Book review: The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Book review: The Amityville Horror

This was actually a re-read, though I should note that I originally read this book in 1979, when I was 13 years old. My perspective has shifted a wee bit in the intervening 42 years, though my love for schlocky horror remains unchanged.

I have been in a reading funk these past few months because my usual reading time–an hour-long commute to work–was suddenly gone, thanks to the global pandemic. I found it hard to work reading back into my new routine, though on the plus side I am finally getting more sleep.

As I cast about for the book that would get me going again, I looked over a few ancient paperbacks I’d kept and among them was a yellowing copy of The Amityville Horror, its now wrinkled cover still asserting “A True Story.”

When the paperback first came out, I immediately snapped it up and read it in a blur, drawn in even more than normal due to the alleged authenticity of the story being told. As I re-read I began recalling the details, but what was once a scary read now seemed tame, and my mind turned to the gaps, disputes and lawsuits that followed in the wake of the book’s original publication.

The story is simple: A young family moves into a huge old Dutch Colonial on Long Island in December 1975 and 28 days later flee in terror, convinced the house is possessed by evil spirits or demons. But what seems like an improbable series of increasingly weird and menacing events is really more the story of a young family in trouble and how they may have enhanced what happened at 112 Ocean Avenue (and yes, you can easily recognize the house on Google Maps even today) in order to extricate themselves from a series of bad decisions.

The real horror here is bad finances. While author Jay Anson (who died only a few years after publication) may not have done so intentionally, he sprinkles thee story with enough clues to suggest a non-occult origin at the root of the Lutz family’s problems: a combination of over-extending themselves financially, moving into a new home and neighborhood just a few days before Christmas, and integrating a new family, as Kathy brings three children from a previous marriage.

On the one hand, you get a priest coming to bless the house and alleging that he heard a male voice tell him to “Get out!” On the other, George’s surveying business struggles with finances, and is due a visit from an IRS agent. The five year old daughter Missy reports an invisible friend named Jody, who she describes as a pig and cloven hoof prints are found in the snow outside a window–but records show no snow on the ground of the day reported.

The main thrust of the story revolves around perfectly mundane tensions–the two boys fight, George becomes obsessed with keeping the rattling old house warm by constantly stoking the fire, and Kathy play referees, keeping the factions together as best she can.

The demonic manifestations are, for the most part, also mundane–odd noises, doors and windows opening or closing on their own, the persistent chill in some rooms. Others seem odder–a large ceramic lion in the living room seems to shift position on its own–but could be easily explained without invoking a catalog of demonic influences.

The weirdest stuff–seeing the red eyes of the pig Jody in a window, or a white hooded figure standing menacingly at the top of the stairs–defy logical explanation, but also present themselves with no evidence at all, just “this is what happened, yep!”

Did the Lutzes leave after 28 days because they feared for their family’s safety? Maybe. Or did they leave because they had gotten in over their head and needed to hang their sudden decision to cut and run on some sort of story and the more sensational the better? I know which seems more plausible to me and it has nothing to do with psychic manifestations.

Putting aside the veracity of the events, is this an entertaining story? Well, not really. Because Anson is working with real people and some actual verifiable happenings he is constrained a bit. The story is told in straightforward fashion, which may make it seem more authentic, but also results in a somewhat bland presentation. How can the sudden sound of a marching band in the living room in the middle of the night come across as unremarkable? You will find out here. On the plus side, it’s a quick read at only 300 pages for the paperback version (at least the one I have from 1978).

What I may have most enjoyed from re-reading this book in 2020 is how it now serves as a chronicle of life in the mid-70s. Some of the most fascinating details are the smallest–people having to phone from their homes to reach others, and needing the other person to pick up right away, as even answering machines are not to be found. Cash is used to pay for most things. Everyone smokes. George has to drive to another city early on a Monday to get to a bank, so he can transfer funds to cover a check. Now imagine all of these people dressed in typical fashions of the time. Yes, amazing.

Overall, The Amityville Horror is not something I recommend, except as a kind of historical piece of horror from the 70s.

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