13 Terrifying Facts About ‘The Amityville Horror’

The haunting might not have been real, but the success of this 1979 horror classic sure was.
James Brolin and Margot Kidder in ‘The Amityville Horror’ (1979).
James Brolin and Margot Kidder in ‘The Amityville Horror’ (1979). / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

In 1975, George and Kathy Lutz bought what should have been their dream home, a sprawling Dutch Colonial in Amityville, Long Island. They got a great deal on the house because of its tragic past, but figured they’d make the best of the huge home, which had a boat house and lots of room for their family. What happened instead, according to the Lutzes, was a nightmare.

In 1977, writer Jay Anson released The Amityville Horror, a supposedly true account of the monthlong supernatural events the Lutzes experienced after moving into the home at 112 Ocean Avenue. The book was successful, and just two years later, a feature film arrived starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder. Like its source material, the film was a smash hit, and stands today as a haunted house classic beloved by horror fans.

In honor of its 45th anniversary, here are over a dozen chilling facts about 1979’s The Amityville Horror, from the roots of its story to the clashes in style between its stars.

Yes, The Amityville Horror is based on a true story (kind of).

The realities of The Amityville Horror are still a matter of some debate (more on that later), but at least two aspects of the story are inarguably true. The murders that open the film are a depiction of the real murders that took place at 112 Ocean Avenue house in 1974. In November of that year, Ronald DeFeo Jr. went into the house and shot and killed his parents and his four siblings with a rifle. The murders rocked the Long Island town, and DeFeo was eventually convicted and sent to prison. 

The following year, George and Kathy Lutz purchased the Ocean Avenue home for $80,000 (about $453,000 today), which was a tremendous bargain given the sprawling property. They moved in with their three children but fled within 28 days, claiming supernatural forces had driven them from the house.

The haunting, however, might be made-up.

So, did the Lutz family actually suffer the kind of potent and terrifying haunting depicted in the 1979 film adaptation of their story? Though skeptics have spent decades debunking the story of The Amityville Horror, George and Kathy Lutz always maintained that, apart from some Hollywood embellishments, their story was true. Not only that, but famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren believed it too. In a 2005 interview, Lorraine Warren referred to the house, which she examined in 1976 with her husband, as “the personification of evil.”

In 1979, though, the Lutzes’ tale was dealt a serious blow when attorney William Weber, who’d previously worked with them on potentially selling their story, told People magazine that he knew that what the family had told author Jay Anson was “a hoax.” 

“We created this story over several bottles of wine,” Weber said. 

James Brolin agreed to star in The Amityville Horror because of a pair of pants.

Robert Young, James Brolin in 'Marcus Welby, M.D.'
Brolin, seen here on the left, was mostly known for his television work at the time, including a starring role on the ABC medical drama, "Marcus Welby, M.D." / ABC Television/GettyImages

Naturally, in the wake of the success of The Exorcist, producers were eager for stories like The Amityville Horror, so it wasn’t long before filmmakers set out to adapt Anson’s book into a feature film. 

Rising star James Brolin was approached to play George Lutz. He was given the book to read in lieu of a completed script, which would eventually be handled by writer Sandor Stern. Brolin set out to do his homework, and was quickly convinced the film would work by a piece of his own clothing. As he explained to The A.V. Club in 2015:

“So I was reading this novel at night and it’s two in the morning. Well, I would hang my pants on the door of the bedroom, I’d throw them over the top corner of the main door coming into the bedroom, and all of a sudden the pants fell off the door onto the floor. How I didn’t hit my head on the ceiling, I have no idea, because I was at a scary part of this book, and it so surprised me that I started laughing after I recovered and said, 'I’ve got to do this movie!’ And that’s how that happened. But it ended up being seen as a horror classic of sorts, and it had the largest independent grosses of all time up to that point.”

The Amityville Horror didn’t film at the real house. 

Amityville Horror House
Amityville Horror House / Paul Hawthorne/GettyImages

The Dutch Colonial home at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville became an iconic house among both horror fans and true crime enthusiasts, thanks in part to its distinctive windows, which gave the appearance of sinister eyes. Those “eyes” were used on the poster for the film, in publicity photos, and in numerous shots in the movie, but while the windows are convincing, the production didn’t film at the real Amityville house. They didn’t even film in New York. 

Amityville residents, who’d already dealt with both the real DeFeo murders and the media frenzy created by the Lutz family’s book, were hesitant to have a feature film shot at their most famous local home. With that in mind, producers began a location scout across much of the East Coast, looking for a stand-in home that would work. They eventually found one in Toms River, New Jersey, and leased the home for five figures from the owners.

Anson himself called the home a near-perfect match to the original after the production did about $30,000 worth of renovations, including the addition of a boat house and, of course, those famous windows. That was just the outside, though. After filming exteriors in Tom’s River, the production moved back to Los Angeles to shoot the interiors on soundstages. 

Margot Kidder couldn’t stop laughing while making The Amityville Horror.

Margot Kidder; Watch Out For Margot.
Kidder was fresh off the success of 1978's "Superman: The Movie" when she agreed to star in this flick. / Fox Photos/GettyImages

While Brolin took on The Amityville Horror because he’d seen spooky potential in Anson’s book, Margot Kidder agreed to play Kathy Lutz simply because it felt like the next step in her growing career. Hot on the heels of 1978’s Superman: The Movie, in which she played Lois Lane, Kidder’s reps were eager to have her strike another big deal for what could be a major hit.

“At the time, my agent proposed sort of a ‘one for me, one for them’ policy. That was one for them,” Kidder explained to The A.V. Club in 2009.

Still, that doesn’t mean Kidder disliked working on the film. She recalled “laughing my whole way through it,” to the point that director Stuart Rosenberg began trying to think of ways to actively scare her in scenes. In a making-of documentary about the film, Kidder recalled Rosenberg buying a “day-glo” stuffed pig to stand in for Jodie, the demonic pig in the film, and making it pop up to scare Kidder while filming. Of course, this just made Kidder laugh more.

Kidder and Brolin didn’t believe The Amityville Horror was a true story.

Brolin and Kidder were given a front-row seat to the supposed “true story” of the Lutz family while making The Amityville Horror, including visiting the actual 112 Ocean Avenue house and meeting the real Lutz family. So, did they believe the Lutzses’ account? Not exactly. 

Reflecting on the film in a making-of interview, Brolin would later call George Lutz a “good salesman,” and recall that the Lutz children responded to questions about the haunting as though they were reciting a script, not recalling real events. As for Kidder, she admitted she took “a kind of willingness to believe” from her encounters with the family, and applied that to her performance, but that didn’t mean she believed herself. She would later call the whole story “nonsense.”

Kidder and Brolin didn’t always get along.

While many paranormal events dominate the narrative, The Amityville Horror’s emotional arc is the story of a family coming apart amid the stresses of owning a new home that, it turns out, wants to harm them. That means that, for much of the film, Brolin and Kidder have to play a couple fraying at the edges and often actively in conflict. As it turns out, they didn’t always have to act. 

“I was very full of myself and thought I was from the hip, young Hollywood, and Jim Brolin to me was from the old, stodgy Hollywood,” Kidder later recalled.

Kidder went on to explain that tension between the two stars emerged from her more improvisational acting style, which involved “finding accidents” in a scene, which “annoyed” Brolin because of his more practiced, rehearsed approach. For his part, Brolin only laughed and said “Yeah, there were tribulations.”

Producers told The Amityville Horror stars to pretend the set was cursed.

The filmmakers behind The Amityville Horror hoped to drum up as much horror-driven press for their movie as possible, and used the purported true story of the Lutz haunting to their advantage. One of their methods, it turned out, involved trying to convince Kidder and Brolin to play along with the idea that strange things were happening on the set. Odd occurrences had happened during the making of earlier Satanic-themed horror hits like The Exorcist and The Omen, and Amityville producers felt a similar kind of buzz around this picture could be good for business.

“I watched with great amusement as the studio’s publicity machine went into action concocting these terrible things that were happening on set, which weren’t really,” Kidder recalled.

The studio’s efforts paid off, to the point that press conferences to promote the film included questions to the cast and crew about the truth behind the story. According to Kidder, at one such press conference, she didn’t have an answer for whether or not the filmmakers believed the story, so she turned to “the writers” next to her, and they had a very simple response: “They went ‘We’ll never tell,’ ” she recalled with a smile.

Brolin learned how to throw an ax for The Amityville Horror.

George Lutz’s response to the haunting of his home in The Amityville Horror includes heavy use of an ax, as the Lutz patriarch frequently goes outside to chop firewood that he then loads into the living room fireplace compulsively.

In one scene, overcome with rage, George has to throw the ax end over end into a tree on his property. Fortunately, a Tom’s River local was around to teach him. According to a 1978 article in the Asbury Park Press, a young man named Thomas Hirshblond, who’d had forestry training and even provided much of the prop firewood for the film, taught Brolin how to safely throw an ax, using a target in the Hirshblond family’s backyard. Brolin even went inside and had coffee with the family during his visit.

The flies swarming Rod Steiger were real.

One of the most effective scenes in The Amityville Horror comes when Father Delaney, played by veteran character actor Rod Steiger, is swarmed with flies from the Lutz family’s windows. The flies, ever-present in one particular room of the house, are an indication that something’s wrong with the Ocean Avenue house from the beginning, and watching them stick to Steiger like glue is one of the more visceral scares in the film. 

Part of the reason the scene works so well is that the flies clinging to Steiger were real, and the production team really did concoct a way for them to organically swarm the actor. According to Steiger, they “squirted me all over my face with sugar and beer,” then unleashed hundreds of flies. The trick worked, and the effect was quite convincing.

Stephen King gave The Amityville Horror a bad review—then recanted it.

The Amityville Horror premiered in late July 1979 and eventually rose to become one of the top 10 movies of that year, grossing a little more than $86 million in its original theatrical run. Despite its financial success, though, critics were often unkind to the film. One such critic was none other than Stephen King, who dismissed the film in a 1979 Rolling Stone article on the genre films of the 1970s. 

Just two years later, in his seminal nonfiction work on horror stories, Danse Macabre, King would recant his negative review … mostly. In his book, he goes into a lengthy analysis of the film and breaks down how well Amityville worked as a kind of economic nightmare that echoed the various financial crises in America in the 1970s. He also noted that he still believed the film to be “stupid” and “simplistic,” but went on to explain why those words were a feature of the story, not a bug. King described the film as a “perfect example of the Tale to be Told around the Campfire,” and compared its effectiveness to classic urban legends, like “The Hook.”

The Amityville Horror inspired a very strange franchise.

The financial success of The Amityville Horror meant that sequels were inevitable, and they followed in short order. Amityville II: The Possession, a heavily fictionalized prequel focused on the DeFeo family murders, arrived in 1982. Amityville 3-D, which took a meta-fictional approach and followed skeptics as they encountered hauntings at the house, followed in 1983. A made-for-TV fourth film, Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes (written and directed by Sandor Stern, who wrote the original film), hit in 1989, and followed a cursed lamp from the house as it wreaked havoc on a new family.  

If you thought a killer lamp was as weird as this franchise would get, you are mistaken. More sequels followed, like 1992’s Amityville: It's About Time, which follows a family’s encounter with a cursed clock that can seemingly open portals in time, while 1993’s Amityville: A New Generation follows a group of artists battling a haunted mirror. Then there’s Amityville Dollhouse from 1996, which is about … well, you can probably guess.

The proper franchise tried to get back on track with a 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds, and a reboot-ish film titled Amityville: The Awakening in 2017, but because Amityville is the name of a town and is therefore not trademarked, a host of other weird, loosely related installments keep stealing the show. These include Amityville Vampire, Amityville Gas Chamber, Amityville Karen, Amityville In the Hood, Amityville Christmas Vacation, Amityville Elevator, and of course, Amityville Death Toilet. (Yes, these are all real movies.)

The original Amityville Horror house still exists, with no further hauntings reported.

Amityville Horror House
The "eyes" aren't so creepy anymore, though. / Paul Hawthorne/GettyImages

Though its physical address—and those creepy windows—have since been changed, the original Dutch Colonial home that inspired The Amityville Horror still exists. It’s been bought and sold four times since the Lutzes abandoned it, and most recently sold for $605,000 in 2017, according to The New York Post. None of the subsequent owners have reported any supernatural activity (though true crime and paranormal tourists have certainly visited), and based on photos, it's a lovely home. 

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