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The Amityville Hoax at 40

Why the Myth Endures

Those who do not study history are forced to get it from Hollywood.

IT HAS BEEN 40 YEARS SINCE WHAT IS ARGUABLY THE world’s most famous haunting. While it continues to be lauded by much of the paranormal world as a genuine case of demonic infestation, the facts tell a different story.

An amazing number of people continue to believe that the alleged events at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island, actually happened and represent proof of the supernatural. They often say, “But what about Amityville? How can you explain that?!” Their reaction is a testament to the power of film, TV documentaries, and books to influence popular opinion. Just because a claim appears in mass media does not make it true. Book publishing, film making, and television are businesses, and as such are often guided more by profit than truth seeking. This is especially so with Amityville, where both the book and film were promoted as “based on a true story.”

The Saga Begins

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 13, 1974, a 23-year-old car mechanic named Ronald DeFeo shot and killed his parents and four siblings as they lay in their beds. He would later claim that an “evil force” had possessed him to commit the murders. A jury rejected his “the devil made me do it” defense and he was sentenced to six consecutive life terms. The house was eventually sold for a mere $80,000 to the family of George and Kathy Lutz, who, along with their three children and dog Harry, moved in on December 18, 1975. Twenty-eight days later, they abandoned the house, fearing for their lives. Or so the story goes.

The Lutzes were soon thrust into the media spotlight with the publication of Jay Anson’s international bestseller The Amityville Horror: A True Story, which first arrived in bookstores September 1977. The film by the same name was released in July 1979 and was so successful that it has spawned over a dozen sequels, and more are planned. Anson’s book has many storylines including a house built on an ancient Indian site where the sick and mentally ill were imprisoned and died. The haunting itself consisted of attacks by a powerful, unseen force, levitations, doors ripped from their hinges, and the appearance of an eerie, pig-like creature with glowing red eyes. And who can forget the priest who said that while blessing the house, he was slapped in the face by an invisible entity that ordered him to “Get Out!” In this article we address key claims about the “haunting” and attempt to answer the question: why does the myth of the Amityville haunting continue to endure?

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DECEPTION IN CANCER TREATMENT SPECIAL ISSUE: The Cancer-care Industry’s Marketing is Among the Most Deceptive on the Consumer Landscape. SPECIAL SECTION: Classic Skepticism: The Amityville Hoax at 40; Alien Sulls: Do the Mysterious Rhodope Skull and Adygea Skulls Belong to Aliens?; The Real Meaning Behind the Nazca Geoglyphs; Clown Panics: Sightings of Mysterious Clowns Rattle Nerves ARTICLES: The Case for a Galactic Defense System; Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?; Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?; Luck and Regression to the Mean: One of the Most Fundamental Sources of Error in Human Judgment; Political Obfuscation: Thinking Critically about Public Discourse. COLUMNS: The SkepDoc: Anti-Aging Claims: The Fountain of Youth is Still Only a Legend, by Harriet Hall, M.D.; The Gadfly: Can Working Memory Be Trained to Work Better? by Carol Tavris REVIEWS: “Three books about the Salem Witch Trials and their legacy: The Witches: Salem, by Stacy Schiff; In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, by Mary Beth Norton; America Bewitched: America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem, by Owen Davies JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Mammoth Mysteries! Part Two, by Daniel Loxton