AMITYVILLE, NY — In 1974, it was an expensive and stately Long Island estate, nestled in a vintage-home village, with white shutters on the windows, white lattice on the side and a white sign out front that read: “High Hopes.”
But the house on Ocean Avenue in Amityville was darkened that year by a gruesome mass murder that claimed every family member there — except one.
Ronald J. DeFeo Jr., the 23-year-old killer, was convicted of fatally shooting his parents and four siblings and was given six sentences of 25 years to life.
It inspired a best-selling book and two films titled “The Amityville Horror.”
Now, the infamous home where DeFeo killed his family is on the market for $850,000 — and was named Realtor.com’s “most popular” house last week.
The listing agent insists that the property’s past is not hurting its marketability.
When it comes to buying a house, you’d be surprised by some of the bizarre disclosures that can make or break a deal. Yes, it involves ghosts. Harvey Jacobs, a real estate attorney at Jacobs & Associates, recalls some of his most unusual transactions. (Pamela Kirkland/The Washington Post)
“We have several offers from local Amityville residents who are very much aware of the history and are not at all concerned,” Jerry O’Neill, who owns Coldwell Banker Harbor Light, told The Washington Post.
Built in 1927 at 112 Ocean Ave., the three-story waterfront home boasts five bedrooms, 3½ bathrooms and a basement, according to the listing. Zillow shows that the home was last sold in 2010 for $950,000.
O’Neill said the home has been owned by four different families since the murders — including one who requested that the address be changed.
It now sits at 108 Ocean Ave. The original address no longer exists, O’Neill said.
The DeFeos had lived in the home for about nine years when, one night in November 1974, most of the family was found dead, Newsday reported at the time.
Ronald and Louise DeFeo and four of their five children, ages 9 to 18, were discovered lifeless in their bedrooms, still wearing their pajamas.
Police said they were shot and killed as they slept.
One by one, they were carried in body bags out of the home and across the front lawn as neighbors crowded behind police ropes to see what had happened.
“They could not do enough for their children,” one neighbor told Newsday in 1974 about the parents. “The whole world was oriented around their children.”
The couple’s only surviving son, Ronald DeFeo Jr., first told police that he found his parents’ bodies earlier in the evening when he stopped by the house and that he ran in a panic and drove to a local bar for help, according to Newsday.
Friends reportedly drove back to the house and discovered the other bodies, according to Newsday. Then, the newspaper reported, they phoned police.
At his trial, DeFeo’s attorneys argued that he killed his family members because voices in the home had convinced him to do it, according to news reports.
And so “The Amityville Horror” stories began.
The 1977 book and subsequent hit movie focused on what happened after DeFeo Jr. killed his family: George and Kathy Lutz and their three children bought the home for a bargain after the murders but wound up fleeing in terror.
George Lutz claimed that the family smelled strange odors, heard strange noises and felt a strange chill in the air, according to ABC News.
When they had a priest bless the home, Lutz said, the priest was slapped by a haunted hand and told to “get out,” according to the network.
But “The Amityville Horror” drew many skeptics — and DeFeo’s attorney eventually said the book (written by Jay Anson) and the movie (directed by Stuart Rosenberg) were hardly true crime stories.
Instead, the attorney said, they were based on a fictional account concocted by the lawyer and the Lutzes.
“I know this book’s a hoax,” attorney William Weber told People magazine in 1979, the year the movie came out. “We created this horror story over many bottles of wine. I told George Lutz that Ronnie DeFeo used to call the neighbor’s cat a pig.
“George was a con artist; he improvised on that and in the book he sees a demon pig through a window.”
But Lutz stuck to his haunted house story, declaring, “I’m tired of being called a liar.”
As The Washington Post reported at the time:
The week before Christmas 1975 they moved in: George and Kathy, both 32 and married a year, and her three small children by an earlier marriage.
And then it began.
There are several versions of exactly what did happen, mainly a Good Housekeeping article by writer Paul Hoffman, the book put together from tapes by filmmaker Jay Anson, and the movie, with screenplay by Sandor Stern.
The differences are minor, but nagging. Hoffman has “trickles of red” running from the keyholes. The book has “greenish black slime” that flows up the stairs and oozes out of the walls. The movie has black drippings that flow down. Father “Mancuso,” the priest who tried to bless the house, goes blind in the movie but not in the book. (Lutz says he did lose his sight and was operated on last January for an ocular tumor.)
Much of the violence in the book and the film — notably the heavy doors being ripped off their hinges, the pane-smashing winds — is missing from the article. There was levitation in the book, but not the movie.
“Paul Hoffman was represented to us as a criminologist,” Lutz said. “He was working with William Weber. He wrote for the Daily News and then for Good Housekeeping. Neither article was done with our knowledge or cooperation or confirmation. No one talked to us from either publication.”
The Lutzes sued Weber and others for invasion of privacy; Weber then countersued for fraud and breach of contract, The Post reported.
But a U.S. District Court judge threw out the Lutzes’ case. And Weber’s lawsuit was settled out of court.
Judge Jack B. Weinstein said that based on what he had heard, “it appears to me that to a large extent the book is a work of fiction.”
Others were not sure what to believe.
“Is the story based on fact?” film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1979. “I have no way of knowing. I’ve met George Lutz; I had a couple of beers with him in the Los Angeles Airport, and he seemed to be a likable and a totally believable person. He told me, soberly and earnestly, of the terrible things that happened to him and his family in that haunted house on Ocean Boulevard on Long Island, out there where people move in every expectation of learning Craig Claiborne’s ‘New York Times Cook Book’ by heart.
“Was he telling the truth? Did green slime really squirt from the keyholes? Did a a redeyed pig really glare through the windows? Did a ghostly marching band really parade through the living room? Maybe so; we’ve all made bad real estate investments. But the question isn’t so much whether those terrible things really happened as whether (please forgive me for my lack of reverence) they’ve been made into an entertaining movie.”
Ebert’s harsh conclusion? “They have not.”
Audiences, though, disagreed: “The Amityville Horror” was the second-highest-grossing movie of 1979, behind “Kramer vs. Kramer,” according to IMDB.
The 1979 film, which starred James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger, was remade in 2005 with Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George and Jimmy Bennett.
In 2013, one of the Lutzes’ children, Daniel Lutz, gave his own account in a documentary called “My Amityville Horror,” in which he said the horror was real.
“I’m not a believer in what happened, but I’m not an outright skeptic,” Eric Walter, the documentary’s director, told Newsday. “I believe something happened to these people, but we don’t know what it was.”
Homes with haunted or horrific histories have a certain fascination factor.
As The Post’s Roxanne Roberts wrote last year:
There’s an entire industry dedicated to the afterlife of what are indelicately referred to as “murder houses.” They are found in both the poorest neighborhoods and exclusive enclaves and can be modest ramblers or multimillion-dollar showpieces. Some are resold, some are leveled, and some enter into American folklore.
They combine two of America’s great obsessions: Real estate and true crime.
Housing experts call them “stigmatized properties.” But Washington, D.C., real estate agent Nancy Taylor Bubes said serious buyers usually aren’t concerned if such a property has been improved before going on the market.
“When you deliver a product that doesn’t feel like a murder happened inside, buyers look at it with fresh eyes,” she told The Post. “You’ve washed away the sadness.”
Bubes sold the Georgetown home where a 91-year-old socialite, Viola Drath, was strangled in her upstairs bathroom by her husband, Albrecht Muth. Drath’s daughters upgraded the kitchen, repainted the house and brought in modern furniture before the house was listed. Bubes told clients that a murder had occurred in the house — but that turned out not to be an issue.
The Post reported:
Bubes said she had several offers after the first weekend; the low price launched a bidding war, and the house sold for more than $1.2 million — about what it would have sold for without the stigma.
Many people, of course, are creeped out at the idea of living in a house with a violent past. But some decide that, as long as the property itself poses no actual threat, getting a good deal trumps superstition.
“The buyers who were really interested weren’t fazed,” Bubes said.
Michigan lawyer Steve Lehto visited many similar homes for his book “American Murder Houses: A Coast-to-Coast Tour of the Most Notorious Houses of Homicide.”
“I found, generally speaking, there’s a period immediately following the murder where the house almost becomes a tourist attraction,” he told The Post.
It’s traumatic and frightening — neighbors don’t answer the doorbell; strangers drive down their streets taking pictures. After a few years, especially when there’s no one left in the neighborhood who knew the victims, “it becomes less personal and more historical.”
A database called DiedInHouse.com allows users to search addresses for murders, suicides and meth labs.
For $11.99, a report shows that there have been seven deaths at “The Amityville Horror” house.
A man first died in the home in 1939 after an illness, according to the database.
Thirty-five years later, six members of the DeFeo family were killed in the Long Island home.
But O’Neill, the listing agent, said none of the other homeowners have said they were haunted, telling Zillow’s blog, “Porchlight“: “There’ve been four owners since the murders, and none of them ran out of the house screaming, and there were no strange experiences.”