Still Bleeding After All These Years: Amityville Redux
by Matt Morello
[Editor's Note: In honor of Non-Fiction Week, we present a throwback to the Pboz past. One of our first contributors, Matt Morello, will return to our site several times over the coming weeks, directing the curious to little-known Long Island landmarks. You can see where it all started here.]
Bob Judd, a roommate of mine in college, was a strange kid with a grim fascination for all things macabre. He hailed from the tiny Hamlet of Frackville, Pennsylvania, where his obsession with the legendary Amityville Horror first germinated. "No one heard those shots in the middle of the night," he would say in a voice worthy of a 1940's radio mystery theatre. "How could that have happened?" I don't know if he ever made the pilgrimage to Amityville, but countless others have journeyed to the bloody little Dutch Colonial for a glimpse, albeit cautious, of the world's most famous haunted house.
With all the media madness and later marketing frenzy following The Amityville Horror book and movie, much of the actual story has been lost more times than an AOL connection. Here are your Cliff Notes: Back in late 1974, a local loser named Ronnie DeFeo shot his entire family in the early morning hours at his house in Amityville, Long Island. In court, it was discovered that DeFeo massacred his family to collect $200,000 in insurance money, resulting in a closed case with a confession of murder - but this tale of suburban angst was given new life when the Lutz family moved into the DeFeo house, and in one month sprinted from the place with tales that make Scream 2 about as frightening as that Ben Cooper Chewbacca costume still tucked away in your parents' attic.
According to George Lutz, the Amityville house was possessed by demonic spirits who plagued his family with high weirdness. Doors and windows mysteriously opened and shut, trickles of blood dripped from keyholes, green slime oozed down walls, flies swarmed in the playroom, and family members were lacerated, burned, and molested by hellish creatures in the Amityville abode. Since these types of hauntings run a bit beyond the lead-based paint issue of home ownership, Lutz did some investigating at the Amityville Historical Society. He allegedly discovered that in the 17th century, the Massapequa Indians sold his house's property to John Ketchum, a Satanist who escaped from Salem, Massachusetts during the witch hunts. If that wasn't enough of a reason for moving to New Jersey, throw in a hidden room where animal sacrifices occurred, and a boathouse where a red-eyed pig kept appearing and invading the house. Yes, a pig with glowing red eyes named "Jodie" scampered throughout the house and grounds, thus proving that your girlfriend's Shih-tzu isn't all that annoying. Given this arena of devilish madness, perhaps there was a more haunted reason for Ronnie DeFeo's murder spree other than material gain for insurance money. This theory never made it to the courts, and DeFeo is still serving six life sentences, one for each slain family member.
The possession angle may have missed the legal system, but Long Island and the world couldn't get enough of Amityvillemania. With a bestseller in 1977 and a hit movie two years later, this Long Island house was made more popular with the freaky set than Jim Morrison's tomb. Can you actually imagine living in that house after Lutz and family moved out? Pity poor Barbara and Joe Cromarty, the couple who moved into the home at about the same time the story became a media sensation. Picture millions of horror and mystery fans reading a gruesome novel wherein your newly purchased dwelling is depicted as Roderick Usher's summer home. Would the chapter with the bleeding toilet trouble you when you brushed your teeth? How about a hit movie featuring angry, vengeful spirits in the very room where you sleep? Finally, who would want to plod home from that damn phone-monkey desk gig only to find sightseers and lunatics from all over the country peering in your windows, digging up your lawn, and exorcising demons in your driveway?
The plot took a crooked turn when the Cromartys claimed that the only hauntings at their new home were the aforementioned curiosity-seekers and dime-store psychics. No red-eyed pig, no swarming flies, no demons growling in the darkness. With the exception of the Amityville Chamber of Commerce, no one seemed to notice the Cromartys' claim of household peacefulness. The big machine had started, and true believers weren't about to let a few killjoys ruin their fun. George Lutz even countered the Cromartys by claiming that the Amityville demons had followed him to California where they still plagued his family. Scooby-Doo, wherefore art thou?
Since the Cromartys' assurance of a happy home didn't slow the revelry, how about a possible conspiracy between Lutz, DeFeo, and William Weber, DeFeo's attorney? One investigative reporter viewed The Amityville Horror as a well-crafted hoax between the three guaranteeing early parole for Ronald, and filthy lucre for Lutz and Weber. (After all, Lutz's first press conference was held in William Weber's law office.) Although Weber eventually admitted that he and the Lutzes created the story during a lengthy bout of wine drinking, the horror house tale had already stirred our inner Lugosi, and no dopey little confession could herald the sunrise.
The house's current owner, Brian Wilson (not the Beach Boy), vehemently denies any sightings of demon pigs in his kitchen or bleeding walls in his den. Wilson, like many people, claims that anyone who believes the place is haunted is a goldurn wacko. This would presumably include Ric Osuna, an associate producer for a documentary titled The Amityville Horror: 25 Years Later. Ric wanted to conduct a sonar scan of the Amityville property to see beneath the soil and perhaps find John Ketchum's earthly remains, an Indian burial ground, or even that way-cool gateway to Hell that every young filmmaker yearns for. With all of this perpetual spooky hoodoo, I honestly can't help but wonder what possessed (sorry) Brian Wilson to buy the house of homicidal chic in the first place.
It amazes me why the town of Amityville refuses to capitalize on this pop-historical phenomenon. Salem has turned its witch trials into a profitable tourist industry, and Fall River, Massachusetts has converted Lizzie Borden's home into a highly successful bed and breakfast / tourist attraction. Peter Imbert, mayor of Amityville, was interested in moving the horror house downtown as a B&B or museum, but locals shouted treason as such an act would exploit the murders of the DeFeo family. Couldn't some revenue serve the taxpayers of Amityville? How about a portion of the money shunted into a fund in honor of the DeFeo family? Remember, sightseers are interested in the paranormal story, and surely have only pity for the slain family.
Why are we still mystified by the Amityville house, twenty-seven years after the story first shocked the public? Why the pop-culture tidal wave of nine films, ten books, countless websites, and, yes, a History Channel documentary? The horror house remains such a sensation because the demon was not only in our backyard, but the little prick smashed through our collective whitewashed front door. Most ghost stories occur in small, rural towns a la Blair Witch, but here was demonic possession in suburbia! The Amityville house was not hidden in the remote Black Hills Forest, but sat amidst crowded parkways with a short drive to Green Acres Mall. In Amityville, characters weren't bounding through lonely woods, but chasing demons on their own piece of stale American pie.
The evil spirits in Amityville are the demons that haunt every suburbanite when he or she realizes that grisly murder does not only occur in the urban jungle, but has a home in the land of Levitt. Maybe the next Ronald DeFeo would date your sister, or befriend your child. Our capes and ranches are never really social forts against the bad craziness of the world -- as proven on a cold winter night in Amityville, Long Island.
To visit the house: Dare to drive along the Southern State to exit 32 South (Rt.110 South) towards Amityville. When you exit the parkway, it branches into three parts. Be careful not to take the immediate left, as it returns you to the parkway. Take the center branch that places you at the corner of the service road and 110 South. Turn right on 110 South. After two miles there is a fork in the road, bear left and 110 South becomes Broadway. Drive down Broadway for about 7/10 of a mile until you hit a traffic light. At that light, turn left onto Merrick Road. Drive on Merrick for 2/10 of a mile and turn right onto Ocean Avenue. The infamous 112 Ocean Avenue address has been changed to 108 Ocean Avenue. The house is 3/10 of a mile down on the left, opposite South Ireland St.
For a total Amityville Horror experience, have a drink at the Cloud Nine bar on 180 Merrick Road, located at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Merrick Road in a small row of stores. This was Ronnie DeFeo's watering hole (it was named Henry's Bar when Defeo was a regular) and the first place he ran when he "discovered" his murdered family.
About the author:
Matt Morello has a lot of advanced degrees.