Amityville Rehaunted

One of the problems with scarce resources is the desire not to squander any of them.  Time is so rare these days that I keep multiple writing projects going (and growing) and when they’re ripe I pluck them and take them to market.  One of my writing projects had me read Hans Holzer’s Murder in Amityville.  Why?  Fair question.  It was the “inspiration” behind Amityville II: The Possession.  I discuss this film in Nightmares with the Bible, and I’ve been going back and reading those period pieces from the 1970s that formed so much of our culture through the end of the last century.

In case you didn’t grow up with an interest in parapsychology, Hans Holzer was a pretty big name then.  I can assert that with some confidence because I grew up in a small town without access to big city resources (where fame is made) and I knew about him.  Holzer wrote well over 100 books, which might give you a hint regarding their quality.  He was an interesting person.  Like Ed and Lorraine Warren he made a living by investigating, writing, and lecturing.  (I can’t seem to break into that cycle—times have changed!)  A firm believer in ghosts and demons, Holzer was naturally drawn, like other moths around the candle, to Amityville.  Murder in Amityville is his summation of his investigation and all I can say is it’s a good thing he wasn’t a lawyer.  Apart from containing lengthy transcripts of Ronald DeFeo’s trial, the book also contains interviews conducted by Holzer.  Full of leading questions and lacking evidence, it fails to convince even a sympathetic reader.

Still, you’ve got to give Holzer credit for including interviews where his loaded questions get him nowhere.  In interviewing a town historian for Amityville, Holzer kept bringing up allegations about the house at 112 Ocean Avenue only to have the nonplussed historian tell him point blank that his (Holzer’s) allegations are incorrect.  His assertions of an “Indian burial ground” are taken for granted, although no historical records substantiate it.  His interview with DeFeo demonstrates Holzer’s irrepressible faith.  After being told by DeFeo that he’d heard no voices—something he made up for a failed insanity plea—Holzer keeps coming back to what the voices told him to do.  Not only that, when Holzer does stumble upon a good question he fails to follow up, chasing some other notion down another rabbit hole.  There was clearly enough material here to work into a horror movie, but for sorting out the troubled home life of the DeFeo family the critical reader finds her or himself being asked to take a lot on faith.

Local Hauntings

In my on-going research (as I think of it), I watched The Haunting in Connecticut.  I recently wrote about A Haunting in Connecticut, distinguished from the theatrical version by an indefinite article.  Both claim to be based on a true story and the story itself is disputed because it doesn’t fit into a materialist paradigm.  Ah, but that’s another can of worms.  Regarding the movie, it abandons the base story to add an entirely fictional subplot that drives the horror.  Or so the writers and director think.  The tale ends up jumbled and the confusion it generates is not the kind borne of intelligent planning.  The Campbell family, struggling to pay the bills against a case of childhood cancer is real horror.  In our healthcare system that is a true story.

According to the diegesis of the movie, Matt Campbell can see the dead because he’s close to death.  In case you don’t know the story—the family has to move to be closer to the hospital where Matt is receiving his treatment.  Once ensconced in their new house they learn it used to be a funeral home and hauntings ensue.  The writer of the original book claims to have made much of it up, while interviews with witnesses make the claim that much of it actually happened.  Matt ends up in a mental hospital.  In the movie a subplot of necromancy and a young boy medium are added.  Souls whose bodies have been bound are trapped in the house until Matt figures out how to break the spell with the help of the medium’s ghost.  Instead of Ed and Lorraine Warren investigating, a local minister is added.  Also suffering from cancer, he figures it out too, but too late to help the Campbell family.

In Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible I do not treat made-for-television movies.  A large part of the reason is that they often lack the cultural impact of a theatrical release.  (Although Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead may have reached a point of familiarity with numbers to rival big screen efforts.)  In the case of the cinematic treatment of the Snedeker (“Campbell”) family, however, the television treatment might well have been scarier than the big-budget studio effort.  Whether fictionalized or not, the Discovery Channel show stays closer to the book (In a Dark Place, by Ray Garton).  Using the Usher-like ending of destroying the house doesn’t seem to offer any release in the big-screen version.  Sometimes reality is scarier than the tales we tell after dark.

Spiritual Fear

There’s an old adage that if a headline asks a question the implied answer is “No.”  I’ve found that to be true, largely.  I hoped differently when I saw the article titled “Are Horror Films Secretly Spiritual?” by S. Rufus in Psychology Today.  Rufus, admittedly not a fan of horror, ponders whether it might not meet a spiritual need for some.  She would not count herself among that number, should the assertion prove to be the case.  Indeed, her post has more sentences ending in question marks regarding this assertion than it has straightforward declarative ones.  Rufus notes that ancient religions involved a kind of fear-based response appropriate to the lifestyle of those open to constant threat by the natural world.  She seems to believe that civilization has saved us from that.

Now one of the questions with which I constantly struggle is why I watch horror.  I do not like being afraid, and when people find out about my fascination with horror they tend to treat me as if there’s something wrong with me.  I guess maybe I think that civilization has not so much eliminated the sources of threat so much as changed them.  Those who grow up poor know fear.  Fear of want is extremely prevalent in our capitalist society.  I see the “street people” when I go into New York City.  They are not few.  Once you start to get away from affluent suburbs just about anywhere you start to see the run-down houses of those who can’t cope with the demands of a consumerist society.  Even those of us with an education are liable to joblessness and the very real terror that attends it.

Civilization, in other words, comes with its own costs.  Religions originally began—some of them at least—largely from the fear response.  Yes, people were afraid.  The gods, properly propitiated, stay the hand of disaster.  For now.  Some religions, such as those in the monotheistic family tree, tend to suggest higher principles like love can be the motivation.  These religions, however, quickly begin to make threats against those who are heterodox, and reintroduce fear into the formulation.  I suspect, from my own experience of all of this, that the answer to the question may actually be “yes”—horror films do offer something spiritual.  There is a catharsis, if I may borrow a term from psychology, in them.  The spiritual element may, however, run much deeper than that.  Until human society truly takes love and justice as its operating principles, we will have horror films to help us learn to cope.

Haunted State

Some few years back, when FYE was still a thing, I’d hunt for bargains at our local.  I came across a two-for-one DVD that seemed promising, but when I got it home I discovered it was a made-for-television combo, and movies of that ilk often fudge on many angles.  I watched them nevertheless.  These were the Discovery Channel’s first two specials in what would become a series titled “A Haunting.”  I have to admit A Haunting in Connecticut freaked me out so much that I decided to trade the disc back in—something I rarely do.  (The other feature, A Haunting in Georgia, I could barely remember.)  As is usual with things I get rid of, I grew curious once again—this time a decade later.  Fortunately both movies are included in Amazon Prime, so I was all set.  I just needed that rarest commodity of all, time.

You might think that a guy who gets up at 4 a.m. on weekends would have plenty of extra time.  That’s not the case.  Nevertheless, I squeezed the clock to watch these shows again for research purposes.  Neither one was so scary as I recall—I’ve seen quite a few movies since then—but they did get October off to a moody start.  Of the two I recalled far less of the Georgia story.  Perhaps part of the reason is that it left so much unresolved.  The Wyrick family apparently experienced many ghosts and their investigator, William G. Roll, took their claims seriously.  While not an Ed and Lorraine Warren film, like its sibling, it follows the pattern of repeated, reported activity, investigation, and, well, not quite resolution.  The family attends a Pentecostal church, and, interestingly, the documentary treats it respectfully.

Unlike A Haunting in Connecticut, A Haunting in Georgia films some events in real time—notably the church service.  The pastor is interviewed and he, unlike Dr. Roll, believes the entity to be demonic.  The documentary treats him with the same gravitas as it does the Berkeley-trained psychologist.  There’s too much going on here to make a memorable narrative, though.  Stories, at least in the classical fictional sense, have some kind of resolution.  The Georgia narrative has too much complexity and too little sense that anything has been solved.  To me the amazing thing was that I had watched this film before and I remembered maybe only the first fifteen minutes.  Both films went on the bigger things, getting remade into theatrical features that I’ve never seen.  But then again, I barely have time for my own unresolved story.  Maybe FYE offers its own brand of local haunting.

Book Signing

Okay, so I’ve got a book signing for Holy Horror coming up at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem.  And they’ve advertised it in the local paper.  I’m humbled and honored by this, especially since I have no local following.  When I go to the website of the newspaper, The Morning Call, ads pop up on the top, bottom, and center of the page, obscuring the event.  I take this as kind of symbolic.  Life is crowded.  We seem to have turned the corner to autumn around here with nights being distinctly chilly.   After the languorous heat of summer when even thinking about winterizing seemed to add another layer of insulation over already too warm body, now we suddenly have to try to fit it in among an already crowded schedule.  At least I don’t have to commute too much any more.

I’m trying to get ready for the book signing, but I don’t really know what to do.  Perhaps I should try to get some business cards printed up.  Maybe I should think of some catch-phrase to use if anyone actually buys a high-priced book.  What should I wear?  Working at home can make you feel like a recluse sometimes.  I don’t have enough money to be considered eccentric, but I don’t get out among hoi polloi much either.  If most people have as much trouble as I do clicking off the ads to get to the event underneath, those who swing by the table are likely to be few.  Still, I’m looking forward to meeting local horror film fans.  They are, in general, a surprisingly cordial bunch.

After Nightmares with the Bible I’m going to focus on trying to find more mainstream publishers.  The reason is simple: academic publishers tend to be overpriced.  I’ve worked in publishing long enough to be able to decode pricing schemes.  There is a logic to them, even if at times it feels like you’re being overshadowed by pop-up windows.  To get a wide readership you need a pretty big platform, and getting a following on any form of social media takes the one thing I don’t have enough of.  Time.  You see, just the other day it was summer and we felt like we were baking.  Now the equinox has plunged us into the days of getting the furnace cleaned and operational and looking at the prices of insulation and shaking our heads.  Somewhere under all of these pop-ups are ideas waiting to be written down.

Ambling through Amityville

I may be a week too late for Friday the 13th, but I just finished rereading The Amityville Horror.  One of my current projects required my paying close attention to what was and was not claimed, and although it doesn’t count towards my Goodreads goal, I just had to do it.  I noticed, as also occurred to me when rereading Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist earlier, that the second time through raises more questions than the first.  The book has been demoted from nonfiction to novel over the years, but it seems pretty clear that Jay Anson believed it to be based on actual events.  He could’ve been wrong, of course, but with a long list of documentary writing credits to his name one does have to wonder.  Anson died just a year after the film came out.

When the movie was released I was still in high school and what everyone was saying about how scary it was kept me out of theaters.  (That, and lack of funds.)  It’s hard to imagine now, but there weren’t even VHS options in those days, especially for those of humble circumstances.  As a result, I was well into adulthood before I saw the cinematic version.  Reading the book, however, is an attempt to pry open the question of what might’ve happened at one of the most famous “haunted houses” this side of the Atlantic.  I’d just read a headline that the house had been sold again, and such was the impact of this story that a simple property transaction is now considered news in some circles.

Controversy permeates this tale.  I suspect that’s because it made a lot of money.  The search for the truth is often compromised by lucre—just look at the White House and try to disagree.  The usual rendering is that the Lutz family, in financial trouble, concocted a story that would bring in big bucks.  Such accusations came, of course, once the story did indeed prove valuable.  The second highest grossing film of 1979, The Amityville Horror held records for the highest grossing independent film for a decade.  Add to that the estimated book sales of 10 million copies and you have a nice retirement account laid up.  Those levels of remuneration are enough to corrupt any narrative.  Still, it’s clear that many people wonder what really went on at the house on Ocean Avenue.  I sat down with the book again and I have to admit that I’m no wiser on the question for having read it again.

Fearing Hubris

I’m afraid of hubris.  You see, my academic career was not exactly distinguished, and as an editor you’re encouraged to keep to the background.  Still, when you write a book you need to promote it a little, which is one of the things I learned as an editor.  I was equally parts embarrassed and pleased to see the bookstore display for my upcoming book signing in Bethlehem.  I mean, although I wrote Holy Horror for a general readership, the publisher tends more toward academic books and their pricing, so this is not an inexpensive purchase.  Those who write are nothing, however, without readers.  Those chosen for interviews are writers who’ve made a sales impact or who have a university behind them.  When it’s just me, it feels like maybe I’m trying to ascend Olympus on my own initiative.

I was in the Moravian Book Shop to purchase Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.  I’ve fallen a bit behind on Neal’s work, largely because Goodreads challenges are measured in numbers of tomes read.  I was pondering this, book in hand, when I noticed—there I was with my own display.  You see, Holy Horror was meant as a guilty pleasure read for those of us who like the scary time of year.  The book price is the scariest part about it, however.  I feel a profound gratitude when anyone actually buys it.  Since there are now copies available on sites such as eBay, I’m guessing some who’ve read it want to recoup a little of the cash outlaid.  While all of this is happening, however, I know that I have to learn the art of book promoting.  Still, it feels like that self-promoting I was warned against as a kid, an unseemly thing.

Writing is a form of conversation.  When I’m in a room with a bunch of other people unless I’m the teacher I have trouble making myself heard.  I’m soft-spoken by nature.  I suppose it’s obvious, then, why a book signing feels hubristic.  Perhaps it’s appropriate for a book about fear to engender this sense of discomfort.  Entering the conversation has always been difficult for me.  At the same time, as the beneficiary of so many books, I feel compelled to give something back.  My insights, if such there be, won’t rock the world.  As I think of myself signing books, I wonder what I could possibly say to someone who’s willing to pay that price for something I produced.  If you’re going to try to climb that mountain, you’d better think about what you’ll say when you meet the gods at the summit.