My Amityville Horror first published by EyeforFilm
At the end of 1975, Kathleen and George Lutz and their three children moved into a large house on Ocean Drive, in Amityville, Rhode Island, where the previous occupants had been viciously murdered by their own patriarch. 28 days later, the Lutzes fled the house, never to go back inside. After the Lutz parents decided to go public with stories of poltergeists and possession, the question of what happened in the house would become both cause célèbre and national controversy, as different sectors in the media argued over whether this was a true haunting or an elaborate hoax.
Jay Anson’s subsequent novelisation The Amityville Horror: A True Story (1977) would combine testimonies from the adult Lutzes with even more sensational material of the author’s own invention. Stuart Rosenberg’s film The Amityville Horror (1979) further muddied the waters, laying claim to the same truthfulness as the bestseller that had (along with The Exorcist) inspired it, while simultaneously advertising its fictionality with a key sequence which featured a flying pig, that proverbial signifier of the impossible. Many sequels and remakes later, this mysterious chapter in the Lutzes’ domestic life has become a bedtime horror story, complete with its own now established set of tropes and icons – while encyclopædically obsessive analysis of what really happened can be found online, with the opposed camps of believers and skeptics arguing their respective lines with equal fervour.
Definitive answers to this conundrum are not really forthcoming in My Amityville Horror, whose director Eric Walter had, in his teens, started a website on the Amityville house. Rather, as its title suggests, this documentary offers a uniquely personal account of events in the house from an eyewitness who has never really been heard before, even though he is keen to unburden himself of a story that has clearly haunted him for decades. Daniel Lutz was ten at the time his family moved into the Amityville house – and here, Walter lets him tell his tale in his own words, while also reuniting him with Laura DiDio, the sympathetic if skeptical Channel 5 reporter whom the Lutzes had originally permitted to cover their story, and with Lorraine Warren, a paranormal investigator who had worked closely with the family in 1976. Walter also includes interviews with other journalists and parapsychologists who had been associated with the case, while letting professor of psychology Elizabeth Loftus be the champion of rationalism.
What emerges is complicated, often contradictory evidence that viewers are left to judge for themselves. On the one hand, Daniel absolutely believes that all manner of supernatural activities occurred at 112 Ocean Avenue, and that his stepfather had telekinetic powers even before they moved in. On the other hand, abstracting entirely away from its more irrational details, Daniel’s is still a tale of very real childhood trauma: forced at a young age to move into close proximity with a stepfather whom he despised and feared (“the biggest fucking asshole you could ever meet”); again forced, after less than a month in a new home, to leave with only the pyjamas that he was wearing; caught in the media spotlight; abandoned by his family for many months in a monastery where he was subjected to regular abuse; and finally leaving home and school altogether, and going it alone (and “homeless”), while still in his early teens.
Of his time in the monastery, Daniel says: “The world that I knew no longer existed – I could not separate reality from what was going on” – words which some might regard as emblematic of the young, vulnerable boy’s experiences after his real father left and George came along. Daniel’s testimony that George had an active interest in hypnosis and mind control tells its own story – but whatever happened in that house and amidst all that dysfunction, Daniel is clearly bearing the scars to this day. We shall never know exactly what he saw with his own eyes, but we can still see the anger and hurt in them. And yet, though he insists, “I’ve never introduced myself as that person” or “I didn’t want to be the Amityville kid”, curiously he alone of the ‘Lutz’ children has kept his stepfather’s surname.
A sequence in which Daniel visits Lorraine Warren for the first time since he was 10 lays out this documentary’s principal dynamics of blind faith and enquiring skepticism. “This is fuckin’ nuts.” Daniel whispers to the camera after the ageing, eccentric medium shows him the identical twin roosters that she keeps caged in her kitchen. Shortly afterwards, Lorraine asks “if anyone here doesn’t believe in God” as she produces what she claims to be a relic of Jesus’ cross, at which point Daniel’s earlier incredulity vanishes. “I have that faith,” he insists, and he is reduced to tears before the tacky-looking object. By contrast, the two crew members present (including the director) assert their agnosticism. Sure enough, My Amityville Horror maintains a path somewhere between these two positions, adding manipulatively spooky music to underscore Daniel’s creepy tales, yet presenting a polyphony of irreconcilable perspectives from others without deciding between them for us.
“I just wanted somebody to believe me,” Daniel tells his psychiatrist Susan Bartell. Oddly, he is at first reluctant to open up to her without knowing a little about who she is, even as he is happy to have these intimate sessions recorded on camera for an audience of complete strangers. Walter at last gives Daniel an opportunity to tell his own story, and he does so in the feature format that has long been associated with the Amityville horror. This, at last, is Daniel’s movie – but whether you choose to believe is up to you.
© Anton Bitel