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The Real Amityville Horror: A Look Back at the DeFeo Murders

The Amityville Horror was more than a mere haunting.

Just the mention of the words “Amityville Horror” are sure to send chills down any horror fan’s back—the house, inspiration for a book about its demonic haunting and a variety of slasher films, has become famous in its own right.  

Although many movies focus on the stories of the Amityville house being haunted, The Amityville Murders presents Ronald DeFeo Jr. as an alienated young man who is a victim of an abusive father, leading him to use a rifle to fatally shoot all six members of his family in the early hours of November 13, 1974. Set to release in February, the film will take a look into the DeFeo family and Ronald’s mental disorders in relation to that fatal day. 

The DeFeo family lived in a picture-perfect home: an expensive estate with white shutters on the windows and white lattice on the side. The house, in the quaint suburban neighborhood of Amityville on Long Island, would soon belie its tranquil appearance after experiencing a dark and gruesome event.

Related: Nightmare Fuel: 10 Books That Will Haunt Your Dreams

On the evening of November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. ran into a local bar and yelled for help, saying that his parents had been shot. Several bar patrons accompanied DeFeo back to the family home where one of the bar patrons, Joe Yeswit, called Suffolk County police to report the crime. When police arrived, they searched the home to discover that not just DeFeo’s parents had been killed–all six other members of the family were dead. Some investigators were left puzzled by the position of the victims, every single one of the members were found face down lying on their stomachs in their beds: Ronald DeFeo Sr., Louise DeFeo, as well as their children, Dawn, Allison, Marc, and John Matthew. The parents had each been shot twice while the children received single shots. 

Ronald, who had long gone by the nickname Butch, was relocated by local police for his own protection after suggesting to officers that the killings had been carried out by a mob hit man. He told police that when he arrived home from work that evening, he discovered that someone had broken into the house and killed his family.

Within the day, police exposed inconsistencies in his description of the events that had resulted in the end of his relatives’ lives. The investigation revealed that the murders had occurred in the morning–and the accused hit man, Louis Falini, had an alibi proving he was out of state at the time of the killings. 

Related: John List: The Perfect Family Man Who Killed His Perfect Family

Still, DeFeo kept up the pretense that he was not responsible for the killings. He claimed that Falini and an accomplice had shown up at the house, placed a gun against his head, and forced him to watch as they killed his family. By the end of a 24-hour period, DeFeo gave up and confessed, saying “Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. It went so fast.” 

The eldest DeFeo child was arrested and sent to trial for the murders. During the trial many alarming facts came to light—primarily concerning Ronald’s mental disorders and his relationship with his father. Prior to the trial, investigators had been unable to discern a clear motive for the killings. But soon, DeFeo’s questions about his ability to collect his father’s life insurance suggested what had encouraged him to act.

The seemingly perfect sheen over the DeFeo family was revealed to be only an appearance during the trial. Although DeFeo’s childhood was economically comfortable, he was far from content: His father was a domineering and abusive figure, often overpowering his mother’s weak personality. Young Ronald grew into a troubled adult who suffered from alcohol and drug abuse—DeFeo relied heavily on heroin and LSD. 

Related: Two Bodies in the Bedroom: The Greystone Mansion Murder Mystery 

During his 1975 trial, DeFeo stated that he heard voices in his head that told him to kill his family. A psychiatrist for the defense testified that DeFeo had a dissociative disorder, in an attempt to prove that DeFeo could have been experiencing an out-of-body experience when he murdered his family. However, a psychiatrist testifying for the prosecution successfully argued that DeFeo had an antisocial personality disorder, meaning he would have been fully cognizant of his crimes. Despite the defense’s insanity plea, DeFeo was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder in November 1975 and sentenced to concurrent terms of 25 years to life for each murder.

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  • Ronald DeFeo

  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

The house remained vacant for 13 months after the murders, but on December 1975, George and Kathleen Lutz purchased the property for the bargain price of $80,000. Hearing about the house’s gruesome past couldn’t stop the Lutz family from taking advantage of the incredible deal on such a lovely property. The couple quickly moved in with their three children–and, just as quickly, moved out again.

Despite having the house blessed by a Catholic priest before their move-in date, the family was terrorized by unexplained phenomena for the entire duration of their stay in 112 Ocean Avenue. The family alleged that they saw mysterious hoofprints in the snow, red demon eyes, slime pouring from the walls, and a hanging crucifix revolving and reversing direction before their very eyes. In January 1976, the family abandoned the house, leaving everything behind.

Related: 7 Terrifying Books About Real-Life Hauntings

After experiencing the trauma of the haunted home, the Lutzes began to question just what had driven Ronald DeFeo to murder: Had the hauntings existed before his crimes, or were they due to the horrific slaughter? After being put in contact with Jay Anson, a writer, the Lutzes decided that their tale was worth being shared with the world. 

They offered around 45 hours of tape-recorded recollections to Anson, who used them as the basis for the book The Amityville Horror. The book barely mentions DeFeo’s murder, instead focusing on the 28 days the Lutz family spent at 112 Ocean Avenue. The novel chronicles the haunting events that the Lutz family experienced during their brief stint in their new home; they encountered strange odors, heard strange noises, and felt unexplained pockets of cold air. 

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  • Promotional Still from The Amityville Horror

  • Photo Credit: Cinema 77

After selling millions of copies, the book was made into a 1979 film of the same name, which starred James Brolin, Margot Kidder, and Rod Steiger. The movie follows the paranormal phenomena that terrorized the family while living in the Amityville home. It became the second highest-grossing movie of 1979. 

However, it turns out that the story was more hoax than horror. In 1977, the Lutzes filed a lawsuit against William Weber, DeFeo’s former defense attorney and former friend of the Lutzes, Paul Hoffman, who was working on another account of the Amityville Horror, as well as various magazines, claiming invasion of privacy and breach of contract, amongst other things.

In response, Weber, Hoffman, and a clairvoyant named Bernard Burton filed a countersuit for $2 million under allegations of fraud and breach of contract. Weber claimed that the couple had wildly exaggerated their experiences, from a neighbor’s cat becoming a “demonic pig” to the full-scale creation of the infamous green slime following the family out of the house. He also claimed that he had helped the couple come up with these ideas over the course of “many bottles of wine”.

Other claims have also been rejected: There was no apparent damage to the locks, doors, and windows; claims of cloven hoof prints in the snow have been rejected because weather records showed that it had not snowed in Amityville that day; and, finally, Lutz admitted that the green slime oozing from the walls was an embellishment

The Lutzes continued to claim that the majority of their narrative was true, even if details like the green slime had been exaggerated. Nonetheless, the couple were hit by other legal troubles from the house’s new owners, Jim and Barbara Cromarty. They never experienced anything paranormal, and eventually grew sick of the “paranormal tourists” that would show up at their house at all hours of the night. The couple sued publisher Prentice-Hall and Jay Anson for invasion of privacy and in hopes that the subtitle of Anson’s book (“A True Story”), might be removed. They received an out-of-court settlement for their troubles.

At the end of these seemingly never-ending court battles, in September 1979, Judge Weinstein dismissed the Lutzes’ claims and stated in his ruling, “Based on what I have heard, it appears to me that to a large extent the book is a work of fiction, relying in a large part upon the suggestions of Mr. Weber.”

Perhaps the story was a fabrication in order to profit from the public—since the Lutzes left, the house has had four owners and zero reported hauntings. If you’re looking to move into the infamous house, it is currently listed for $565,800–although the address has now been changed to 108 Ocean Avenue, likely to avoid unpleasant associations. 

Featured photo: Murderpedia 

Published on 07 Feb 2019

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