October 17, 2013


"Houses don't have memories."
I haven't lived in a real house since I was 18 years old and it's entirely possible that I never will again.  Jamie and I like to move around a lot and we much prefer living downtown to life in the suburbs.  Our current apartment in East Boston kind of splits the difference: it's technically still part of Boston and my office is only a short subway ride away, but the neighborhood is entirely residential and feels nothing like our walk-up in the North End.  I love our actual apartment, but I miss our old neighborhood every day.  This kind of lifestyle doesn't really lend itself to home ownership, but we like it that way.  While a handful of my friends have started actually buying houses (like real grown ups), Jamie and I are happy to continue drifting from one apartment to the next.

Moving into an apartment feels very different from moving into a house.  Apartments are inherently transitory in nature and you know when you sign the lease that eventually you'll leave and someone else will move in.  And in a landlord's ideal world, once you're gone there will be no trace you were ever there.  This is why most apartments won't let you paint the walls or make any kind of major renovations.  An apartment is generally a blank slate, a place lacking in any distinct personality without the presence of a tenant.  There aren't a lot of stories out there about haunted apartments.

But a house is different.  When you buy a house, it's yours.  You can do whatever the fuck you want with it.  Crazy spiral staircase?  Why not!  Ornate marble sinks?  Have at it!

Portal to hell in the basement?  Go nuts!

And since most houses will outlast their original owners, that means that a house has a tangible past.  When you move in, especially to an older house, you can literally trace the history throughout the building. A renovated bedroom here, some original crown molding there...people leave an indelible imprint on a house, even long after they've gone.

So let's talk about ghosts.

I'm open to the idea of the supernatural.  Do I believe that the souls of the dead haunt the physical world in order to torment the living?  Not particularly, no.  That explanation feels far too simplistic.  But perhaps there are beings that exist on some alternate plane of reality, and perhaps they occasionally attempt to cross over into our universe and manifest in ways that seem strange and mysterious to ignorant human observers.  That at least feels like a vaguely plausible explanation, not all that much stranger than the possibility of life on other planets.  But, much like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, it seems logical that if "spirits" existed that we would have seen some form of concrete, indisputable evidence of it by now.

Daniel Lutz believes he's seen that proof.  When he was nine years old in 1975, he moved into a house in the village of Amityville in Long Island, NY along with his brother, sister, mother and stepfather George.  The family proceeded to have multiple encounters with what they believed to be evil spirits that remained in the house after a previous resident brutally murdered his entire family in their sleep.  Strange things started to happen to the Lutzes.  The house had inexplicable cold spots and strange smells.  They saw demonic red eyes staring in through the windows.  Doors would open and close all by themselves.  Slime oozed out of the walls and stairs.  Hordes of flies appeared.  In one case, an attic window slammed down and crushed young Daniel's hand.  It took three people to force the window open, but other than one slightly deformed pinkie there was no serious damage.  And they heard voices.  After 28 days, the family fled their house in the middle of the night and never returned.

The Lutzes told their story to the press, eventually leading to a book and later a film entitled The Amityville Horror starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder as George and Kathy Lutz as well as Rod Steiger as the local priest, driven mad and eventually blind by the domestic demons.  The movie is considered a horror classic, especially when it comes to haunted house films.  Brolin absolutely nails George's slow descent into madness and Margot Kidder is sexy as hell, although it was a bit weird to see young Kidder playing anything other than Lois Lane.  Steiger is SUPER over the top as the priest, but it's sort of charming in that late 70's kind of way.  But what's most creepy is the sort of abstract nature of the haunting.  There's a variety of weird shit that drives the couple to the brink of sanity, and the evil is generally attributed to the murder of the previous family, but there's not real concrete enemy for them to combat.  The spirits never take a physical form and each unsettling occurrence is so different from the one before that it literally feels as if anything might happen next.  And you have to love the movie for sticking with the real ending: the spirits aren't defeated via some strange ritual or by destroying some evil totem.  The Lutzes simply get the fuck out.

But whatever happened to the Lutzes after they split?  My Amityville Horror is a documentary that catches up with Daniel Lutz almost forty years later and it turns out that he's not doing too hot.  He still firmly believes that he had a childhood brush with the supernatural and even describes a number of events not depicted in the film.  He says that one night he and his brother's beds flew up and smashed into the ceiling repeatedly.  When he first found the flies, he killed a bunch of them with a rolled up newspaper.  But when he brought his mother into the room a minute later, even the dead flies and the newspaper were gone.  His telling of the hand in the window story plays a bit differently as well.  Instead of going to the emergency room and discovering that he had no broken bones, he says that his hand was crushed completely flat, yet as soon as they set foot outside the house it had gone back to normal.  He even claims that he was possessed and that he once witnessed a floating spirit "bump" into his mother while she was making him a peanut butter sandwich.

Daniel has never been able to shake these events and understandably so.  The family got a lot of attention in the months and years that followed, both from the media and from all sorts of psychics and paranormal investigators.  And once there's a hit film based on your childhood trauma, there's really no escaping your past.  But despite Daniel's unwavering conviction, there are those who remain convinced that the whole thing was a hoax perpetrated by Daniel's stepfather George.  There have been multiple other tenants of the house at 112 Ocean Avenue and none have ever reported any strange activity.  Moreover, the more Daniel opens up about his family life, the less credible of a witness he becomes.  Daniel never liked his stepfather, who he says insisted that the kids refer to him as George or Mr. Lutz.  (Amusingly, the film has Brolin lamenting that the kids never call him "dad.")  Daniel also claims that George was fascinated by the occult, and may have even provoked the evil by messing with dark forces that he didn't understand.  He even claims that he once saw George levitate objects around the room using telekinesis.  It becomes all too easy to infer that Daniel may have just been an impressionable kid with dickish, fame whore of a stepdad who wove such a convincing narrative that he may have irrevocably twisted Daniel's mind and manipulated him into believing in things that never actually happened.

In the film's closing moments the director asks Daniel if he'd be willing to take a polygraph.  Daniel gets seriously angry and I can't say I blame him.  It's a ludicrous suggestion - he clearly believes what he's saying without reservation.  But that doesn't mean it's true.  Our minds can often play tricks on us and the human memory is incredibly fickle.  When you're only nine years old, you might as well amplify all then by factor of 20.  Children often believe something to be real simply because they wish it were so, and that belief and desire is usually amplified by the passage of time.  Moving into a creaky old house can be frightening enough, doubly so when you're moving in with a new stepfather who you hate.  If you found out that the last family who lived there had been killed and you'd ever heard a story about a haunted house, you'd probably start to believe that every strange sound and bump in the night was the work of evil spirits.

Is Daniel Lutz a liar?  No, I don't think so.  Is he telling the truth?  We'll probably never know.  I certainly wouldn't call the guy psychologically or emotionally stable, but who's to say if that's the result of otherworldly evil or simply an abusive stepfather?

I'm going to wonder about that from the safety of my apartment.

Title: The Amityville Horror
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Starring: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, Helen Shaver, Michael Sacks
Year Of Release: 1979
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

Title: My Amityville Horror
Director: Eric Walter
Starring: Daniel Lutz, Susan Bartell, Laura DiDio, Lorraine Warren, Marvin Scott
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant

No comments:

Post a Comment