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 Stuff Nightmares Are Afraid Of

Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is a terrific allegory for the eternal conflict between Set and the Chaos Serpent. With instructions for a spell for protection during sleep.

 

In Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), some teenagers start having nightmares in which they’re menaced by this disfigured creep who has knives for fingers. Whenever this asshat kills someone in their dreams, they die in real life at the same time. One of the teenagers, Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp), discovers that when they were little children, their community was terrorized by a serial killer who preyed on little kids. The man was arrested and put on trial, but he got off on a technicality and was released. Then, fearing for their children’s safety, the parents of the community took the law into their own hands and burned the killer alive. But this has only made things worse, for it is the killer’s ghost who now haunts the kids in their dreams, seeking revenge against the parents by finishing what he started. Now it’s up to Nancy to find a way of execrating this evil spirit.

On the one hand, A Nightmare on Elm Street has more than its fair share of devoted fans; on the other, it receives far more derision from mainstream critics and the general public than it really deserves. I blame this on most of the sequels, which became increasingly goofy with each new installment. By the end of the 1980s, Freddy Krueger was practically a live action cartoon character, and this is the version of him that most people remember today. Sequels like The Dream Warriors (1987) and The Dream Child (1988) are more like self-parodies than straight horror films; they don’t even bother to take themselves that seriously. But if you watch the original Nightmare from 1984, I promise you: even if it doesn’t scare you, it will make you quite uncomfortable at the very least. There’s absolutely nothing “funny” about this film at all, and the Freddy Krueger character is really just the tip of the iceberg.

When the film begins, the daylight reality in which Nancy and her friends all live seems safe enough; but as Freddy Krueger becomes more prominent in their dreams, the ugly truth about their everyday world begins to unfold. These things are never stated to the audience outright, but viewers will notice that Nancy’s parents are divorced (and that the proceedings of this arrangement were anything but amicable). Nancy’s mother is an alcoholic, and her father—the town sheriff—only shows up whenever there’s a tragedy. At the same time, Tina’s mother also seems to be divorced and would much rather spend time with her boyfriend in Las Vegas than stay with her daughter (even when she knows the poor kid has been having terrible nightmares). Rod’s parents seem to be completely absent from his life, leading him to take on a life of petty crime. And then there’s Glenn (played by a baby-faced Johnny Depp), whose parents demonize Nancy for no good reason aside from the fact that two of her friends are dead.

It’s ironic that these parents once resorted to mob justice to protect their community, for they don’t seem to care very much about their community now. None of them are involved in their children’s lives anymore, and none of them seem to care that much when each other’s kids die. When Tina gets butchered, Rod is immediately accused of the crime, and none of the adults ever question this. We never see Tina’s mother afterwards, so we’re left to wonder if she even grieves for her daughter at all. When Rod gets strangled by Freddy in his jail cell, it’s clear to all the adults that it was suicide and no one shows any kind of sympathy for him. Clearly, Tina and Rod’s deaths mean nothing to Glenn’s parents, who seem to think they can avoid having anything like that happen to Glenn by keeping him away from Nancy. Meanwhile, Nancy knows exactly what’s happening, but no one will believe or even listen to her, even when the evidence is staring them in the face. For Duat’s sake, she can’t even get any help from her father, the sheriff!

It is this complete absence of parental support that makes the film truly terrifying, in my opinion. Never mind the idea that Nancy and her friends are being targeted by a supernatural force; Freddy Krueger is simply the 1980s American version of an ancient Akkadian Alû demon (i.e., a spirit that terrifies people while they sleep), and the ancient Akkadians knew well enough how to deal with such things. If an Akkadian child reported having certain experiences while he or she was asleep, his or her parents didn’t take any chances; they simply execrated the Alû with their magic and the problem usually went away. So the idea of Freddy Krueger in and of himself is not that impressive; entities like him are just little things in this world, and it doesn’t take that much to get rid of them. It would help if the Elm Street families were willing to entertain the possibility of such events in the first place; but even more importantly, the fact that the children can neither trust nor depend on their parents is a serious problem. That is what enables demonic forces like Freddy to perpetuate themselves in the first place, and that is what disturbs me most in this film.

Mind you, I’m not claiming that every childhood boogeyman is actually real; nor do I contend that magical thinking is always the best answer to one’s problems. But if I had a kid and she told me that some freak was coming after her in her dreams, I wouldn’t laugh at her or treat her like she’s crazy. I’d say, “Well, it could be one of two things going on here, hon. It could be that there really is some freak coming after you in your dreams; or, it could be that it’s just a dream and nothing more. Either way…I say we whack the fucker, just in case.” And then I’d have her draw a picture of the creep that’s scaring her, and we’d hurl all kinds of abusive language at him in Set’s good name. We’d stick pins in his ass and chop him up into little pieces; then we’d throw him in the fireplace and watch the little bastard burn. Call me superstitious if you like, but like the Akkadians, I don’t believe in taking any chances with this kind of stuff. No kid should ever have to face a monster alone like Nancy does in Nightmare on Elm Street.

(If it seems crazy that I’m talking about the things that happen in Nightmare like they’re real, I’d like to point out that the film is partially inspired by true events. During the 1970s, director Wes Craven read an article in the L.A. Times about a group of Khmer refugees who were living in the United States, and whose children were having nightmares that disturbed them so badly, they refused to sleep. Some of them later died in their sleep, and it was as if they had known they would die if they didn’t stay awake. This story disturbed Craven to his core, and it later became his main inspiration for writing Nightmare. Craven has also said that he took inspiration for the film from certain Buddhist and Taoist ideas, and anyone who’s ever listened to the man talk will know that he actually believed in some kind of spirit world.)

The Nancy Thompson character is easily the best thing about this film; in fact, she’s the very best “Final Girl” since Laurie Strode in Halloween and Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979). Unlike Laurie, she becomes aware of her nemesis early in the film and she actively hunts him down; and unlike Ripley, she has no weapons aside from her own determination and resourcefulness. Nancy eventually discovers that if she holds on to something in her dreams while she’s waking up, she can bring it over to the real world. She decides to conduct this extremely dangerous experiment with Krueger, and when it proves successful, the tables are immediately turned. Freddy finds himself at Nancy’s mercy, suffering every form of abuse the teenager can throw at him; he even becomes afraid of her at one point. And considering just how slimy a character Freddy really is, it feels really good to see him get his comeuppance this way.

This humiliation of the antagonist is a recurring theme in many of Wes Craven’s films (including 1972’s The Last House on the Left, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1991’s The People Under the Stairs, and 1996’s Scream). There’s almost always a transition point in these movies where the surviving victims gain some kind of advantage over the villains, and the villains become blubbering, pathetic fools. I believe Craven’s intention here was to demonstrate that while evil may often seem very powerful and formidable, it only has as much power as we allow it to have. When we take that power back, evil is revealed for the frail and empty little thing that it really is. And in the original script for Nightmare on Elm Street, that is exactly what happens; Nancy defeats Freddy Krueger by taking back all the energy she’s put into him with her fear, and his spirit is dissolved back into the Void forever.

My only criticism of A Nightmare on Elm Street is the fact that its ending was sloppily changed at the last minute, and for purely commercial reasons. Nancy defeats Krueger, and all seems well; but then she realizes she’s actually having another nightmare, and the rotten bastard gets her after all. This ending always leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. They go through the entire movie developing this really likable character who’s noble and strong and who succeeds in defeating (and even humiliating) the villain; then they pull the rug out from under her at the last minute just to give the audience one last jump scare. Granted, it scared the hell out of me when I first saw this film as a kid; but as an adult who’s digested the rest of Wes Craven’s work, I can see just how “un-Cravenian” that ending really is. As it turns out, Craven had a major dispute with Nightmare’s producer, Robert Shaye, who wanted a scary ending to set the stage for a sequel. Craven eventually gave in to Shaye’s demands just so they could finish making the film. I think this was an unfortunate choice on Craven’s part, as it prevents Nightmare from being a truly perfect film; but the rest of the film holds up remarkably well, even after 30 years, so at least there’s that.

When you stop to think about it, sleep really is kind of a scary thing. If we hold to the Cartesian definition of existence (i.e., “I think, therefore I am”), we technically cease to “exist” for a while when we aren’t awake. Sure, our bodies are still there and our brains continue to function; but we don’t really “think” in the normal sense of the term, since we aren’t conscious. So in a way, we all become like Schrödinger’s Cat when we’re asleep; we’re neither alive nor dead, and we only collapse back into a solid state of reality when we regain our capacity for conscious self-reflection. We’re extremely vulnerable while we’re in this state (both physically and otherwise), and this is partly what the Egyptians were getting at with their tales about Ra being menaced by Apep in the Underworld each night. By attacking Ra, Apep isn’t just posing a cosmic threat against the Creator; it’s also posing a personal threat against all creatures that sleep and dream.

Nancy Thompson’s struggle with Freddy Krueger is a perfect representation of this principle, especially since it’s built upon fears that many cultures traditionally associate with sleep. Apep and Krueger are both astral monsters that try to kill living things while they regenerate (whether this means a sleeping Creator or a sleeping human). Both attempt to kill the future (whether by preventing the dawn or by murdering kids). Both thrive when the good do nothing (whether this is due to a paralyzing gaze or a conspiracy of silence). And both are easily overpowered once you learn how to see through their tricks (whether this is achieved by a badass Thunder God or a plucky suburban teenager). In this way, I consider the character of Nancy Thompson to be a true daughter and warrior of Set.

Set & Nancy Thompson vs. the Serpent & Freddy Krueger

Incidentally, here is a procedure you can use to help you feel a little more like Nancy Thompson when you need it most. If you ever get scared when you’re in bed at night, give this procedure a shot. No Freddy Kruegers can hold a candle to the awesome power of He Before Whom the Sky Shakes.

Get a blank sheet of paper and some red paint. (If you don’t have any red paint, you can use a pen with red ink.) Draw a donkey that’s facing left, and write the word “EOEOE” in the shape of triangle on its neck. Then write “LERTHEMINO” on its back, and write “SABAOTH” on its breast. Finally, write the name “ABRASAX” directly beneath the donkey’s hooves, so that it looks as if the donkey is “walking” on the word. You don’t have to be a great artist; even the simplest and most child-like scribbling will do. (In fact, the simpler and more child-like you can manage, the better.) Just make absolutely sure that you draw the donkey facing to the left and that you write the voces magicae (“words of power”) exactly as I’ve said. When you’re finished, your painting or drawing should look like this:

Typhonian Spell for Protection During Sleep

Next, place this painting or drawing in a folder or something else in which it can stay unfolded and flat. (Under no circumstances should you fold it or crumple it.) You must never let any sunlight touch this image you’ve created; it must always be kept in darkness. Once you’ve placed it inside a folder, place it under the mattress of your bed. Preferably, it should be sandwiched between your mattress and your springboard. If the negative energy in your home seems to be centered on someone else in the house (e.g., a child), place the folder under his or her mattress instead. You can make one of these donkey images for each person who lives and sleeps in your home, if you like. Just follow the exact same procedure for each one. Make sure you place the images in areas where they can’t be seen, where no sunlight can touch them, and where they’re close to you and your loved ones while you sleep. Keep them there for at least seven days and nights; you can feel free to remove them after that amount of time has passed.

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