Tag Archives: The Amityville Horror

Pittsburgh Demons

Far be it from me to question someone else’s demons, but every story has at least two sides. After reading Bob Cranmer and Erica Manfred’s The Demon of Brownsville Road: A Pittsburgh Family’s Battle wit Evil in Their Home, I have to wonder about the other side. I have no doubts that strange things happen behind closed doors. Indeed, the aspect of space, or location, has far more entanglements than our science allows. I don’t question the haunting described in the pages of this book—Bob Cranmer was once a prominent political figure in Pittsburgh and has the credibility that comes with elected office (or at least used to). What is open to question is the interpretation.

The Catholic tradition, which is involved here, does accept that a demon can infest a house. The way this account is laid out, however, is as a personal battle between Cranmer and the demon. The story is not unlike Amityville—family moves into house, discovers it’s haunted, and has to decide what to do about it. They call in a priest. From there the stories diverge. Cranmer’s family started experiencing various misfortunes. These were attributed to the demon. The story is strongly patriarchal; Bob Cranmer is a take-charge kind of guy and he alone can take on this fallen angel in the final instance. There are priests involved—including a prominent monsignor in Pittsburgh—but also clergy from other faith traditions and a paranormal investigation group from Penn State. Did the events happen as described? I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

A few things seem a little off here, though. A Catholic official stating that sex between married couples drives off demons? The discovery that the sins in this house stem from it being an illegal abortion clinic? That Native Americans murdered a family now buried on the property? The book doesn’t give documentation because it’s not that kind of book. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the Cranmer family finally found relief from the presence that was haunting their home. Even watching a movie like The Amityville Horror makes people uncomfortable because the idea is so scary—home is a sanctuary and when it’s invaded by an invisible (in this case sometimes visible) enemy it becomes a nightmare. The reader is left with the impression that it came down to a battle of wills and that of a former Republican politician was stronger than that of one of Satan’s minions. Some things, particularly in the climate these days, are difficult to believe.

Exiting Amityville

Okay, I confess. I watched Amityville 3-D. One of the standard features of horror, you see, is the sequel. As a rule the members of the franchise degenerate until they don’t earn enough money to keep Hollywood’s attention. In the case of The Amityville Horror, the story only made it three deep. I’m no film critic, but with missteps at almost every turn, Amityville 3-D almost made a farce of itself and horror fans take that as an insult. (Good horror comedy is an exception, of course.) The original story is well known: the Lutz family moved into the DeFeo murder house and moved out again just over a month and a half later. The tale has been considered both a hoax and a legitimate haunting, but subsequent families haven’t reported supernatural happenings on the property.

I had some hopes for this installment, as it was also known as Amityville III: The Demon. The second feature film was part of my viewing late last year, and it was okay. I never thought the original was that good, in any case. As I watched III I realized something was missing. Religion. Any sign of it. No priests were involved—this was the fear vector for the first two films of the series. Although John Baxter moves into the house knowing the history, he’s a skeptic and seems not even to believe as the house blows up in a silly finale before his very eyes. When the flies start buzzing around everywhere he thinks they’re just pests, not making the connection with the original account. The entire series is, of course, an extension of the Beelzebub—“Lord of the flies”—myth. That’s what gives it its demonic thrust.

When it finally comes time to wrap things up, and no priest has been called, and no religious imagery has been shown, there’s nothing here to scare but cheap startles. Eliot West, the leader of the cadre of paranormal investigators, attempts to free Baxter’s drowned daughter from the turquoise, boiling well that was dubbed “the gate to Hell,” a demon pops up and grabs him. There’s no explanation of who or what the demon is. Like everything else here it’s secular to a fault. And though it may startle, it can’t scare.

Not all horror uses religion, of course. Even some movies about demons avoid it and manage to be scary. If the premise, however, rests on religion gone awry—as in the first two films of the franchise—exorcising it completely is asking for trouble. Even if the telephone number for the realtor at the start of the film does begin with a secular 666.

Amityville Revisited

Remakes, standard wisdom holds, are seldom as good as the originals. When the original wasn’t great to begin with, the bar should be lower. Should be. I’ve been curious about the Lutz haunting in Amityville, having just read the book that started the phenomenon back in the late 1970s. I saw the movie first. That was several years ago now, but I do recall that even as horror movies go it had its failings. Some of that goes back to the book (presuming that anything happened)—nobody had a solid grip on whether this was a ghostly haunting or a demonic infestation. What the movie did do well is show how fragile family relationships can be, especially when under the pressures of supernatural supervision, not of the positive kind. Although, as is to be expected, the book was scarier.

Overcome by curiosity I finally watched the remake from 2005. Clearly I’m not the only one still curious about this alleged haunting, alleged hoax. I also have the alleged burden of looking for religion in horror. Only on this final count was it not disappointing. Well, that and in featuring burgeoning scream queen Chloë Grace Moretz. Although Father Callaway’s role is late in the film and brief, early on religious ideas are implicated. If the movie hadn’t tried so hard to be The Shining these themes might’ve been developed to good advantage. Instead it introduces Rev. Jeremiah Ketcham (also late in the film) as the first owner of the house in 1692 (did the real-estate agent’s mention of that date make you shiver?). Ketcham was a sadist to the Indians under his care, torturing them to death in the house. No time is left to explore the sinister minister’s motivation as the family implodes in its attempt to escape the house by boat.

As is frequently the case with the supernatural, we’ll likely never know what happened at the Amityville house. The story Jay Anson told is now generally classified as a novel. The preternatural can be judged neither in the courtroom nor the laboratory. The best that we can do is make celluloid adaptations to make some money on the deal. The DeFeo murders happened in living memory. The Lutzes left the house in a hurry shortly after purchasing it. Anson’s Indian “asylum” was never really there—and there were no such Native American practices in any case. What the remake left out was demons. Although the movie attempted other religious scares, the house just isn’t the same without them.

Amityville

Surely one of the most controversial haunting stories of my own lifetime was that which came to be known as The Amityville Horror. After the tragic deaths of the DeFeo family in 1974, the next occupants of the fatal house, the Lutz family, claimed to have experienced 28 days of terror before moving out in the middle of winter and taking no belongings with them. Their story, written by Jay Anson, became a sensational bestseller. Published just four years after the unexpected cinematic success of The Exorcist, a movie was quickly signed and it was all the talk of my high school before I was quite at the stage of watching real horror films. By the time I got around to seeing the DVD, the tropes were so well known that it wasn’t really that scary. I realized that I had never read the book.

Whether you find Anson’s account scary or not probably depends on your level of belief in demons. Although he concludes his book with the suggestion that a combination of ghosts and a demon plagued the Lutzes and their priest, the focus of the narrative is clearly on the demonic. Fr. Mancuso suffers because the demon wants to keep him out of the house. The multiplication of flies, the constant waking up just after 3:00 a.m., and the smell of excrement all point to demonic activity. The book does have its share of historical inaccuracies and embellishments. It has been declared a complete hoax by some while others claim that at least some of what was described in the book happened to the blended family that called it home for less than a month. If you don’t accept demons, there’s little here to frighten you beyond a couple of benign ghosts.

As with any story claiming supernatural activity, we’ll never really know what happened. The Amityville Horror is often classified as a novel now. Our minds are conditioned to reject anything so terribly out of the ordinary that it is difficult to accept what you’re reading. The DeFeo family was undoubtedly murdered in the house by one of their own. The Lutz family did buy and then abandon the house in fairly short order for such an expensive purchase. There was a priest involved. The question marks hover about the supernatural elements, as they generally do. These are the ghosts and demons of the rational world which we inhabit. We safely confine them to fiction. Then we sleep at night with the lights left on.