There’s probably no such thing as a quiet year in American history, but 1977 was one for the books. In January, it snowed in Miami [PDF] for the only time in recorded history. By spring, residents of Dover, Massachusetts, were on the lookout for a demon. That summer, New York endured a grueling 25-hour blackout, and David Berkowitz was arrested for the Son of Sam murders. Star Wars opened in May. Elvis died in August.
So by the time September rolled around, maybe Americans were willing to suspend disbelief and give George and Kathy Lutz the benefit of the doubt. The groundwork for the couple’s bizarre story about the alleged haunting of their Long Island farmhouse was laid in 1974, when one of the home’s then-residents, Ronald DeFeo Jr., went room to room with a hunting rifle and murdered his entire family while they slept. The Lutzes moved into the house in December 1975, only to flee 28 days later, claiming they’d been tormented by demonic forces. But the pop culture phenomenon those events would inspire began in earnest with Jay Anson’s 1977 book The Amityville Horror: A True Story.
Others had written about the murders and the haunting that supposedly ensued, but it was Anson’s book that made “Amityville” a household name. It spent months on The New York Times bestseller list; according to some reports, the book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, ordered 13 printings of the hardcover edition in the first six months. Two years later, the film adaptation became the second-highest-grossing movie of 1979, earning more than $86 million in domestic receipts, according to Box Office Mojo. Only Superman: The Movie got more people into theaters that year.
The Lutzes’ story was nothing if not spectacular. In Anson’s account, doors were ripped off their hinges, slime oozed down walls, a demon lived in the fireplace, and a spectral, red-eyed pig named Jodie lurked near a window, waiting to—well, we aren’t sure what Jodie had in mind, but it probably wasn’t good. But you don’t need to believe in ghosts or demons or evil pigs to be fascinated by the story of The Amityville Horror. Forty-five years after it was published, here are nine things to know about Jay Anson’s zeitgeist-shaping bestseller.
1. Jay Anson came to the project partly because of his connection to a now-classic horror film.
In 1973, Anson was a writer for Professional Film Services, a company that specialized in promotional shorts that offered behind-the-scenes looks at theatrical features; his credits included 1971’s “Klute in New York: A Background for Suspense” and 1972’s “The Dangerous World of Deliverance.” According to The New York Times, Anson was working on a short documentary about The Exorcist when he met that film’s technical consultant, Father John Nicola. The two must have hit it off, because they considered writing a book together. They even had a title—Psychology of the Devil—and a possible publisher: Prentice-Hall.
That book was never written. But according to Writer’s Digest, when a friend of George and Kathy Lutz approached Prentice-Hall editor Tam Mossman about publishing a book about the alleged Amityville haunting, Mossman thought of Anson. After meeting the Lutzes and hearing what they had to say, Anson admitted it had the makings of “a very good haunted house story,” but he claimed he wasn’t sure it was the right gig for him until what the couple told him was corroborated by a priest.
And while Nicola and Anson never wrote their proposed book, they did collaborate, in a manner of speaking: Nicola wrote the foreword for The Amityville Horror. The year after he met Anson, Nicola would publish a book of his own called Diabolical Possession and Exorcism.
2. Anson wasn’t the first writer to tell the Lutzes’ story.
Jay Anson may have been the writer who turned George and Kathy Lutz’s wild story into a pop culture sensation, but he wasn’t the first writer to put the couple on the national stage. That distinction probably goes to Paul Hoffman, a journalist who wrote a 1976 feature called “Life in a Haunted House” for New York’s Sunday News. A few months later, Hoffman spun that article into a Good Housekeeping feature called “Our Dream House Was Haunted,” which was published in the magazine’s April 1977 issue.
3. Anson wrote the bulk of The Amityville Horror while recovering from a heart attack.
According to a 1979 interview with Writer’s Digest, Anson had a heart attack shortly after accepting the Amityville Horror gig. He wrote most of the book in the three months it took him to recover, writing for four to five hours a day and turning in roughly two chapters per week.
4. Anson wouldn’t say whether he believed his “true story” was really a true story.
At least, not publicly.
It was a question that seemed to come up in nearly every interview Anson gave: Did he really believe the things he’d written in his supposedly nonfiction book?
Tremendous energy has been devoted to (convincingly) exposing The Amityville Horror as a hoax, but that never seemed to trouble Anson. He claimed he based his book on 35 hours of audio recordings given to him by George Lutz, plus about five hours of interviews he conducted to get the timeline right. Whenever he was asked if he believed what he had written, Anson gave some version of the answer he gave Writer’s Digest: “I have no idea whether the book is true or not. But I’m sure that the Lutzes believe what they told me to be true.”
Anson said he had no way of knowing whether the Lutzes were telling him the truth, but paranormal investigators and debunkers who came after him had no such difficulty disproving many of the Lutzes’ claims. For instance, the book insists that the Amityville Historical Society told Lutz that his property was on or near land the Shinnecock Indian Nation had used “as an enclosure for the sick, mad, and dying,” but that the tribe hadn’t buried anyone there because the property was “infested with demons.” According to journalists Alex Drehsler and Jim Scovel (writing for Newsday), the society’s curator denied ever making such fantastic statements. The group said it had no information on the Lutz property, and the Shinnecock tribe was not known to have lived in the Amityville area.
In a 2009 radio interview, Amityville debunker Rick Moran claimed that Anson more or less admitted to him that the book was essentially a work of fiction.
5. Anson was paid a modest advance, but he reaped big rewards on paperback and film rights.
The financial arrangements surrounding The Amityville Horror have been the source of conjecture and controversy for decades. Skeptics usually point to the Lutzes’ money problems—the couple had overextended themselves financially to buy the house—as a motive for supposedly faking the haunting, and the publication of The Amityville Horror proved to be a lucrative arrangement for both the family and the book’s writer. But it was Anson whose bank account ultimately got the biggest boost.
According to The New York Times, he was paid less than $4000 upfront. That’s not a terrible advance—it adjusts to around $19,000 in today’s market—but it’s nothing compared to what lay ahead for the first-time author. Anson reportedly split the book proceeds down the middle with the Lutzes, but his publication contract excluded the family from the film and TV rights that would eventually sell for $200,000.
The Lutzes still managed to profit from the movie, but exactly how much they made depends on who’s telling the story. In 1979, The Washington Post reported that Lutz had made about $100,000 from the book and an additional $100,000 on the first film. During a 2002 radio interview, Lutz claimed the couple had netted about $300,000 “after taxes and lawyers,” suggesting the actual payout might have been much higher.
In March 1979, Writer’s Digest reported that Anson had made about $400,000 on the property—more than $1.6 million in today’s market. In his radio interview, Lutz insisted Anson and producer Ronald Saland had made $22 million “between the two of them” on the movie.
6. James Brolin agreed to star in the film only after he’d read Anson’s book.
According to Turner Classic Movies, Brolin’s first response to being offered a role in The Amityville Horror was essentially “thanks but no thanks.” He dismissed it as “a cheap little horror deal” and had no interest in playing George Lutz. Brolin’s agent convinced him to read Anson’s book, though, and Brolin found it so engrossing and frightening that he agreed to take the role.
7. The book inspired one of horror’s weirdest franchises.
For a while, the Amityville Horror franchise traveled a route similar to other popular horror series. The original 1979 film was a huge success, prompting 1982’s darker, more disturbing prequel Amityville: The Possession, which married a fictionalized account of the DeFeo murders with skin-crawling incest and spousal assault. Next came 1983’s Amityville 3-D, then 1989’s made-for-TV Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes. Several direct-to-video follow-ups were produced in the ’90s, including The Amityville Curse (1990) and Amityville: It’s About Time (1992). The world being what it is, there was always going to be a remake of the first installment; it came in 2005 and starred Ryan Reynolds.
Things have gone off the rails since then. By 2019, there had been at least 23 Amityville movies, ranging from official studio sequels to microbudget curiosities. There’s no end in sight: Amityville in Space is coming in July 2022, and Amityville Karen is slated for release in September. (We’re not even going to tell you about 2020’s Amityville Vibrator.)
According to Screen Rant, the reason for the glut of sequels and spinoffs is the property’s roots in historical events and a supposedly true story. The DeFeo murders and Ronald DeFeo Jr.’s subsequent trial and conviction are matters of public record, Amityville is a real town, and Jay Anson’s book was marketed as a nonfiction account of George and Kathy Lutz’s experiences. Since the defining aspects of the story, including the word Amityville and the house at the center of everything, can’t be claimed as intellectual property, anyone who wants to can—and apparently will—capitalize on the pop culture machine set in motion by Anson’s bestseller.
Bookstores have also seen their share of titles attempting to cash in on Anson’s surprise hit. John G. Jones spent the ’80s cranking out Amityville books, including the direct sequel The Amityville Horror Part II, published in 1982, and 1988’s Amityville: The Evil Escapes, about haunted yard-sale finds from the Amityville house. Prolific paranormal author Hans Holzer wrote his own series of Amityville books, starting with 1979’s Murder in Amityville.
8. The Amityville Horror prompted a flurry of lawsuits.
In September 1979—almost exactly two years after The Amityville Horror was published—The Washington Post quoted a Bantam executive as saying that “half the Western world is getting sued” over the book. (Bantam had published the book’s paperback edition.)
The litigation began even before the book was published, when George and Kathy Lutz sued several individuals and business entities over the publication of Paul Hoffman’s articles, claiming their privacy had been violated. One of the defendants in that suit, William Weber, was an attorney who had represented accused killer Ronald DeFeo Jr., whose killing spree supposedly inspired the Lutzes’ story. Weber said he and the Lutzes came up with the story together, which the Lutzes denied; Weber countersued for fraud and breach of contract, claiming the Lutzes had originally planned to do the book with him. (DeFeo would later ask for a new trial, claiming that Weber was more interested in potential book and movie profits than defending him.)
Those suits were either settled or thrown out of court, but the legal wrangling didn’t end there. George Lutz would go on to sue Miramax and Sony over how he’d been depicted in the films, and over money he felt Miramax owed him. A police officer mentioned in the book sued Anson and Bantam, and the couple who bought the house after the Lutzes abandoned it were so bothered by gawkers and vandals that they eventually sued the Lutzes, Anson, and the book’s original publisher. That case was settled for an undisclosed sum, and the couple owned the house until 1987. The only forces that assailed them while they lived there were hordes of ghosthunters.
9. Anson published one book after The Amityville Horror—a novel about a house possessed by demonic forces that drive its occupants to heinous violence.
In his Writer’s Digest interview, Anson hinted that he was on contract for two more books after The Amityville Horror and in negotiations for a third. Only one of those books ever made it to a printing press: a horror novel called 666 that shared more than a few elements with Anson’s runaway hit. According to the book’s jacket copy, it promised to take readers into “an ordinary-looking house” that had been the site of “dreadful, bloody, orgiastic crime,” presumably because of the “demonic presence” that lurks there. The similarities to The Amityville Horror did not go unnoticed by reviewers; Kirkus went as far as to call 666 “a sequel that’s just plain silly.” The book was published in April 1981—about a year after Anson died on March 12, 1980, at the age of 58. He was turning the novel into a screenplay just before his death.