I have always had a passion for true ghost stories. “True” in this context has generally meant that the account of the story was based on vetted fact, that the ghost was once a real person in verifiable recorded history, and whose death carried enough sadness, tragedy, misfortune, or treachery to warrant a ghostly haunt.
Of course I expected some storyteller’s/writer’s license – the typical exaggeration used to embellish a slightly duller truth. But “truth” has always carried a burden of some verifiable fact – especially in the (sub) subgenre of true ghost stories. That is, until The Amityville Horror came along.
After that, “truth” was never the same in tales of the paranormal; suddenly the concept itself took on a suspiciously fluid quality where despite the implied anchor of fact, the story itself floated considerably far out to sea. “Truth” became a marketing tool, a concept, and a staged event.
And while the market has now modified most claims of truth from calling newer ghostly tales “a true story” to “based on a true story,” the damage to the subgenre of ghost story is done. What was once a fascinating – and often disturbing — tradition has become an invitation for laughable exaggeration and snarky skepticism.
We were tricked. For money… and all based on the seriously tragic deaths of a very real murdered family. How did we get here – this place so naturally grown from the fictionally displayed “truth” roots of The Exorcist to the public denigration of a very old, time-honored tradition of ghost story-telling?
Amityville: the Greatest Show on Earth
While recently digging through my vast collection of stuff, I found a little treasure of a book that I hadn’t read in a long, long time. The pages are now bright amber, the spine broken in so many places it looks like my forehead after a troubling day, the cover bent from multiple moves and careless stacking, the edges turning white as the cover begins to buckle and the colors begin to flake off the edges.
I bought the book about when it was published, in 1986, a typical Mass Market paperback of the period– the kind that were often never published in hardback, and most likely had never seen a trade edition. It was $4.50, priced to sell to its New Age market – young people, those who decided they were more “spiritual” than “religious,” and folks looking for a fun read while waiting between planes.
I probably belonged to all three groups at one time or another, which explains why I bought it. But why I kept it is another reason. I kept it because it was the first book I read about the paranormal which seemed interested in truth and how to find it. It was called ESP, Hauntings and Poltergeists: a Parapsychologist’s Handbook by Loyd Auerbach.
Now, to be clear, I was never planning on becoming a ghost hunter. After seeing Great Grandma herself in all her ghostly glory at the foot of my (ok.. her) bed at four years old, I was simply curious about a few things.
So like every other teenager my age at the time, I went to the bookstore instead of my parents or church. Needless to say, I endured many a parental eye-roll at my literary and regular reading choices, and my librarian mother bore witness to an apparent struggle of interests and maturity as I bounced between various and sundry lurid New Age titles, religious histories, and general psychology as easily as Louis L’Amour, Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and Irma Bombeck. (Hint: Stephen King won.)
But what I did recognize early on in Horror fiction was the new subgenre bursting onto the promotions-rich fictional scene – the “true” Horror story. So I decided that if I was going to write the stuff (Horror), I should understand about truth and when to wield it.
And of course the biggest, most sensational title of the time was both its shining star, and its most invalidating one: The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson.
I read it during my “true” and “fictionalized true” ghost story phase. As such, it was just “right there” on the shelf, not quite the full-fledged blockbuster it was to become but well on its way. And I will be honest, it was the hardest book to read that I’d ever read – short of Pride & Prejudice, or the Silmarillion – and not because it was in any way like those two titles (whose matter was dense and complicated), or because it was “scary.” No, it difficult to read because I found it incredulous that any writer could with editorial blessing abuse punctuation like that, or ever needed to use that many exclamation points… (they were like the flies on the cover – and not in a good way.)
But I muddled through in the name of research, hoping to glean some details about allegedly real, modern hauntings, and how to write about them.
Now that the second objective was pretty much clear, I set about dissecting the first. But being a kid whose own paranormal expertise included checking under my bed at night and making sure the closet door was firmly closed, I wasn’t sure where to start. And then I found Auerbach, a researcher of the paranormal who seemed willing to believe in reasonable evidence, and whose expertise included an actual degree (among the first ever offered by a university I might add), and a healthy dose of investigative skepticism. My kind of guy, I was thinking… almost ok to bring home under the gaze of Librarian Mom.
I immediately liked the guy. He wrote in an informal, humorous style that anyone who has ever had to rationalize seeing a ghost could appreciate. But I also liked him for his attempt to clarify the scientific criteria used by parapsychologists in the investigation of phenomena. Under his watch, we would have no Orb Psychosis, no investigators who go to investigate haunted houses then drop equipment and yell “run!” when the things they go to investigate come out to play.
No, under the terms of his Handbook, things are a lot more tediously scientific, a lot more objective. So when I got to the chapter on the Amityville Horror, things got interesting.
In short, he didn’t see any evidence that indicates the haunting ever happened, stating outright that there is more evidence that the whole thing was a hoax than there is that it wasn’t. (Auerbach 296-297)
William Weber, Attorney for Ronald Defeo
Primary to the argument that there was no “true story” behind the published one, was the statements of several well-respected paranormal investigators of the time (Karlis Osis, Alex Tanous of the American Society for Psychical Research –guys who want to believe) who concluded that not only had they been unable to find any real substantiating evidence of any haunting, but that they had seen a signed contract for a book and subsequent movie of the alleged haunting, indicating that the account itself was fraudulent, designed for the manufacture of a blockbuster “based on a true story” – a fact compounded by the admission of then convicted murdered Ronald DeFeo’s attorney William Weber who claimed the whole story was conjured up over a bottle of wine with the alleged haunted couple, the Lutzes (Auerbach 302-4).
Ed & Lorraine Warren, Demonologists
And while he acknowledges that everyone’s favorite demonologists – Ed and Lorraine Warren – did participate in the investigations, he does not include any detail of their findings at the time. Nor does he credit them with being objective, however, describing them as more “occultish” in their work than investigative…(298) At best, this means that testimony by such celebrity personalities as the Warrens, (or even famed paranormal writer Hans Holzer), may be impressive or pursuasive to some, their qualifications are still not quite measurable in scientific terms, rendering their accounts motivationally if not legitimately questionable.
He also points out that one should not discount that Ronald DeFeo (who was convicted of murdering his entire family in the house in 1974), might profit from the conclusion that demonic forces coerced him into committing a crime he would otherwise have not have committed. And with regard to the Lutzes (who moved in afterward in 1977 and allegedly fled 28 days later after experiencing a demonic haunting), Auerbach only concedes that studies of residual hauntings caused by such trauma as mass murder can potentially create an atmosphere where some form of haunting can take place. He theorized, for example, that it was psychically possible that the Lutzes experienced some level of that kind of haunting, which prompted them to sensationalize a story for profit. However it is the amount of paranormal activity that flagged the story for fraud.
And once vetted parapsychologists began to look at those boring, sciency details, the account began to spawn holes in logic and fact.
For example, Auerbach mentions the discovery of a number of inconsistencies in the Lutzes’ story, such as incorrect weather reports, incorrect dates, incorrect sequences of events, implications that the same ASPR that denounced the whole thing as a fraud instead confirmed the haunting, etc. (Auerbach 302-304)
So why does this particular book in turn affect a whole subgenre of fiction?
The answer would be because if a story is alleged to be true, it should be both true and substantiated as true.
There should be facts. Proof. Not allegations and slight-of-hand with celebrity distractions and the ready dismissal of those facts in exchange for profit.
After all, we had not yet gotten the movie with the full Hollywood treatment (the first film releasing in 1979) when the Amityville haunting story burst all over the national consciousness. And if a book presented to the public as “true” is not, then it is already and only fiction.
And then if a fiction is written about an incident that is true, the word “true” needs to have some teeth.
What was true is that a horrible crime happened in the house which may or may not have involved at least some mental illness, and may or may not have involved some paranormal influence that has not yet be validated to the satisfaction of science. But alleging that the devil made one do it is a powerful truth or an insidious lie. One needs to be skeptical of those who validate such things who also stand to profit from them.
Like I said, I liked Auerbach. I like that he suggested strongly that one bring one’s healthy skepticism to the paranormal table.
And that in turn has meant that I now look at fiction differently when it claims to be based on a true story or true events.
Defining “Based On”
Forget for a moment that “truth” has its own problems… that vetting the source that claims something is true can be a real challenge, as the qualifications of one authority may or may not be universally respected.
Forget also that the paranormal itself is has not been scientifically “proven”… only symptoms and conditions that may be a product or consequence of the paranormal or something as yet undiscovered in nature are documented to science’s satisfaction.
The simple words “based on” present their own problems.
How loosely or strictly based on “true” events are such stories?
As a writer, how much freedom do you have – should you have – while still calling a work “based on” true events?
A look at how filmmakers interpret a book might give us some insight as to how a writer should interpret a “true event.” For example, a film typically simply identifies itself as an adaption of one of three types:
- Transposition (a literal telling)
- Commentary (when a filmmaker intentionally or inadvertently changes the original without malicious intent)
- Analogy (using the original work as a source for departure to an entirely new work)
Honestly, if we kept up with filmmakers and their Critics, we might be doing better in fiction genres… And as I have said before, we have a lot to learn from our filmmaking Critical counterparts.
Because if we keep this list in mind when we are plotting our next novel, planning on using a “true story” as a merchandising tagline, we should be clear with our audience what the words “based on” mean to both us and the work.
For me, I confess I know nothing about the truth of the Amityville Haunting. But I do know that what the book appears to be “based on” is the guaranteed silence of the Catholic Church (which neither confirms nor denies what happened there or with its alleged priestly visits to the house), and the documented fact that a mass murder of a family by one of its own members tragically occurred at that address. Everyone involved in the promotion of the book and movie has something to gain, even if it resides in the sketchy value of alleged professional qualifications.
And I do know that the whole scandal of the Amityville Horror has tainted our little Horror subgenre because of its outrageous claims, its oft-described abnormal or atypical parapsychological “true events.”
We are now approaching a kind of overkill with the tagline, and when a book or movie claims to be “Based On True Events” it may still get our attention, but the damage that is inevitably done after the debunking or disappointment begins has left us with only the merchandising value of the phrase. What was once a powerful precursor to a thrill-ride of storytelling made even scarier by its connection to real life has become itself an eye-roll of derision.
As most of us recognize today, “truth” is not as easy to spot as it once was. But even in the day of The Amityville Horror, we were willing to suspend belief in order to take a thrill ride.
Says Dale Bailey in his book, American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction: “A book like The Amityville Horror – published as non-fiction but marketed as a horror novel (complete with spooky black and red cover and flies printed on chapter headings) – is almost guaranteed a minimal level of success.” (53)
So why did we swallow it as truth – hook, line and sinker? Why did we flock to the theaters and the bookstores?
Because audiences of fiction and film are already willing to believe the illogical and the fantastical in exchange for a few minutes of pleasure or distraction, and what our memories retain is an endless loop of the Horror of possibility...
Furthermore, we have a tendency to immediately surrender judgment if we believe an allegation to be true. We overlook inconsistencies, the illogical, and even the absurd. We give ourselves permission for the necessary suspension of belief…especially if we want something to be true…
In the case of The Amityville Horror, the absurd was not an allegation that a house where a tragic mass murder occurred could be haunted, but rather in the blanket acceptance that all of the things alleged to have happened could possibly have happened in that Long Island house.
Says parapsychologist Auerbach, extreme claims of the paranormal “may make wonderful (and not so wonderful) horror books and films, but even when they claim to be ‘based on a true story’ remember that you are reading or seeing a story, unless you can dig further to uncover what part of the story was true, if any at all. Anyone and everyone might have a psychic experience, perhaps even an intense one. But anyone and everyone doesn’t have experiences like these. In fact, in the history of parapsychological field investigations, no one really has. Outside the realm of fiction, that is.” (304-305)
Yet the addition of the words “A True Story” on the cover combined with the format of non-fiction insisted we accept the allegations as truth. While one could almost argue that The Amityville Horror is almost a satire about our collective willingness to believe that “if it is in print, it must be true,” it is more likely that it is a relative of the Found Footage/Found Journal subgenre of Horror.
Yet the difference is that in really claiming it is true when it is more likely not cheapens and taints the whole subgenre it is in. Before Amityville came along like the proverbial bull in the china shop, we had a thriving subgenre of truth-based ghost stories told as fiction. And it was awesome.
The Amityville Horror wasn’t especially well-written, or especially well-told, nor apparently was it especially, well, “true” – at least in the way in which the book insinuates. It was Critically maligned, and coolly received – despite its hand-over-fist publishing and film success (Bailey 55). But it did touch a New Age nerve: specifically our fear of repercussion for drifting from our parents’ traditional religion, that latent fear that the Devil might actually be out there. Waiting to pounce. On innocence. It wrapped unsavory, fraud-scented tentacles around the American dream of home ownership like it had extrasensory perception of what was to BECOME our home-owning reality some thirty years later…
But it caught us at something else: a cultural sea change in thinking.
The New Age movement was simply carte blanche permission to consider the existence of psychic and paranormal phenomena. From angels to demons we were poking the Veil… curious. We were willing to believe that the superstition of organized religion had hidden important truths from us as well as denying the powerful and unrelenting influence in our daily lives of things beyond our control just like what influenced any who dared live in the Amityville house. It played to our growing national tendency toward conspiracy theory and fears of heavy-handed authority. Best of all, it freed us from all that collective guilt and responsibility.
We could be innocent anew.
And it was not only exciting; it was validating. Once again, we were relieved of accountability for the bad things in our lives and our world.
The need to be relieved of personal responsibility was a major player in our willingness to swallow the story completely.
With The Amityville Horror, as with The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby before it, the message was the draw. A good thing, apparently, because as Bailey states, “it did not succeed because it was especially artful”; rather it was more a success because it exploited “audience expectations” … in fact, “among the most conventional, the most formulaic, of haunted house tales, it fails to fulfill our expectations in only one rather unusual way – its insistence that it be read as true…” (53-55)
Why is that?
The Lutzes, alleged Demon-fodder
For one thing, it is natural in storytelling for the audience to find a link that makes a connection between that story and ourselves.
Offers Auerbach, “If it could happen to an ordinary family like the Lutzes, why not to someone like me?” And that supposition is invaluable for providing that leap into audience surrender. Continues Auerbach, “Both the film and the book did very little to suggest that the story was anything but true, and even the attorney for Ronald DeFeo joined in to say that there were indeed odd goings-on in that house. DeFeo himself had apparently claimed that prior to the murders he had heard voices telling him what to do.” (296)
You may be wondering why this whole discussion is important to our genre. After all, The Amityville Horror is a “fun” film franchise, and a titillating read.
I think it’s important because it is one thing to write fiction which uses a convention of being the truth: a lost narrative, a secret work… But it is another entirely to exploit a horrible true crime by unapologetically claiming that a story is completely true, even if one paints any number of absurdities into the prose to prove the audience will believe anything – even satire, if we give Anson the benefit of the doubt.
Whether the house in question was truly haunted before, during, or after the crime is indeed a curious one. And of course, there is an abundance of conflicting determinations and “findings” by celebrity psychics and others who stand to gain by the belief that the stories are all true.
But when we intentionally misrepresent our fiction as truth – or any fiction as truth – we are doing a disservice to everyone, and especially the subgenre in which we write.
While The Amityville Horror tends to remain a kind of turning point in Horror fiction, and a topic for debate for paranormal investigators, it most certainly rests in a bed of scandal because it claimed to be truth right on its cover while stories fester about fraud and collusion.
Ghost story is about telling a tale that reveals a secret, an injustice, lies and ruin. It is not about exploiting the dead, the murdered, the victims of crime.
The bottom line with regard to The Amityville Horror and what it has come to represent is that our genre should never be about “duping” the public, about fleecing the gullible or desperate or vulnerable, or making one’s own reputation on the misfortunes of others. For that reason, we should never be afraid to question the voracity of an allegation of truth placed on a book cover. There is nothing wrong with a good story, a true story, or real fiction – as long as it is honest.
Besides, Horror is scariest when it is possible… Not when it is “true.”
Auerbach, Loyd. Esp, Hauntings & Poltergeists: a Parapsychologist’s Handbook. New York, Warner Books, c1986.
Baily, Dale. American Nightmares: the Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, c1999.