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Poltergeist at Amityville?

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 24.3, Fall 2014

On December 18, 1975, George and Kathy Lutz and their three children moved into a six-bedroom Dutch colonial home in Amityville, New York. But soon they were driven out, they claimed, by horrific supernatural forces. Ghosts? A poltergeist? Demons? Let’s take a look, as new claims continue to surface.

The Horror Tale

The Lutzes lasted just twenty-eight days before fleeing the house, reportedly leaving behind their possessions except for a few changes of clothes. Just three weeks later, they were telling an incredible tale.

The Lutzes claimed they had been attacked by sinister forces that ripped open a two-hundred-fifty-pound door, leaving it hanging from one hinge; threw open windows, bent their locks, and wrenched a banister from its fastenings; caused green slime to ooze from a ceiling; slid drawers rapidly back and forth; flipped a crucifix upside down; caused Kathy to levitate off the bed and turned her, briefly, into a wrinkled, toothless, drooling ninety-year-old crone; peered into the house at night with red eyes and left cloven-hooved tracks in the snow outside; infested a room in mid-winter with hundreds of houseflies; moved a four-foot ceramic statue of a lion about the house; produced cold spots and stenches; and caused other ostensibly paranormal phenomena, including speaking in a masculine voice, “Get out!”

These claims were detailed in the book, The Amityville Horror: A True Story, by Jay Anson (1977). However, the tale was a suspicious admixture of phenomena: part traditional haunting, part poltergeist disturbance, part demonic possession, with elements curiously similar to those from the movie The Exorcist thrown in for good measure.

In fact, the story soon began to fall apart, and in time a civil trial yielded evidence that the reputed events were mostly fiction.

‘Poltergeist’ Antics?

Although claims in The Amityville Horror book and movie once seemed to have been laid to rest, in 2013 the case resurfaced again. This time the oldest child of the troubled family, Daniel Lutz, who was nine at the time of the brouhaha, has come forward to claim the essential story was true and that he and his stepfather George had been “possessed.”

A documentary, My Amityville Horror (2013), focuses on Daniel, who revises discredited material. For example, he says that on the day the family moved into the house, while carrying boxes into one room, “there was [sic] probably four- or five-hundred flies.” He says he killed them by swatting them with a newspaper, but that when his mother came the dead flies had disappeared. This leaves one wondering whether he had simply made up the incident. Again Daniel tells how a window smashed down on his hand, causing it to swell to several times its size before it quickly returned to normal. That is, of course, unlikely in the extreme.

In fact, such scenes raise the possibility that many of the alleged incidents—which some have described as “poltergeist” effects—could have been staged or falsely reported by Daniel. For instance, according to The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson (1977, p. 28), Daniel and the other children were suspected by their mother of having blackened a toilet bowl by throwing paint into it.

Daniel Lutz certainly had a motive to play poltergeist. Like other unhappy children who secretly act out their hostility, he was unhappy with his situation and wanted to effect change. Daniel hated his stepfather, calling him “the biggest f---ing a-----e you could ever meet,” and boasted that he was glad he was dead. An ex-Marine, George was, according to Daniel, a violent disciplinarian who beat him. And so he admits, “I started destroying this guy’s world every opportunity that I walked into” and would “just do anything to get him” so that “we could go back home.”

Throughout the documentary, Daniel Lutz retells many of the now-familiar Amityville incidents in elaborate fashion, often claiming things happened to him that were previously attributed to his parents. Distinguished psychologist (and CSI Fellow) Elizabeth Loftus explains on camera how people can fill in gaps in their memory with exaggerations and even outright additions, so as to make things seem more dramatic and interesting. At the end of the video, Daniel is asked by the director if he will take a lie detector test. He refuses. His younger brother and sister do not appear to endorse his claims: they declined to be interviewed for the documentary.

Revelations

Unfortunately for both the possession claim and the poltergeist-mimicking hypothesis, however, there is much better evidence as to what really happened at Amityville: the tale was mostly deliberate fiction. Some of the reported events were simply made up, while others were exaggerations of mundane occurrences.

William Weber—an attorney seeking a new trial for his client, who had murdered his parents and siblings in the Amityville house the previous year—admitted colluding with the Lutzes on a book deal. Weber told the Lutzes, for example, how one murder victim’s body had lain in the room for over eighteen hours, yielding a stench and maggots; the Lutzes subsequently developed this for their demonic tale, using what Weber calls their “creative imagination.” Again, Weber says he showed the couple numerous crime-scene photographs, some of which revealed “black gook” in the toilet bowls, which he attributed to police fingerprint powder. Weber says that he and the Lutzes “created this horror story over many bottles of wine that George Lutz was drinking.” (See Kaplan and Kaplan 1995, 174–86, and Nickell 1995, 122.)

Additional, clear evidence that major events in The Amityville Horror did not occur came from researchers Rick Moran and Peter Jordan (1978) who discovered, for example, that there had been no snowfall at the time the Lutzes allegedly discovered cloven hoof prints in the snow. Other claims were similarly disproved (Kaplan and Kaplan 1995).

Still More Revelations

On three occasions I talked with Barbara Cromarty who, with her husband James, purchased the house after it was given up by the Lutzes. She told me not only that her family had experienced no supernatural occurrences in the house, but that she had evidence the whole affair was a hoax. Subsequently, I recommended that a producer of the then-forthcoming TV series That’s Incredible, who had called for my advice about filming inside the house, should have Mrs. Cromarty point out various discrepancies for close-up viewing. For example, recalling the extensive damage to doors and windows detailed by the Lutzes, she noted that the old hardware—hinges, locks, doorknobs, etc.—was still in place. Upon close inspection one could see that there were no disturbances in the paint and varnish (Nickell 1995).

A transcript of the September 1979 trial of George and Kathy Lutz vs. Paul Hoffman—Hoffman being perhaps the first writer to publish an account of the Amityville happenings—reveals the Lutzes’ admission that virtually everything in The Amityville Horror was pure fiction (Stein 1993, 63). Indeed, Newsday columnist Ed Lowe observes: “It had to have been a setup since Day 1. The day after the Lutzes fled, supposedly in terror, they returned to hold a garage sale—just lots of junk. It was obvious they hadn’t moved in there [the $80,000 house] with anything worth anything.” Lowe added, confirming the findings of other investigators, “And during the entire 28-day ‘siege’ that drove them from the house, they never once called the police” (quoted in Peterson 1982). Lowe should know: His father was the Amityville police chief at the time of the alleged demonic events.


References

Anson, Jay. 1977. The Amityville Horror: A True Story. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kaplan, Stephen, and Roxanne Salch Kaplan. 1995. The Amityville Horror Conspiracy. Lacyville, PA: Belfrey Books.

Moran, Rick, and Peter Jordan. 1978. The Amityville horror hoax. Fate May: 44–45.

My Amityville Horror. 2013. A Lost Witness Pictures Production, aired on Sundance NOW, March 17.

Nickell, Joe. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Peterson, Clarence. 1982. Demonologists hellbent on selling ‘Amityville II.’ Chicago Tribune (September 23).

Stein, Gordon, ed. 1993. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes, Detroit: Gale Research.

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.