Amityville Horror or Fantasy?
Created | Updated Sep 17, 2004
Without a doubt the events at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York State, constitute the most famous haunted house in US History and one of the most famous in the world. After more than 20 years books are still written about the events in this house, film adaptations have tried to provide explanations and TV shows are still dedicated to the question of whether its events were factual or purely fiction.
The incidents at Amityville can be divided into two categories. The first is the murder of the Defeo family, and the second is the alleged haunting of the Lutz family. Understanding both is fundamental to comprehending the entirety of the story.
The Defeo Murders
On 14 November, 1974, some time after 3 am, Ronald 'Butch' Defeo Jr took a .35 calibre marlin rifle from his closet and went through the house killing his entire family - parents and siblings - shooting them in the back as they slept. Two particularly unusual facts come into play at this point. The first is that no evidence exists that anyone in the family was even awakened by the shots. Given the noise made by the rifle and his mother's presence directly beside his father this makes very little sense (surely one of them would have been woken up by the shooting of the other?). Further, no neighbour reported hearing the shots1. His crimes completed, he collected the rifle and bloodied clothing into a pillow case and drove into Brooklyn to dispose of the evidence in a storm drain. He then left for work.
At work, he made several phone calls to his home, ostensibly to enquire why his father hadn't also turned up for work. At around noon, he declared that he was bored and left for his girlfriend's. After spending the day away from his home, at 6pm he left a local bar where he was drinking with a friend. Moments later he returned to announce that someone had killed his mother and father.
The Police Investigation and Court Trial
By 7pm the police had arrived to begin questioning. The original theory was that the crime was related to organised crime, suggesting that Ronald remained a potential target. From the beginning Ronald made every effort to appear to be a cooperative witness - even confessing to his casual use of heroin. Around 2.30 am on November 15, Detective John Shirvell noticed an important clue during a final sweep of the house. In Ronald's rooms (which to that point had only briefly been examined) he found boxes for .22 and .35 caliber marlin rifles. Connecting the type of rifle with the weapon used during the murders led the cops to seriously consider Ronald as a suspect and at 8.45 that morning they arrested and charged him. The more they examined the facts the faster his story began to fall apart. His claims of the timing contradicted the reality: each member of the family was in their night clothes. He began to alter his story claiming to have been present at the time of the murders, even going so far as to allege a man had held a revolver to his head (a Louis Fallini, who Butch had tried to implicate earlier). Eventually Ronald did admit that he had committed all of the murders.
On October 16, 1975, almost a year after the crimes, Ronald 'Butch' Defeo Jr went to trial, enlisting one William Webber as his attorney. With the confession, the defence ultimately chose what seemed to be the most likely argument - a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity; a plea that Ronald would attempt to further solidify by making his now famous claim that a figure with black hands handed him the rifle and followed him through the house. While this gambit ultimately failed - leading to his conviction and sentencing to a life in prison - it has set the tone for his actions since.
Since his murder of his family, Ronald has pointed the finger at several different people. This included accusing his mother and sister; reiterating his claim that he killed them in self defence (something he stated several times during the trial); and any other excuse he can come up with. One of his more recent claims has been that he was only partly responsible. He claims he murdered his mother and father and then left the house. He goes on to claim his sister killed the rest of the family and he killed her upon discovering her act. This particular claim has in fact become the focus of a recent book.
Ric Ossuna's Investigation
Ric Ossuna's involvement in the case has probably been one of the most unusual. He was originally the author of a web site in support of the claims by subsequent residents of the house, the Lutz family, regarding accounts of a haunting. This site ultimately attracted the attention of George Lutz who began to discuss the idea of collaborating with Ric on a book about the haunting. At some point this relationship collapsed although both sides disagree on the reasons. Ric claims that when he began a deeper investigation of the Lutz's claims he realised that they were in fact lying. George on the other hand claims that when Ric first showed him a written proposal for the book he noted numerous multiple spelling and grammatical errors combined with a weak writing style causing him to suggest Ric take some writing classes and they write the book some time in the future. George further claims that Ric took extreme offence to this and chose to reverse his position and author his own book The Night the Defeos Died: Reinvestigating the Defeo Murders that among other things denounces the Lutz's story2.
In his work on the book, Ric contacted one of the more recent figures in the case of Geraldine Defeo Gates. Geraldine first appeared with Ronald Defeo Jr at a press conference at which they claimed to have been secretly married during the murders and that Ronald's mother and sister Dawn were in fact the guilty party. Ric takes the story even further claiming that Geraldine has been married to Ronald twice (and divorced twice) - the second time taking place during his incarceration. Ric goes on to use her claims regarding Ronald's testimony as a corner stone of his argument that Dawn and Ronald together committed the murders, and further alleging that with her help he was able to interview Ronald directly while in prison to gain the facts he needed for his book.
While at first glance this may seem like a remarkable turn of events, the story too quickly falls apart. The first and most obvious problem is that no marriage license or divorce papers exist to prove either marriage ever happened (a sheriff's card has been produced to support one of the marriages but this does not constitute proof of marriage under New York law), something that makes little sense in light of the assertion that the second marriage occurred during his incarceration, a situation that the prison should have had records of3. Further evidence has recently come to light further discrediting the story. Upon hearing of a series of interviews examining the 'Amityville Horror' case and Ric Ossuna's claims regarding it, Ronald Defeo Jr sent a letter to The Lou Gentile Show in which he denied having given Ric any specific information regarding the case, denies ever having been married to Geraldine, and claims that he has never told the true events to any one - including during the trial4.
What remaining evidence he offers is drawn from documents he claims are official records (although the only ones he has offered for scrutiny on his web page do little to support his claims) along with a lot of allegations that Amityville police were inept and in the habit of bullying confessions out of suspects (unlikely since Ronald was not a suspect originally). To support his claims he's used a number of known hoaxes (ie a photograph of a body in a different place then reported).
The Pro Haunting Side
The Lutz Family's Reported Experiences
While the murders received national news coverage, it was the experiences of another family in the same home that has made the house at 112 Ocean Avenue famous. On 18 December, 1975, George and Kathy Lutz purchased the house for $80,000 and moved in. Within 28 days the family fled the house leaving the bulk of their belongings and ultimately selling it to the bank at a loss. These facts are well documented and generally accepted by both sides of the argument. The debate that still rages relates directly to the occurrences the Lutz family claims ultimately drove them out of the house.
According to the Lutz family, from early on in their involvement a host of unusual incidents took place throughout the house. These reports include: levitation of residents; manifestation of a hooded monk-like figure; having objects moved about the house and even removed from it (a substantial amount of money vanished just when it was needed to help pay for a wedding); a host of unusual smells; black slime dripping out of the keyholes; George Lutz waking up consistently at 3.15am (the approximate time of the murders) to the family dog howling; and a host of other phenomena.
Of all the phenomena, the red room is probably the single most talked about aspect of the house. The popular story goes that a large, red-painted room existed in the basement, but was not shown on any floor plan of the house. Further, it's said that this was considered a gateway to Hell and a previous location of Satanic rituals. The reality of the situation is in fact considerably less dramatic. Early after moving into the home the family found the red room behind a set of shelves in the basement. The room was extremely small (really no more than an access point for some of the plumbing) and its presence unsettled the family so they left it covered. The book further adds an account of a bartender who claims to have visited the house and found it unsettling (he claimed he'd had a number of nightmares centring around the room). The nonsense regarding the room being a portal to Hell was in point of fact a complete fabrication of Hollywood never suggested by the Lutz Family or any one associated with them5.
Another aspect of the case that generates a large amount of conflicting statements was the involvement of Father Pecarraro (referred to as Mancuso in the book and movie). Father Pecarraro was a Catholic priest who George and Kathy invited to bless the home and who subsequently reported that a voice commanded him to get out while he was in the sewing room. In spite of many subsequent denials, Father Pecarraro did claim to hear the voice and testified to this in a later law suit brought against the Lutz family.
Shortly after departing the house the Lutz's were contacted by a Doctor Stephen Kaplan. Dr Kaplan called himself a parapsychologist and requested permission to enter the home, permission that the Lutz's ultimately denied - but more on him later. In the end it was a couple who had achieved fame thanks to other investigations, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who would investigate the house - but not at the request of the Lutz family.
The request for an investigation was in fact originally made by Channel 5 News. They had worked with the Warrens previously on an investigation in New Jersey and wanted to get the famous couple's opinion of the increasingly infamous case. While the Warrens had gained some notoriety thanks to their previous work, it was their investigation into Amityville that is still the best remembered.
As investigators go, the Warrens are certainly unusual. Lorraine is a light-trance medium and clairvoyant who has been tested at UCLA (the tests came out well above the results dictated by chance). Ed is a religious demonologist and apparently the only layperson recognised as such by the Roman Catholic Church (although several of the more liberal archdioceses in a mad scramble to disassociate themselves with the devil have adamantly denied this). Their work on a variety of cases has formed the basis for numerous television shows and books.
Working with investigators from Duke University, the Warrens entered the house on several occasions. Aside from their own first-hand accounts of preternatural phenomena, two separate 'psychic photographs' were produced in the house. The first, taken while a Channel 5 crew was in the house, is of a young boy with glasses. The second, taken in the den, shows Lorraine holding a small object later identified as a relic of the recently canonised saint Padre Pi. Above Lorraine's head is a moose head mounted on the wall. Between the antlers of the head, a face can be seen that upon close examination is identifiable as the saint6.
The Warrens were only the first investigators to tackle the case. Two parapsychologists also became involved. The best known of these was Hans Holzer, author of multiple books on haunting and other psychic phenomenon. While he would ultimately agree with the conclusion that the house was haunted, his assessment of the cause disagrees drastically with both the Warrens' and the Lutz's interpretation.
Holzer believes the undocumented story that at one time the property had housed an enclosure for Native Americans who were dying or insane. As such he claims that an angry Native American Chief's spirit possessed Ronald Defeo Jr, causing the murders. He is also the person chiefly responsible for the completely unsupported notion that Ronald Defeo Jr and Dawn Defeo were involved in an incestuous relationship.
Doctor Stephen Kaplan's Position
Another parapsychologist - who would investigate the occurrences and come to a drastically different conclusion - was the late Dr Stephen Kaplan. Dr Kaplan originally contacted George Lutz in an attempt to investigate the house. George requested some time to consider the request and turned him down the next day. Kaplan claimed that George turned him down when Kaplan said that he would stick to his findings regardless of whether they agreed with the family's reports or not. George in turn claims that he checked into Kaplan's credibility and found it to be severely lacking and that Kaplan was more interested in media attention then serious investigation.
Ultimately, Dr Kaplan opted to proceed with his own investigation, which primarily focused around checking the reports made by other investigators and the family. In doing so, he exposed a number of inconsistencies, which he would ultimately publish in his own book The Amityville Horror Conspiracy. In his book, Dr Kaplan clearly states that his only direct investigation of the property itself lasted about 15 minutes, when he tricked a friend of the Lutz family into letting him in during a yard sale. The only other time he spent in the house was many years later when a subsequent owner invited him to a costume party. He offers as evidence of his claims the fact that he can normally 'feel' when a location is haunted and the Amityville house gave off no such feeling.
The Holes in Kaplan's Story
While at first glance Kaplan's story seems the most credible, many holes in his interpretation do in fact exist. In terms of his own credibility Kaplan has a considerable number of problems. The most basic of these lies in his title of Doctor. By Kaplan's own admission this doctorate in psychology was obtained through a 'college without walls.' This is in fact another way of saying he graduated via a correspondence course. Further, he claimed for himself a host of titles, including 'father of vampirology' (a self-proclaimed title, absurd given many scholars have studied vampire lore long before Kaplan).
Aside from his credibility in general, several errors do crop up in his claims. Among other myths Kaplan is chiefly responsible for perpetuating is the red room nonsense discussed earlier. Another and probably one of the most popular 'facts' is that in early editions the book at one point stated that the hood of a Chevy Vega flew back against the windshield, something impossible for the car type. In later editions the car was changed to a tan Ford. He was completely right to make the change but lied about the order since in reality the oldest editions claim it was a ford and later ones changed the model hardly suggestive of a quick alteration to fit the realities of car design.
In terms of his investigation an even more fundamental flaw exists than his reliance on 'feelings'. On live radio Ed Warren confronted Kaplan asking him a very simple question: what sort of equipment did he use during investigations. Kaplan's only response was to claim complete ignorance of technical matters. While many supporters of Kaplan argue that this is a legitimate defence, it seems improbable a scientist would be so completely ignorant of his own tools. At the very least a simple camera has been a standard of paranormal investigators since its invention.
His book, advertised as a source of facts and hard information on the case, might leave readers feeling it's lacking in either, containing as it does numerous opinions and personal attacks aimed at both the Lutz family and the Warrens. His career of personal attacks went on long enough and severely enough that he was forced in the end to apologise to the Warrens on national radio.
The strangest of all the figures supporting the hoax theory of Amityville is Attorney William Webber. Webber served as Ronald Defeo Jr's defence attorney and has stepped forward with his own claims regarding the Lutz's. Webber claims that the house was never haunted and that he worked with the Lutz family developing the idea to aid Ronald Defeo Jr in getting a new trial.
Webber's story is supported by his law suit against the Lutz family for a share of the proceeds of their book. At trial the judge flatly stated he believed the Lutz's had concocted their story solely to write a book and make money and as such would not even consider any suggestions that the story was in any way legitimate. The matter was eventually settled out of court when the judge threatened to report Webber for acting more like a literary agent then an attorney.
The flaws in Webber's story are primarily ones of logic. To believe his account we have to take several increasingly unlikely ideas as true: first that the Lutz family would have any interest in helping a convicted multiple murderer they had never met; secondly that they would be willing to use their savings to buy a house on the off chance they'd be able to write a successful book; finally, that an experienced trial lawyer would seriously believe living in a haunted house would be a valid defence for murder in 1970s New York. That the judge in the suit was unwilling to even consider the Lutz's side of the story does little to support the credibility of Webber's tale.
While far from complete this entry has covered most of the principles involved in the Amityville case. Barring revolutionary new hard evidence of the spiritual world or an outright confession by one of the Lutz family7, the debate regarding Amityville will probably never end. A few interesting coincidences have occurred since the case that bear mentioning. Three of the main figures in the case - Ed Warren, Stephen Kaplan and Jay Anson, another author of a book on the subject - all suffered heart attacks in close proximity to each other, with Ed being the only one to survive, and it is interesting that each family to live in the house since the murders has ended in divorce (including the Lutz).
Modern owners of the property deny ever having paranormal experiences and most of the town are eager to dismiss the story outright, sick of the extreme levels of publicity the entire thing still gets and the sheer volume of curiosity seekers who come (it's likely that the earliest hoax reports were an attempt to get rid of those coming to see the house who were vandalising homes in the area for souvenirs). The media still resurrects the case with specials and the occasional spoof (the signature eye-like windows have appeared more then once on The Simpsons, for example). Regardless of the truth of the tale Amityville still stands as America's best-known haunted house and it will probably forever remain in people's minds as the prime example of what living in such a house is like.
The Amityville Horror By Jay Anson
The Demonologist by Ed and Lorraine Warren
The Amityville Horror Conspiracy By Doctor Stephen Kaplan
The Night the Defeos Died by Ric Ossuna
Amityville Horror: Hoax or Horror on the History Channel
Warren's web site has details regarding the case under 'Legendary Cases'.
The site for The Lou Gentile Show contains many interviews with Ric Ossuna, the Lutz family and other major figures in the case.
Amityville Truth Websites acts mainly as a refutation of Ossuna, but also includes multiple other facts regarding the case.
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