The 1970s and the Emergence of the ‘True’ Horror Novel

In the classic Psycho Robert Bloch rooted the character of Norman Bates in the actions and theories surrounding Ed Gein, an actual serial killer. While Norman was based off of Ed, they weren’t the same person (as is evident by their different names.) Likewise, Blatty would base Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist off of another case while eschewing several important details. Ketchum’s Joyride is likewise grounded in real events without exploring those roots in any great detail.

Yet in 1977, entertainment writer Jay Anson broke the mold by penning the ‘true’ story of the Lutz/DeFeo house located at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, New York.

In the fall of 1974, possibly while under the influence of drugs, possibly with accomplices, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. shot and killed his parents and siblings as they slept in their beds. None can be certain of the truth as DeFeo changes his story at least once per decade, yet at the outset he attempted an insanity defense on the grounds that “The Devil made him do it.”

The DeFeo home went on the market in 1975 as a “murder house”–a gorgeous old manse offered for the absurdly small sum of $80,000. Soon the Lutz family took up residence, and then the fun began.

If ever there’s a Catholic family moving into their dream home you should know the walls will eventually weep blood, shit, bile, or all three at once. I mean, that’s just how this works. You’ve got pious Fish-Eaters over on this side, and the Devil’s summer cottage on the other. The Bead-Rattlers versus The Balrog. Old Believers opposing Old Ones. Papists pouncing Paimon. Kneelers knocking Night-Howlers. (OK, the last one was a stretch.) Anyway, have you ever noticed that this sort of thing never happens to a United Methodist? I mean, you never hit the heartland and hear about Presbyterians being tormented by the shade of impecunious spending. And when Lutherans find themselves in these straights they just reach for the Milk of Magnesia.

Now that I’ve made my medieval jape, let’s continue.

The spirituality of the Lutz family, while evident, is purely passive. They seek the help of a priest to bless the house, yet they really fail to take up any sort of practice themselves. The attitude the parents have toward their faith seems driven by a simple belief that their priest has all of the answers. Despite the power of ritual objects and prayer, the Lutzes fail to use counter-magic to its fullest. They make a few efforts–find some result when a chorus of voices demands of them, “Will you stop!”–but then really don’t follow through. They don’t put enough effort into being rid of the spirit, as far as I can tell. They capitulate even as they’re given signs of the efficacy of their endeavors.

The failure of the protagonists to capitalize on their faith as a means of defeating the demon in their home really left me cold. It was evident that, if this was a “true story” in the sense that someone actually claimed this had happened to them, it was complete and utter bullshit. When the Devil is telling you to stop praying the Lord’s Prayer, you shout it out and follow it up with a Hail Mary. You bust out the Holy Water and the 23rd Psalm. You light some candles and attend Mass every day for a month. You make your tithe, you sing, you give the Gift of the Peace to the guy you’d rather not, and you pray louder, longer, and with greater fervor than ever before.

You don’t capitulate to the chthonic chorus demanding you stop.

And this is significant because Anson turns the Lutz family into the first true reality media stars of our age, in a sense. Prior to this, true crime focused on victims and perpetrators–neither party eligible to gain anything from a book’s release. But Anson actually turned the media spotlight onto George and Kathy Lutz, made them celebrities, gave their tale the legs it needed to take on a life of its own.

Like most reality TV stars today, the Lutzes soon discovered that little could be gained and much lost from their new notoriety. The benefits never really materialized for the family, while Anson’s career took off.

In recent years Christopher Lutz, one of the sons of George and Kathy, has stepped forward to state that the facts of the haunting at 112 Ocean Avenue, as presented in the novel and subsequent media, have been wildly distorted. While maintaining that bizarre events happened in the house, the wilder aspects of the case are pure fiction and that what dwelled within was little more than a residual haunting, an imprint of the tragedy that befell the DeFeo family.

This was the Here Comes Honey Boo Boo of the haunting world.

4 thoughts on “The 1970s and the Emergence of the ‘True’ Horror Novel

  1. Victor, LOVE this post. You hit the nail on the head. Like we talked about. Anson was an entertainment writer and journalist. And it shows in his writing…. oh gosh does it show. But you touched on something I ever considered until you pointed it out: the lack of spirituality. Like me for instance. If some demonic entity told me to stop having faith… I’d have 100% more faith. Pray more. Go to church everyday. Get crosses, holy water, communion, confession, etc… Anything to purge my mind, body, and soul of the evil. The Lutz family, as depicted, were bastardly passive and annoying. None more so than George. Like… really dude? My wife is levitating off the bed, but I still want an investigator in here to make sure I’m not imagining things? Oh, by the way, how about that ectoplasm leaking out of the walls!?!!?!! WHAT!!!!! I’m sorry…..WHAAAAAAAATTTTTTTTTT. Rubbish. Utter rubbish. Like you said, had Anson taken the creative liberty to BASE his novel off a true story versus DOCUMENTING a true story, this novel could’ve been a staple of the genre. Now it’s just a joke. Pure rubbish. I can’t help my bias from leaking in. Both the 1979 and 2005 movies did a far superior job.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The really interesting thing about the story as presented in the novel is how disconnected the family’s actions are. The head-hopping really prevents the smooth narrative from forming the way we’d want it to, but the tension never really mounts–it just erupts then subsides then erupts anew then subsides and that’s the pattern–it goes nowhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Quote of the day: “I mean, you never hit the heartland and hear about Presbyterians being tormented by the shade of impecunious spending. And when Lutherans find themselves in these straights they just reach for the Milk of Magnesia.”

    Though someone is going to have to write about those Presbyterians and their spending. If you don’t pocket that idea, I will. 🙂

    You and Chris just brought up the head hopping. This is the first book I’ve read in which head hopping caught my attention and pulled me out of the story. The faux pas is much talked about in our program, and I usually furrow my brow and tilt my head a little like a confused Australian Shepherd, but this time I got it. The camera was jumping all over the place in this book. I had to put down my cocktail so I wouldn’t get nauseated.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Victor, great points. I think it boils down to this: people can’t relate to this story because the family’s reaction was not believable! Nobody is that stupid…it’s like the Gieco commercials where the people hide in the shed of chainsaws when the guy is chasing them….pure dumbass! Anyways, that’s about it, loved your post as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

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