Amityville Horror: Horror or Hoax?

When George and Kathy Lutz moved into the three-story colonial in Amityville on New York's Long Island in December 1975, they were thrilled.

The sprawling house at 112 Ocean Ave. had cost them just $80,000, and they loved it. "It was a dream come true," George Lutz remembers.

True, the house had been the scene of a horrible multiple murder a little over a year before, when 23-year-old Ronnie DeFeo went from room to room methodically shooting his parents and his four brothers and sisters in their beds. But the Lutzes sat down with their three young children and agreed the family could handle it.

Just in case though, the day they moved in they had a priest, Father Ray Pecoraro, bless the house. According to Lutz, the priest said he felt an unseen hand slap him in the sewing room and heard a voice say "Get out." Then, Lutz says, Pecoraro became ill with flu-like symptoms and his hands began to bleed.

The family moved in anyway, but within days they began to notice strange phenomena.

"There were ... odors in the house that came and went," Lutz says. "There were sounds. The front door would slam shut in the middle of the night.... I couldn't get warm in the house for many days."

Lutz says the family kept the fireplace burning day and night in a futile attempt to stay warm, and found strange gelatinous drops on the carpet when they woke up in the morning. At times, he claims, his wife was physically transformed into an old woman, with the face, hair and wrinkles of a 90-year-old.

Lutz claims that he mysteriously woke at 3:15 a.m. almost every day — around the same time the DeFeo murders were believed to have happened. One night, he says, he heard his children's beds "slamming up and down on the floor" above him but he was unable to do anything because he was immobilized in bed by an unseen force. Later that night, he woke to see his wife levitating and moving across the bed, he says.

The next morning, just 28 days after they moved in, the Lutz family fled the house, leaving their clothes in the closets and food in the refrigerator. If the family had not left, Lutz says, he believes something horrible would have happened. "I try not to think about it," he says.

Psychic Slumber Party

As word spread of the Lutzes' experiences, people interested in the paranormal contacted them. Two months after the Lutzes moved out, reporter Laura Didio assembled a group of psychic researchers to evaluate the family's claims.

The investigators spent a night in the house, walking from room to room trying to pick up ghostly vibrations. "It was like a psychic slumber party," Didio remembers.

One of the researchers, Lorraine Warren, remembers an "overwhelming feeling" of "horrible depression" in the house. The team also took a series of time-lapse photos of the upstairs landing. None of the photographs showed anything out of the ordinary except one, which had what Didio describes as "the face of what appeared to be a little boy, peering out from one of the bedrooms."

Meeting With a Murderer’s Lawyer

Things returned to normal for the Lutz family after they left the house, and George Lutz began to wonder if it was the house's horrors that had driven DeFeo to kill his family.

"We realized there was something so wrong there that it would be inhuman, it would be improper, to just let him rot in jail and not try to help get him some kind of psychological help," Lutz said.

At his trial, DeFeo had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, claiming he had heard voices and that on the night of the murders something out of his control made him kill. The jury rejected that defense and sentenced him to six life terms.

Lutz contacted DeFeo's attorney, William Weber, who was already fielding book proposals from publishers for his client's story. The Lutzes' story of a haunted house had the potential to drive up interest in a book, and Weber agreed to meet George and Kathy Lutz to hear their account.

Weber remembers the Lutzes as starting out in a "reserved" tone, with "no ranting and raving going on." But then, he says, the three went on to consume at least four bottles of wine and the evening turned into a creative writing session about what kind of thing could go into a horror book. "There was this give and take, and toward the end we were creating ideas," he said.

One such idea, according to Weber, was giving the gelatin drops the Lutzes found on the carpet a sinister explanation: "If you were talking about the green slime, why couldn't it have come from a demonic source?" he told Primetime.

Weber says he never believed the Lutzes' account of inexplicable happenings during their stay on Ocean Avenue. "Absolutely not. Because they were making a commercial venture," he said.

Lutzes Find Another Project

The Lutzes say they felt pressured by Weber and did not like his idea of offering a share of the profits to DeFeo. They decided not to work with him and, after moving to California, ended up agreeing to a book project with author Jay Anson.

The result, The Amityville Horror: A True Story, released in 1976, went through 13 printings and sold more than 6 million copies. The film version, released three years later, was a huge box-office success. But the Lutzes never signed a contract with Anson, and the book and the film netted the family only about $300,000, the family says.

Lutz admits that some of the scenes in the book and the movie — such as the green slime — were an embellishment. But he insists the book and the movie are based on events that actually happened during the family's 28-day stay in the house.

He denies making anything up, saying that if they had, they would have come up with a better story and would not have fled their house, leaving their belongings behind. But he says people are entitled to call his story a hoax if that's what they think. "I can't tell them what to think. I can just say what I experienced."

Medium Says Indian Chief Was on Warpath

Weber continued to pursue his book project, enlisting Hans Holzer, a professor of paranormal psychology, self-styled ghost catcher, and author of dozens of books on the occult.

In 1977, Holzer visited the Ocean Avenue house with a medium who claimed to be able to talk to the dead. According to Holzer's account, the medium went into a trance and said there was an Indian chief on the warpath in the house because it had been built on the site of a sacred burial ground. Holzer believes Ronnie DeFeo was possessed by the angry spirit of the Indian chief, and that the chief will not leave the house until it burns down and leaves the land bare.

But members of the Montauket tribe of Long Island are skeptical of Holzer's theory, saying there are no records of a burial ground in Amityville. Even if there were, "that doesn't mean we will go into somebody's body and capture their soul and control in a very negative way ... that's not us," said the tribe's Chief Straight Arrow Cooper.

Joe Nickell, a professional skeptic who has made a career out of challenging claims of paranormal activity, believes there is no scientific basis for any of the claims, from Holzer, the Lutzes or anyone else: "The bottom line is that ... it was a hoax, or is, simply, at best, a matter that's not proven. And that's not very good for America's most famous haunted house."

As for DeFeo, he told Primetime he lied when he said he heard voices commanding him to kill, and was only trying to create a better insanity plea. He is still serving six life sentences in an upstate New York prison.

So in the end, who is telling the truth? After nearly three decades, there is very little proof either way — though no one who has lived in the house on Ocean Avenue since the Lutzes has reported any strange activity.