Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Amityville Haunting

Most of us are familiar with the outlines of the story, after all, it has been part of our collective pop culture since the 1970s. On the morning of November 13, 1974, Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. murder his entire family while they slept. He then attempted to hide the evidence but was eventually caught and convicted. He remains in prison to this day.

In 1975, George and Kathy Lutz bought and moved into the house with their children, but they stayed less than a month. After they left, they had a litany of eerie to terrifying encounters to recount. It started small, with objects moving, and sounds without sources, but eventually moved on to much larger and more menacing manifestations. George Lutz heard a phantom brass band marching through the house, the walls began to “bleed” a viscous slime, and the family began to see apparitions of ghostly people.

After a time, the manifestations went from ghostly to demonic. The family reported seeing a devil-like figure with glowing red eyes peering into the windows of their house. The youngest daughter had an imaginary friend named “Jodie” who she reported as looking like a cross between a devil and a pig. One day, after seeing the demonic figure peeking into the windows, George and Kathy found cloven hoofmarks in the snow outside of the house. George began to become violently angry, out of character for him. And clouds of flies would appear out of nowhere even on the coldest of days. A priest came to the house to perform and exorcism, and was told by a disembodied voice to “get out!” The priest was then followed back to the church by a menacing specter, and suffered from a number of different physical ailments.

The final straw came when a mysterious and unseen force began to rip doors and windows out of the walls, and the Lutz family fled in terror.

After they had left, the George and Kathy contacted Ed and Lorraine Warren, as well as the local television station, and asked them to investigate. The Warrens were considered by many to be the pre-eminent paranormal investigators of the day (but see commentary below), Lorraine was a psychic and Ed was a demonologist. The entered the house, took photos, looked about, and made careful notes of what they saw and, in the case of Lorraine, her impressions as a psychic. They concluded that evidence indicated that the family had left suddenly (for example, the fridge was stocked with food, not what you would expect if the family had planned on leaving), and that the house was definitely possessed by a demonic entity.

Further research showed that the ground on which the house was built was thought to be the home of evil spirits by the local Native American tribe, and prior to the colonization of the area by whites, this location was used as a dumping ground for the insane and diseased of the tribe.

And from there, the rest is history. Jay Anson wrote a book, chronicling the experiences of the Lutz family, and the book was made into a hit movie, which spawned numerous sequels that weren’t even claimed to be based on actual events (my favorite for sheer silliness has to be Amityville Dollhouse).
And with that, the true story of a real haunted house became known to the public, and the skeptics predictably refused to believe what was obvious right in front of them.

Commentary: What is written above is the story that most of the public knows, whether from Jay Anson’s book, from the movies, or from the fact that this story has been a big part of our pop culture for the last 30 years. And the story has many firm believers. In preparing for this entry, I came across numerous websites, essays, and articles in which supporters of the Lutz’s version of events rant about the “faithless” closed-minded skeptics who refuse to see what is in front of their face if it doesn’t jive with their pre-conceived ideas of how the world works.

But when you look into the story more, the truth is rather different than the commonly believed version of events.

For starters, William Weber, the defense attorney for Ronald DeFeo Jr., had contact with the George and Kathy Lutz, and even sued them for non-compliance on a book agreement that he had with them. Over time, a story came out that the Lutzes and Weber developed the haunted house story over a few bottles of wine in order to provide Weber with something to use to persuade a jury in a hoped-for new trial for DeFeo (remember, he doesn’t have to scientifically prove that ghosts or demons exist, just persuade a jury), and to allow the Lutzes something that they might be able to use (or sell in the form of books) in order to get out from under a crippling mortgage.

In addition, many of the details just didn’t work out. There are conflicting reports of how long the Lutzes stayed in the home, there are reports from neighbors that the night after they left “for good” they were back to hold a yard sale, there was no snow on the ground on the days when the cloven-hoof prints were said to be in the snow, and all of the original hardware was present and intact on the doors and windows that had allegedly been torn apart. Also, the police were never actually called, contrary to claims made by the Lutzes. Oh, and the priest who had attempted the exorcism? He says it never happened. And many of the elements that made it into Anson’s book seem to have been lifted from the film The Exorcist, which was quite the sensation at the time.

None of the subsequent owners or tenants of the house have had any supernatural experiences (though many have reported trouble with tourists coming to see the house (the house address has even been changed and the windows remodeled to hide from would-be curiosity seekers), a rather strange lack of behavior for a home supposedly ruled by diabolical forces.

What of the Warrens? While they were certainly a popular resource for those wishing to investigate the paranormal, and had a level of celebrity themselves, their methods were generally riddled with problems, and not reliable. In general, tracking down gaps in their logic and holes in their work has not proven difficult even for firm believers in the paranormal, and has proven very easy for those who question the existence of the paranormal.

In fact, the Warrens weren’t even the first investigators contacted by George and Kathy. That would be Stephen Kaplan of the Parapsychology Institute of America, who told the Lutzes that he’d be happy to look into the matter, but that if the story was a hoax, he would report it as such. He never heard back from George or Kathy.

And what of the claim that the house was built on a place of evil that had been used to house the sick and insane? Well, this seems to be an interesting riff on the “built on an Indian burial ground” chestnut that gets kicked around a lot. This part especially interests me because I am, by both training and occupation, an anthropological archaeologist and I work in North America – in other words, this is my turf. There certainly are areas that were considered “evil” or at least unwelcoming by the native peoples of the Americas, but there is no evidence that this location was one of them. And while it is not uncommon in many cultures to isolate the sick, there is little indication that this happened here. Moreover, what of the insane? The separation of the insane into separate “asylum” areas is not uncommon across the world, but neither is it necessarily the norm, and those asylum areas usually have things to keep the insane in – what I like to call “walls” – and there is no evidence of such a thing at this location. In other words, this part of the story appears to be complete fiction that takes advantage of the fact that most people have such a poor understanding of how the Native Americans lived that such a story sounds plausible to everyone except for actual Native Americans and anthropologists – who all regard the story as nonsense.

So, at the very best, being as charitable as possible to George and Kathy Lutz, a fair-minded person would have to conclude that whatever actually happened at the house, the story became heavily embellished afterwards, and the media circus that ensued pushed people to become more entrenched in positions that they took publicly.

On the other hand, many elements of the story contradict facts that can be verified, and those that don’t contradict verifiable facts are of the sort that they cannot be tested at all. There is a clear motive for a hoax, and evidence of an intentional push on the part of Weber and the Lutzes to do just that. I can no more prove that the story is a complete hoax than I can prove that there is not a teapot in independent orbit around the sun. However, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well…

In fact, even among those who firmly believe in hauntings and who investigate these matters, there seems to be a growing consensus that this story is a hoax. For most of these folks, the most interesting thing about the story is that something as flimsy as this has gotten the attention of the nation in the way that it has.

While it is sometimes true that those who are skeptical of something unusual are simply refusing to accept it because it doesn’t fit their world view, the facts of this case are pretty clear, and those who continue to espouse the “true haunting” account after sifting through the information that is widely available can be fairly said to be the closed-minded ones here.

To my mind, the most interesting thing about this story is not the alleged haunting, but the way in which stories spread through the media took on a life of their own and became "established fact" in the minds of many people regardless of what the true facts of the case were. In a purely logical/rhetorical sense, this is no different from how a particular political party's views become "obvious facts" for the party faithful despite evidence to the contrary, or how other news events become twisted in the public mind. The main difference is that this sotry is generally treated as nothing more than a "scary story", and as such belief in it is pretty harmless. However, it's good to keep in mind that the same things that got many people to believe in this rather obvious hoax also get people to believe things that can have a much bigger effect on their lives.

Personal Account: No, I don’t have personal experience with the house, and I have never been to Amityville. However, as a kid, my older sister loved horror movies, and I hated them. To be more specific, I was terrified of the movies.

On day, she and I were at home alone. Our parents had rented some movies for us – I don’t remember what I had, but she had Amityville 3 (AKA Amytiville 3-D , part of the early-80’s 3-D fad). She put the movie on, and seemed to enjoy it. I, on the other hand, cowered in my room, waiting for the movie to be over, occasionally slipping out to see what horrors were unfolding onscreen (these movies terrified me, but also kinda’ fascinated me), and what I saw when I ventured out left me feeling very frightened and disturbed.

Fast forward two decades, and I am now in my late 20’s, and have made my dark pact with Jabootu, demon prince of crappy movies. Amityville 3 is on the Sci-Fi channel, so of course I have to sit down and watch it. And, wow, it was bad. I mean, really terrible, not scary or creepy in the least, and nearly unwatchable due to poor performances and even worse writing.

All I could think as I turned off the television towards the middle was “THAT scared me? The only thing scary about this piece of cinematic offal is that someone was stupid enough to think that it would be a good idea to waste money making it!”

SOURCES: Internet , Magazine, Internet , Published Book , Internet , Internet , Snopes

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