The Amityville Error

Discussing the Amityville Horror, the greatest American paranormal hoax of the 1970s, and its influence on the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. 

 

The Amityville Horror began as a hoax concocted by the late George Lutz, which he based on the real life case of Ronald DeFeo. DeFeo murdered his family one night at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island back in 1973, and the Lutz family were the first to move into that address afterwards. They only stayed there for one month, during which they claimed to be harassed by demonic voices, phantom pigs, invisible marching bands, and a mysterious black ooze dripping out of the walls. Neither of these stories has ever been substantiated, but Lutz landed a book deal with author Jay Anson, who novelized the story as The Amityville Horror (Prentice Hall, 1977). This was later adapted into a 1979 film starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder. For whatever reason, it became one of the most financially successful films of the 1970s, despite the fact that it was produced by American International Pictures (known best for their cheap drive-in schlock from the 1950s and 1960s), and the fact that it’s boring as shit.

Amityville was so successful, in fact, that it quickly spawned a prequel: Amityville II: The Possession (1982). This second film is ostensibly about the DeFeo family, but it takes so many sickening liberties with their lives that I can’t really endorse watching it. It takes its inspiration from Ronald DeFeo’s murder defense, wherein his lawyer, William Weber, seriously tried to push the claim of “demonic possession” in court. This seems especially tasteless considering that George Lutz and William Weber turned out to be in cahoots with each other at the time. (Not for long, though; Lutz soon tried to sue Weber, as well as several other people, for saying things about him he didn’t like. This guy seems to have spent more time suing people than he ever did working an honest job.) Yet Amityville II was also successful at the box office, which meant another film would soon be following in its wake. So in 1983, Orion Pictures gave us Amityville 3D, which is commonly thought to be even worse than the original Amityville.

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson

The thing is, I actually enjoy Amityville 3D quite a bit; in fact, I think it’s the best Amityville film ever made. (Don’t get overly excited now—that isn’t really saying much!) One thing I like about this one is the fact that it isn’t “based on a true story”; it’s completely fictional, and it never claims to be otherwise. Sure, the story is abysmally stupid, and the characters are more two-dimensional than you can possibly imagine. I can’t even remember any of their names; I just remember Tony Roberts plays an asshole skeptic who moves into 112 Ocean Avenue and stubbornly refuses to believe it’s haunted. Never mind the fact that it kills his best friend (Candy Clark) and his daughter (Lori Loughlin). Then he and his ex-wife Tess Harper get help from Dr. Robert Joy to free their daughter’s soul from the house. There’s also a slimy Bug-Eyed Monster living in the basement, and it seems to be responsible for all the weird shit that happens in the house. That’s pretty much the entire plot right there; there’s nothing about the DeFeos or the Lutzes, and nobody connected with the Amityville Horror hoax appears to have collected any royalties from this entry (which automatically makes it better than either of its predecessors, as far as I’m concerned).

Mind you, Amityville 3D is not what I would call a “good” movie by any means. It’s just that it chooses to exploit a silly movie theater gimmick (3D camera photography) instead of a real-life murder case, which I find much more forgivable. Yet there are some things about this film that I truly enjoy. For one thing, it scared me pretty badly when I first saw it as a kid. In a sequence that shamelessly rips off The Omen (1976), Candy Clark’s character discovers a demonic face in the photos she has taken of the 112 Ocean Avenue property. She freaks out and goes to warn Tony Roberts, but then gets harassed by a demon fly while she’s driving in her car. She crashes her vehicle and is then set on fire, and as she dies, she screams one of the most convincing screams of pain I’ve ever heard in any horror flick. Now up until this point in the film, Clark is built up as being the main female lead, so it was really unexpected (not to mention upsetting) to see her get bumped off like that. It’s not an easy scene for me to watch even as an adult, so I have to give the creative team behind Amityville 3D a great deal of credit for scaring me pretty good.

The Amityville House in 1973

The infamous Amityville house (112 Ocean Avenue) in 1973.

Robert Joy’s character is a parapsychologist who works at some nameless university or institute somewhere, and who is both a “believer” and a “skeptic” at once. He clearly believes in the paranormal, but he’s slow to accept any particular claims about it without sufficient evidence. He was likely only written into the film to make it feel more like 1982’s Poltergeist (which features a number of similar characters), but I enjoy his presence all the same. The other characters are either too quick to believe whatever wild-eyed crap they hear (like Candy Clark and Tess Harper), too quick to dismiss it (like Tony Roberts), or too quick to fuck around with it (like Lori Loughlin and her teenage friends). Of course, the believers turn out to be right about everything in the end; but Robert Joy seems to be the only person in Amityville with a good head between his shoulders, and he’s charming and likable to boot.

It’s too easy to pick this film apart for everything it does wrong; my only serious complaint against it is that there just isn’t enough of the gooey booger monster that shows up at the end. It would have been much more impressive if the writers had decided to unleash this beastie at the beginning of the final act, so he can raise some serious hell for the last 20 minutes or so. As it is, we only see the damn thing for a few seconds before it scorches off Robert Joy’s face and drags his ass down to hell. Then we get some telekinetic-fu as Tony Roberts, Tess Harper, and the rest of Robert Joy’s investigative team get thrown around by invisible forces throughout the house. This part is actually pretty entertaining (especially the shot where the basement door explodes and crashes into one of the scientists, resembling a live-action Looney Tunes segment); but I really wanted to see some monster-fu instead. Oh well, at least the house blows up; if I can’t have my fill of slimy glopola goodness, I’ll settle for a nice random explosion!

Just what in tarnation IS that thing, anyway?

In the earlier movies, the evil of the house is “confronted” by the Roman Catholic Church. The first movie features Rod Steiger as a priest who tries to help the Lutzes from afar, but who really doesn’t accomplish anything useful in the end; he just sort of loses his marbles, and then the movie forgets about him. The second film features a priest who tries to perform an exorcism on the Ronald DeFeo character, but he only succeeds in getting himself possessed instead. In Amityville 3D, Robert Joy’s character is a little more successful in dealing with the evil. (I mean, he does piss it off enough to make it blow its own home to smithereens; that’s got to count for something, right?) This transition from relying on organized religion to relying on quacky pseudoscience for answers was characteristic of the early 1980s. This was the era when the New Age movement really let fly and when “ancient astronauts” were all the rage. Not that I’m criticizing anyone for believing in that stuff if that is what they wish to believe; I just think it’s fascinating that the Amityville filmmakers would choose to take this course. The entire point of 1979’s The Amityville Horror was to cash in on earlier films like The Exorcist (1973), which is practically a late night infomercial for the Catholic Church. Amityville 3D is more like the bastard stepchild of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), which uses scientific speculation to explain its supernatural events.

If it seems I am being too hard on the Lutzes and their fellow conspirators, it’s because their little hoax was just one of several that fed into the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Of all the paranormal investigators who ever looked into their story, Ed and Lorraine Warren are perhaps the most famous and well-known. You might remember their names from all those Conjuring and Annabelle movies that have been produced over the past decade. Ed and Lorraine were a self-styled demonologist and clairvoyant, respectively, who claimed to have investigated over 10,000 hauntings together between 1952 and 2006. And during the late 1970s and 1980s, they were featured on damn near every TV special about the paranormal you might care to mention. My first exposure to them was in Scream Greats Volume 2: Satanism and Witchcraft, a direct-to-video “documentary” from 1986, wherein the Warrens insisted that organized “satanic ritual abuse” (SRA) is absolutely real. These hucksters made their fortunes by hoodwinking people into thinking that minority faiths like mine want to abuse and butcher your children, and the Amityville hoax is what facilitated their rise to fame. Granted, the Warrens weren’t the only SRA-peddlers in business at the time, and they certainly weren’t the worst. But whenever I see a trailer for yet another “Conjuring Universe” movie that probably cost about $140 million to produce, it just makes me feel a little queasy, you know?

There are several other Amityville films that came out after Amityville 3D, but only one of them—the 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds—was ever released theatrically. The rest are all direct-to-video or made-for-TV cheapies. The ones that were produced by Steve White—Amityville: The Evil Escapes (1989), Amityville: It’s About Time (1992), Amityville: A New Generation (1993), and Amityville: Dollhouse (1996)—are actually pretty enjoyable in my opinion; but they have almost nothing to do with Amityville or the house at 112 Ocean Avenue at all, so their titles are misleading at best.

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The Underworld

On the ancient Egyptian concept of Duat, the “Underworld” or “Other Side.”

 

Each religion has its concept of the Underworld; but what is this dark and mysterious plane, exactly? In popular culture, it’s usually pictured as a dark, nightmarish world that exists underground, and which is filled with tormented ghosts and demons. In fact, this notion of the Underworld seems to have influenced the Christian idea of hell, except that only “bad” (i.e., non-Christian) people are thought to go there. In ancient Paganism, however, almost everyone was thought to go to the Underworld, save for heroic warriors and kings (who reigned with the gods in heavenly places like Valhalla). Going there had nothing to do with whether you were good or evil in life; it was basically a matter of social status. Important people were noticed by the gods and welcomed into their various heavens, while common working class folk were expected to eat mud, drink tears, and gnash their teeth down there in the darkness forever.

Or were they?

The ancients might not have been so rigid in their beliefs as the experts might think. Our information about this stuff is based on writings from the tombs of important kings and nobles. Common people usually didn’t know how to read or write, so there is very little for us to go on when it comes to assessing their opinions on eschatology. It’s only natural that kings and chieftains would think they’d get a better place in the afterlife than their subjects; but does this really mean the common people couldn’t expect to enjoy a happy afterlife at all? In many cultures, regular people would bury their ancestors beneath the floorboards of their homes. They would keep altars for these relatives and make votive offerings to them on a frequent basis. The deceased were even buried in a fetal position, with their faces turned to the West (the direction of the setting sun). This indicates a belief that even common people could expect a rebirth in the next world, despite the fact that they weren’t all-important monarchs with massive reputations or egos.

“Pharaoh

Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s Death Mask

The evidence available to us shows that the Egyptian version of the Underworld was much more favorable to the common person than many others. The Egyptians called it Duat, which means “Place Where the Sun is Born” according to Maria Betro’s Hieroglyphics: The Writings of Ancient Egypt (1996, Abbeville Press). Now why do you suppose they would refer to the Land of the Dead by such an optimistic-sounding name? Because it is where Ra, the Creator of the universe, crosses paths with Osiris each night to be reborn. As the sun god, Ra “dies” whenever they cross beneath the horizon, thereby passing into the realm of the invisible. While they are there, Ra has to be regenerated by Osiris, who was the first of the gods to die and rise again. Once this nocturnal meeting in Duat occurs, Ra begins to be reborn, a process that culminates at the break of dawn. So from the Egyptian perspective, the Underworld isn’t a place of death or decay, but of new energy and life. Duat is not just a destination for the past, but also a source of the yet-to-be.

There are some Kemetic reconstructionists who feel that Set’s role in the Osirian drama should never be celebrated; but prior to Osiris’ death, none of the gods knew what death was even like. Mortals would live and pass away upon the face of this earth, but did the gods care? Highly unlikely. It wasn’t until Set proved that they too can die (and that He can make it happen) that they started empathizing with our human fear of death. And just as Osiris spent his life traveling throughout the world, teaching people to plant crops, establish government, and stop eating each other like cannibals, so too would he implement similar reforms in Duat. Instead of just leaving everyone to wail and moan in darkness for all time, Osiris made it so the good-hearted will go to paradise and the evil-hearted will be destroyed (regardless of anyone’s station in life while they were still alive). If Set had never slain Osiris in the first place, none of this would ever have happened; so it is that good things sometimes need bad things to make them happen.

With Osiris, it is your heart that determines your afterlife, not your power or riches. Even loyalty to the god himself is not a factor, given that the “42 Negative Confessions” make no reference to accepting any particular doctrines or dogmas. The Egyptians expected to be judged for things like murder, rape, and stealing food that’s been offered to the gods, not for their theological opinions or beliefs. You don’t even have to worship Osiris to be welcomed into his Field of Reeds.

There is some confusion as to “where” Duat is, exactly. We used to think the Egyptians perceived it as being literally underground; but more recent discoveries show that the physical world and Duat were viewed as being two sides of the same coin. The universe is like a giant body, and the world of matter (including everything in outer space) is just the visible outer skin of that body, while Duat is the invisible flesh and bone beneath that skin. The hieroglyphic for Duat resembles a five-pointed asterisk in a circle. The asterisk itself is the hieroglyphic for seba or “star,” and the circle represents rebirth. The star is also “hidden” within the circle, so as to become “invisible.” But doesn’t this image also make you think of something else in particular? I think it looks like it could be a possible origin for the pentagram.

“The

Duat is not just one place, but a continuum filled with myriad worlds. Osiris has the Field of Reeds, an agrarian paradise filled with eternal booze and lovemaking, while Ra has the Solar Barque, which resembles a phosphorescent cruise ship. Hathor has a Sycamore Tree where she offers refreshments to the deceased, and Set of course has His Secret Place “behind” the Big Dipper. But before any soul can proceed to either of these various realms, it must undergo a procedure called the Weighing of the Heart, wherein its collective deeds (symbolized as their “heart”) are measured against the whole of Ma’at (the cosmic balance, symbolized as an ostrich feather). If the heart is heavier than the feather, the soul is fed to the daemon Ammut, whereupon it ceases to exist for all time. If this happens, the spirit of the deceased—which is separate from their soul—is left to linger on this earth as a ghost (or even a qlipha). But if the soul is more or less in good standing with Ma’at, it is re-united with its spirit and transfigured to become an akh (“shining one”). Then the departed is free to roam any place in Duat the gods might permit them to visit.

A local cemetery in my neighborhood

There are certain places where the barrier between us and Duat seems especially thin. Cemeteries and tombs are the most immediate examples, but I would also cite hospital maternity wards, where new lives are constantly being born. (Remember, Duat is the Land of the Yet-To-Be as much as it is the Land of What-Used-To-Be.) There are also certain times when Duat becomes more accessible, but these are not identical across the globe. For example, the veil grows thinnest in Egypt during holidays like the Wag Festival, which traditionally occurs sometime in August or September; but here in North America, the veil is thinnest at Hallowtide. Then again, if you live in the southern hemisphere, the cross-quarter days will fall on different dates due to the seasons being reversed. So the point of transition between our surface reality and Duat can vary based on your geographical location and the time of year.

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