The Real Story Behind the 'Amityville Horror House'

By: Dave Roos  | 
Amityville Horror House in 2005
The "Amityville Horror House" as it looked in 2005. Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

Amityville. Even the name sends chills up your spine. That's because the sleepy suburb on Long Island, New York, was the site of what may be the world's most famous haunting.

In 1975, a family of five moved into their dream home — a six-bedroom Dutch Colonial at 112 Ocean Avenue named "High Hopes" — knowing that the house had been the scene of a grisly mass murder just a year before. The family was immediately besieged by dreadful apparitions, bubbling green slime, red-eyed pig heads, levitating beds and sinister cries to "Get out!" Twenty-eight days later, that's exactly what they did, abandoning all their possessions and telling their terrifying story to anyone who would listen.


The book, "The Amityville Horror: A True Story," was published in 1977 and shot to the top of the bestseller list. Hollywood bought the rights and released "The Amityville Horror" movie in 1979, which despite tepid reviews grew into a franchise of at least 17 official movies to date, and hundreds of Amityville copycats, all "based on a true story."

But how much of the Amityville horror story is fact and how much is fiction? Or was the world's most famous haunting nothing more than an amateurish hoax? Robert Bartholomew certainly thinks so. Bartholomew is a sociologist in New Zealand, specializing in mass hysteria and amazed that nearly 50 years after the alleged haunting, we're still talking about Amityville.

"The Amityville myth persists in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary," says Bartholomew. "It's starkly obvious that it's a hoax, but people still want to believe."


The Real Horror: The DeFeo Murders

112 Ocean Avenue
This exterior photo of the house at 112 Ocean Avenue was taken on Nov. 14, 1974, shortly after Ronald DeFeo murdered his family there. Stan Wolfson/Newsday RM via Getty Images

One indisputable piece of the Amityville story is truly horrific. Early on the morning of Nov. 13, 1974, a 23-year-old auto mechanic named Ronald DeFeo took a high-powered rifle and killed all six members of his family — two parents and four siblings — as they lay drugged in their beds.

DeFeo and his lawyer, William Weber, claimed that DeFeo was driven mad by a satanic presence in the house and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury didn't buy the "Devil made me do it" defense, and the judge sentenced DeFeo to six consecutive life sentences.


The former DeFeo home at 112 Ocean Avenue became notorious as "the murder house" and sat empty for nearly a year until George and Kathy Lutz moved in with their three kids and a dog. At $80,000, the property was a steal: In addition to the six-bedroom home, there was a heated pool and a boathouse on the Amityville River. But the Lutzes still found it a financial stretch.

The Lutzes Move in, the Haunting Begins

George and Kathy Lutz
George and Kathy Lutz, former owners of the haunted house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York, pose during a press tour for the book, "The Amityville Horror."
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The story of what happened to the Lutz family over 28 harrowing days in December 1975 and January 1976 has been retold many times and has morphed slightly with every telling.

In all versions, there is a local Catholic priest whom the Lutzes ask to bless the house, due to its earlier reputation. According to one story, the priest sensed a sinister presence in one of the upstairs bedrooms and warned the Lutzes not to sleep in that room. In the book, the priest felt a sharp slap on his face and heard a groaning voice scream, "Get out!" In the movie, the priest was also attacked by a swarm of flies.


Then the really weird stuff began. Doors slamming open and shut at all hours. A persistent coldness in the house, despite roaring fires in the fireplace. Drops of gelatinous goo (red in some versions, green or black in others) appearing on the walls and carpet. One night, Kathy transformed into a 90-year-old crone. Another, the face of a demon-eyed pig appeared in a bedroom window.

On their final night in the house, George reported that Kathy levitated and slid off the bed, while George was kept awake all night by the sound of the children's bed slamming on the floors above him, flickering lights and an unseen presence lurking in the room. The next day, the kids awoke traumatized, saying they were unable to move or leave their rooms.

The Lutzes, terrified and exhausted, couldn't take it anymore. On Jan. 14, 1976, they left everything behind at 112 Ocean Avenue, never to return.


The Creation of the Amityville Myth

Soon after the Lutzes abandoned the house, they met with William Weber, the lawyer who represented Ronald DeFeo, the convicted killer. Weber, it turned out, was already shopping around the idea of a book about the DeFeo family murders called "Devil on My Back."

According to Weber, he and the Lutzes had a creative brainstorming session over "many bottles of wine." The Lutzes shared the story of the unsettling things that they felt and saw at the house and Weber shared details about the DeFeos and the killing that only he knew. Weber claimed that several of these details were spun into the book and the movie.


Weber told the Lutzes that a neighbor's cat would peer into the DeFeos' window at night. That became the red-eyed pig. Ronald DeFeo's father had once smacked his mother while she held a plate of red-sauced spaghetti. That became the mysterious red goo on the wall that morphed into green slime bubbling from keyholes.

"We took real-life incidents and transposed them," said Weber in 1988. "In other words, it was a hoax."

Jay Anson and the Lutzes collaborated on the bestseller "The Amityville Horror: A True Story," which spawned a cottage industry of 12 more books, plus a hit movie with dozens of sequels, prequels and knock-offs.

Weber and the Lutzes parted ways after a fight over how money from the book deal would be split. The Lutzes took their story to Jay Anson, a journalist and filmmaker who had made a short documentary on the making of "The Exorcist."

"Anson listened to 35 hours of taped interviews with the Lutzes, then he sat down and wrote the book," says Bartholomew. "The best way to describe Jay Anson is a writer who didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story."

Writer's Digest published a terrific interview with Anson in 1979, soon after the book and movie deal had made him fabulously wealthy. He was famously elusive about the truthfulness of his account.

"It's funny, almost nobody ever says to me, 'Hey that book of yours is a bunch of bull. I didn't believe a word of it.' Instead, they ask if I think what the Lutzes told me is true," said Anson. "And I answer them the same way I answered you when you asked the question. I tell them that I have no idea whether the book is true or not. But I'm sure that the Lutzes believe what they told me to be true."

Bartholomew is convinced that the Lutzes abandoned the house because they couldn't keep up with the mortgage and tax payments and created the haunting story as an excuse and a lucrative side hustle. "They wanted to make some money off of it," says Bartholomew, who co-authored a 2016 article in Skeptic magazine marking the 40th anniversary of the "myth."

For their part, the Lutzes never retracted their story.

"Our critics are people who've never been in the house, just people who read a book," Lutz told The Washington Post in 1979. "No one who was ever in the house, who investigated it, ever called it a hoax. No one with any credentials who was personally involved ever called it a hoax. No one who helped us there, with the auction, with getting stuff to the Salvation Army, ever called it a hoax... All I know is what happened to me."

The Amityville House — now with a different house number to discourage horror fans — has been sold at least four times since the murders and none of the newer owners have reported seeing any psychic phenomena. It last sold in 2016 for $850,000. The house where the movie was filmed in 1979 has been completely renovated and is currently for sale for $1,699,900.