaptation to city dwellers.

Anyway, DeFeo did it because he wanted to get at his folks' life insurance money. How he thought he'd get away with it is unclear, but it's clear that he though pleading insanity and claiming that his house was haunted would be a viable defense. It wasn't. He made the claim that the house was under the occupation of an ancient, evil spirit that had taken over his body and made him kill his entire family. The judge found him guilty of 6 counts of murder and gave him 150 years in prison. At least he's got bigger things than poltergeists to worry about now.

Fast-forward a year. A new family, the Lutzes, moved into their dream home, only to find that things were quickly awry. They found a room with red walls in the basement, that did not appear on any plans of the house, that they eventually became convinced was the site of occult devil worshippings. The father, an ex-marine, began hearing a phantom brass band following him around; the daughter began playing with a new friend, an invisible pig named jody; green goo ran down the walls; a devil's face appeared in the ashes above the fireplace; the front door was blown off of its' hinges; locked doors and windows would open of their own accord; so on and so forth. If you can think of something creepy, chances are that the Lutz family claimed it happened in their home. Clouds of flies appeared in the house, the temperature dropped for no reason, they saw ghostly figures, blah blah blah.

Realizing they were up against the heavy hitters of the underworld, they called in a Catholic priest to perform an exorcism. The house, with a bit of dramatic flair, told the priest to get out in a deep, creepy voice. He did. The family made it a mere 28 days in the house, before they fled, leaving behind all their belongings and furniture.

So far, I've got nothing against this story. They've got me beat, hands down. After all of this happened, the family teamed up with an author, who wrote a best-selling book that spawned a movie, a number of unwatchable sequels, and a terrible sequel. They became rather rich.

There are a few things that aren't mentioned in the book. The day after the family 'fled' from the house, they came back and had a garage sale. That, and the whole thing was made up. It turns out that Mr. Lutz's business was failing, and he couldn't make the mortgage payments. He needed a way out of the house. Coincidentally, one of his friends, William Weber, admitted that he had helped Lutz concoct the whole story. William Weber was Ronald DeFeo's lawyer, and needed a way to get his client's case reviewed again. A haunting would be perfect!

DeFeo would have more substance to his insanity defense if it turned out the house was haunted, and Lutz would be able to get his life back on track. So, the entire thing was staged to creep out a couple of visitors, and life was good again. It later turned out that the "Red Room" was not the site of some terrible arcane rituals, but was actually a pipe closet, where one could get at the plumbing in case it needed to be repaired. The door that had been "blown off of its' hinges" was still secured sturdily to the frame. The ashes in the fireplace were not in the shape of the devil's face. So on and so forth.

Not convinced? Let's look at the behavior of Mr. Lutz instead. He called a group interested in the paranormal, and asked them to come out and have a look at the place. They agreed, and he asked about any fees. The group did not charge a fee, but told Lutz that if this was a hoax, they'd make sure the entire world knew. He immediately cancelled his appointment and called the local TV station instead. The fellow he'd originally contacted, Dr. Stephen Kaplan, wrote a book about the hoax, eventually, but no one read it. The Amityville Hoax remains one of the most well-known, and well-loved, ghost stories of our day.

What's really irritating about all this is what happened afterwards. It became a best selling book, the Lutzes became flush with cash, the country became convinced that baloney like house hauntings were real, and the people of Amityville became flooded with jerk tourists. Even though pretty much everybody except Mr. and Ms. Lutz have admitted it was a hoax, everyone still believes in it.
This case has probably spawned a million other imitations. It's taken average people, and led them into believing in ghosts, hauntings, and other baloney. It's hard to imagine what benefit the world would see if people stopped wasting time and energy believing in such nonsense and put it into something worthwhile, but this much is clear: nothing abnormal happened in Amityville.

Be seeing you.

First Published in The Triangle, 21 October 2005