The house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island had sat empty for 13 months, and everyone in the neighborhood knew the terrible reason. One winter night in 1974 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo had drugged his mother, father, two sisters and two brothers, then shot them all to death. Voices, he explained, had told him to do it.
Kathy and George Lutz, both 32, say they thought nothing of the mass murder when a real estate agent showed them the home. Though the price was $80,000—nearly double what they had planned to spend—they fell in love with the house as soon as they saw it. With six bedrooms, a swimming pool and a boathouse on the river, it was perfect—and neither was superstitious. George decided to operate his surveying business out of the basement to save money, and a week before Christmas, 1975 he and Kathy and her three children from a previous marriage moved in.
The first sign of trouble, they said later, was a ghostly rapping coming from nowhere. As the days passed, the mystery deepened. Harry, their Malamute-Labrador, became agitated and darted about frantically. The family turned quarrelsome, and a priest who came to bless the house heard a voice thunder: “Get out!” The house seemed gripped by an unnatural chill, and the youngest child, 5-year-old Missy, told of playing upstairs with a pig with red glowing eyes. There were ghastly odors, doors wrenched from their hinges, flies swarming at a window in midwinter. The Lutzes say they found themselves levitating from their beds, and a repugnant green slime began oozing from the walls and ceilings. “We thought we were going crazy,” George Lutz says now—and after 28 days they fled, forfeiting $28,000 equity in the house.
Then, last fall, came The Amityville Horror, a third-person account of their trials that made The Exorcist pale by comparison. Since its publication the book—billed boldly as truth, not as fiction—has stirred bitter antagonisms, and lawyers have spun a web of bizarre litigation. The horror, in short, has touched many lives—though perhaps none more than those of the Lutzes.
Author Jay Anson first heard about the Lutzes from a Prentice-Hall editor. A New York-born scriptwriter, Anson, 55, had written some 500 documentary shorts and was looking for a story that would make his first book. Working from 45 hours of taped interviews with the Lutzes, and additional hours, he says, with the priest who allegedly helped them, he wrote Amityville in three months. Royalties are split with the Lutzes, but Anson’s share should make him wealthy. Now in its 12th printing, the book has been a best-seller since October. Paperback rights sold for nearly $200,000, and film rights, which Anson owns exclusively, for another $200,000. He will be paid an additional fee for writing the screenplay.
Anson, who has an 8-year-old son, now lives with his sister in Roslyn, L.I. He would like to buy a villa on the island of Majorca. Otherwise, he says, the money will not change his life. “I’m not one for Rolls-Royces,” he says. “I’ll probably just buy more cashmere sweaters.” As for the authenticity of the book that has made him a fortune, Anson enjoys playing the tease. “I’m a professional writer,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t believe and I don’t disbelieve. I leave that to the reader.”
James and Barbara Cromarty bought the DeFeo house more than a year after the Lutzes left—and moved in with three of their five children a few months before the book was published. Since then, says Barbara, 43, “our lives have been turned into a circus.” Gawkers flock to the house by the hundreds, armed with cameras and tape recorders. They offer to perform exorcisms and ring the doorbell to pose the macabre question, “Is Ronnie DeFeo in?” One youth stood on the front lawn and played taps. The Cromartys have painted the house and changed the street number, but few of the pilgrims are fooled. “We always knew where the Lutzes were on their speaking tours,” says James, 45, “by the license plates on the cars that came by.”
The family tried at first to make light of their discomfort, holding a costume party last Halloween at which Barbara dressed as Morticia Addams and James as Frankenstein’s monster. But by Thanksgiving they were ready to throw in the shroud. “We were close to losing our sanity,” says Barbara. Her husband, an Amityville native who owns two stock car tracks and a skating rink, says pride convinced them to stick it out. “It was against our personalities to walk away from something,” he says. “If we were to move out, the property would be worth nothing.”
The Cromartys have sued the Lutzes, Prentice-Hall and Anson for $1.1 million in damages—and are trying to enjoin them from characterizing their story as true. (The Lutzes in turn have sued several publications and individuals for misuse of the family’s story.) “Lutz has to be the greatest liar to come down the pike,” says James, who insists there have been no supernatural nuisances during his family’s residence—only human ones. An investigation by the Long Island newspaper Newsday failed to turn up any evidence that neighbors, police or Roman Catholic diocese officials had ever been consulted about the purported horrors, despite the Lutzes’ claims to the contrary. Prentice-Hall admits certain facts were changed to avoid potential legal complications. Barbara Cromarty is adamant. “The book is completely untrue,” she declares. “This is a lovely home.”
George and Kathy Lutz feel abused. Having survived one set of horrors, they complain, they now find themselves plunged into debt and at the mercy of skeptical journalists. Though they are renting a $100,000 house outside San Diego, they say they can’t afford a home of their own and must make do with one car—unusual in Southern California. Presumably they are using their royalties to pay off their debts, and George, who sold his surveying business after fleeing Long Island, has been looking in vain for a job as an air traffic controller. “We were not prepared for any of this,” he says. “Not what happened in the house and not what happened with the newspaper reporters. They distorted things, personally attacked Kathy and me. We were driven out of our house by an evil force and driven out of New York by the press.”
Neither of the Lutzes denies that the book contains inaccuracies or, at least, inconsistencies. “The police say they never came around to check what was going on the way the book says they did,” George admits, “and a lot of other people have tried to disassociate themselves from all of this. I can understand that. But if we had tried to perpetrate some kind of hoax, I think we would have been much surer of when and how things happened, because we would have been inventing them.”
Despite the uncertainties of their present and future, George and Kathy claim to have found peace of a kind. Her three children are all doing well in Catholic school—and last spring Kathy gave birth to a second daughter. George has converted to Kathy’s Catholicism, and she has experienced a renewal of faith. “What happened has tightened us as a family,” he says. “I teach the children to have old-fashioned values, but I also want them to know that there are many areas in which we have very little knowledge.” Though they say they are in regular contact with the priest in the book (“We owe that man our lives,” Kathy says), they feel that the horror of Amityville is behind them. “Everything is gone,” says George, “the business, the house, all our china and silver and the boats, Kathy’s new sewing equipment, the kids’ toys and our record collection. But we’re still here and we are very grateful for that.”