The facts in the case are well-known and deceptively simple: On November 13th, 1974, a young man named Ronald “Butch” DeFeo, Jr. murdered his father, mother, two sisters, and two brothers in their sleep. Whether or not he acted alone, whether or not there were demonic voices urging him to act, whether or not he was sane at the time, all are matters of conjecture and dispute. What can’t be disputed is that these events led to something that has had a grip on the imagination of horror fans for over thirty years. While the DeFeo name, or even the address of the home in which the family perished (112 Ocean Avenue) might not shed any light, the name of the small town in which they lived and died will instantly bring it into sharp focus: Amityville, New York.
The transformation of the 1925 three-story Dutch Colonial house, from family home / crime scene, to one of the most recognizable “characters” in Horror, began in December, 1975, when George and Kathy Lutz, with their children, moved into the DeFeo home. Within a month they had abandoned it, and two years later had written a book with Jay Anson purporting to recount their experiences in the home.
Though the book was later dismissed as an admitted hoax, it spawned a movie franchise that, to date, has given us more sequels than either Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers, and almost as many as Jason Voorhees. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, released in 1979 starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder as the Lutz’s, was enormously successful, ultimately earning over $86 Million at the box-office.
Three years later, AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION took a closer look at the DeFeo murders, though fictionalized to the point of being unrecognizable. This was followed by a third theatrical release in 1983, and a string of forgettable, Straight-to-Video sequels that gave us everything from a demonic dollhouse to a possessed clock. Finally, in 2005, the original was remade by Andrew Douglas, from an adaptation of the Anson novel by Scott Kosar.
Why are we still fascinated by this house and the fictional events associated with it, thirty-seven years after the far more shocking and horrifying murders that first brought it to national attention? Why is the original still considered one of the most important Horror Films of the 1970’s? And why, after nine separate film iterations of the basic Amityville story has the truly fascinating, truly frightening story of the DeFeo family received such short shrift? I have no idea.
The 1979 original, directed by Stuart Rosenberg from a script by Sandor Stern, is an interesting look at the events that were later demonstrated to be a hoax, but as a Horror Film, it was weak and ineffective, totally failing to capture the psychological impact of Jay Anson’s book. And as for the sequels, they deserve scant mention. While “Two” wasn’t terrible, neither was it a good movie. And the remainder of the series was execrable. Possessed clocks, mirrors, and dollhouses were foisted on the movie-going (actually “-renting”…) public, all bearing no relation whatsoever to the original film, and even less to the truth behind Anson’s novel.
The true story of the DeFeo murders is a intriguing, disturbing look inside the All-American family, a family that, at it’s core, was in all probability deeply dysfunctional. The events of the 13th of November, 1974 weren’t the beginning of the DeFeo family’s troubles; they couldn’t have been. Rather, it was the end product of… something. Just what is still a matter of debate, but it’s difficult to believe that any young man, even one addicted to drugs, would viciously slaughter his entire family without some prior history of abuse, without some motivation other than simply being “pissed off …”
Though several books, most recently Ric Osuna’s “The Night the DeFeos Died”, have put forth various theories about the murders, including Anson’s recounting of the “possession” defense used at Butch DeFeo’s trial, none are totally satisfactory, and all have holes that provide fuel to the growing controversy over the deaths. In my opinion, this would be much more fertile ground for a movie than yet another AMITYVILLE sequel. What would be next, AMITYVILLE 9: SATAN’S MICROWAVE??
What happened on that night, thirty-seven years ago? What could drive Butch DeFeo to murder six people; not strangers, but his intimate family? How could one individual shoot six people, in four separate bedrooms, with a high-powered rifle without any evidence that they were aware that they were being murdered? I don’t know. But I would very much like to.
I’d like to know just what occurred to push the home of an “All-American” family from obscurity into the national spotlight. I’d like to know what made Butch decide that he had had enough of whatever dysfunction must have permeated that house. I want to know why Ronald, Louise, Dawn, Allison, John, and Marc had to die. Keep the haunted clocks and mirrors; the truth is far more frightening.