My Amityville Horror filmmakers on getting personal with America's most famous haunting
Daniel Lutz lived the real Amityville Horror.
The Amityville Horror is the best-known haunting in American history, spawning multiple films, countless books and speculation to this day about what really happened more than thirty years ago. At this point, it seems like there couldn't be any angle on the story that hasn't been beaten to death -- until you hear the story in the words of Daniel Lutz, the oldest son of the family that lived in the house. For the first time, he's offering his version of events in My Amityville Horror. Whether you're a true believer or a hardcore skeptic convinced it was all a hoax, your opinion is likely to change after getting Lutz's side of the story.
Before the film shows this weekend at the Sie FilmCenter (it's also available on demand), we caught up with director Eric Walter and producer Andrea Adams to find out how they got Lutz to go on the record at last, how his story changed their perception of the infamous case, and why the fascination with Amityville persists to this day.
Westword:How did you become involved in this project?
Eric Walter: In 2007 I developed a website called AmityvilleFiles.com, which basically was a treasure trove of all the information, documentation, newspaper archives on the case, the Amityville case. It was a place where people could come to form their own opinions on what they feel happened in that house, kind of an unbiased presentation of the bare facts. Through this site I was contacted by a friend of Daniel Lutz, who said that Danny wanted to go public with his story. I was initially very skeptical. I didn't know why he wanted to go public. Was this some sort of attention-seeking publicity stunt, or something like that? Because the Lutzes have always been labeled as hoaxers, and the whole thing as a sham. I've always felt that something happened to this family. I don't think that everything that's been said about it is true, but I don't think that a family leaves everything they own inside a house and runs clear across the country if they weren't afraid of something. So I always felt there was an element of truth to the story.
I flew to New York in August of 2009 to meet Danny, and was struck obviously, overwhelmingly so, by his anger and disdain for the story and the way it's been portrayed in the media, as well as for his stepfather George Lutz, whom he felt was the perpetrator and instigator of everything that's been wrong with the story. He felt that George triggered the haunting on the family by dabbling in the occult in the house. These elements I'd heard, the stories I'd heard previously from his brother Christopher, whom I tried to also get involved in the project. Initially Danny wanted to do a book on it, come out and do it in a book fashion, speak about it that way. Upon meeting him, seeing what a provocative character he was and just how much he was wound up in the story itself, I felt that the topic and his personality was right for a feature, first-person documentary film. That's how it got started.
It wouldn't have come across the same way in a book, for sure. Daniel is a very distinctive on-screen personality -- very intense.
Walter: Right, and it wasn't an easy process to get this film, as much as we've gotten in the can, I think both Andrea and I feel the same about it, it's been quite a process to get him, to get it all in the can, so to speak.
Andrea, were you also involved in this website?
Andrea Adams: No, I came on much later. Eric had done some initial cinematography and everything, and there came a time, we have another producer, John Blythe, and I think he wasn't able to be involved in the same way that would be the best for the film, due to other time constraints he had. So Eric had been looking for another person to work with and incidentally he [knew] a college friend of mine. So this friend did a meeting between myself, Eric and John where they talked about the project and I agreed to come onboard.
Does the website you started still exist?
Walter: Oh, absolutely. It's still running. Even after going through all this, I don't think my interest in the case has really peaked. Obviously, I'm moving on as a filmmaker to do other things, but I have a lasting interest and a curiosity with this story. Really, our film looks very personally at a very small fragment of the story. This is the first of any of the Lutz children to come forward and tell his entire account -- beginning, middle and end -- about his time in the house and afterward. That was the main motivation for this project, but there's so many different personalities involved in this case, it's utterly fascinating.
I think it's the perfect storm of parapsychologists and paranormal witnesses and also people that tried to debunk the case, to say it was all a sham, it was all a hoax, that it was all about money. When really, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle of those two things. I don't believe everything that's ever been said about it, but I don't think the whole hoax theory makes sense in terms of Lutz making it up for money. They certainly screwed up the execution if that was the motivation, because they didn't end up recouping that much money from it. Also, the DeFeo case in 1974, there was an entire family murdered in that house. The oldest son, who was 23 at the time, killed his parents, two brothers and two sisters in the house in about a twenty-minute time span, with a hunting rifle with no silencer. The family members were not drugged -- there's kind of a lingering mystery on top of the Lutz family haunting.
Then there's the stigma that surrounds the property now, that the village kind of has to deal with until the house is either torn down or the property's razed, or something like that. There's caravans of people that go to see the house. When we were there shooting, with Danny, people would drive by and honk the horn and tell us to get out of there, even though we had shooting permits to be there. The village is extremely angry about the story and wants it to go away, but everyone who lives in that house is asking for it, in a sense. That's just part of the stigma of the property.
When you launched the website originally, what was it that drew you to the story?
Walter: I'd never been a fan of any of the films. I thought they were always very schlocky and never really presented [the story] with any respect, or were even that good. The book is what really initially drew me in. I was extraordinarily interested in the front cover, saying The Amityville Horror "A True Story" and the book, even though it was a narrative, it was presented as nonfiction. There was creative license taken in the book, but there was this essence, this very strange atmosphere, eerie atmosphere, painted in the book that I really hadn't seen before in any sort of haunting case. I'd always been drawn to the unexplained, and unsolved mysteries and unsolved murders, that type of thing. From a very early age, I'd say about ten, I was doing my own mini investigations of things -- going and looking at records -- and so the Amityville Files site really built out of my obsession with the story and me hunting down people who had been involved in it through the years. I did this with online buddies of mine basically. So for Danny to come and contact me was extremely interesting. It wasn't the other way around.
Andrea, is this case something you also had a longstanding interest in? Or just the paranormal in general?
Adams: It's funny, because I don't think I really recognized my interest in the paranormal before becoming involved in the project. I wouldn't say I was specifically interested in Amityville, but now, remembering growing up, I grew up watching The X-Files and I did a lot of interesting things because of my upbringing -- I've been to psychic fairs and stuff like that. In a way, it was me coming home to something that's always been part of my life -- the unexplained, the paranormal -- but it wasn't something I sought out so specifically as Eric did.
Walter: I think it's a good thing, in a lot of ways, actually. A lot of our crew have brought a lot of perspectives which really helped me through the post-production process. Me, being so close to the story, it was very key to have people who didn't care about it as much as I did, or see it the same way I did, to show it to, to fill in those gaps.
How long did you spend with Danny to make the movie?
Walter: Me personally? The movie started being made in August 2009, when I first met him. A lot of those audio recordings I did appear in the film as those audio tapes. Those were our initial conversations. I would say it's been a developing process of about four and half years, personally. We shot for several weeks, almost two weeks, in February 2011 and in June of 2010 we shot for a week. I was conducting interviews with him before that. It was a process of befriending somebody and easing them into being open to doing this. It was not easy... somebody who's been hiding their story, essentially suppressing it, for 35 years, it was a great deal of legwork involved for me, personally. And for the film crew.
You mentioned it was a difficult process, and at times on film it looks like he's on the verge of being combative. Is that accurate? Did he get genuinely upset and angry at times?
Adams: I'll put it this way: since Eric had already shot in 2010, when I went to the location in 2011 and met Danny for the first time, the first thing he said to me was -- and this isn't a direct quote, but something similar -- was "Who the fuck are you and why are you here?" He wanted to know what my purpose was and how I fit in with everything. I think, especially when talking about this particular time of his life, he has a tendency to be a lot more aggressive than he might be in his normal day-to-day life, but at his core, from my perspective, he seems to be an inherently angry person, for whatever reason. Eric knows him better than I do, but I think as a more outside observer, he's definitely much more aggressive surrounding this topic than he might be in general.
Walter: I think that's absolutely right. Danny, when the subject of Amityville comes up, he clams up. Then, as you push him to start talking about it, he becomes very conscious about who's in the room, what's going on. He asked me to have certain people removed from the room, even though he didn't know them -- I think that was the problem. We were constantly closing off the set for more intimate interviews. It was an extremely sensitive topic for him, and when you brought up questions, like "Would you be willing to take a polygraph test," people see [that scene] very differently. It's kind of interesting, because he actually says yes, but I think his anger in that last moment was because he thought I was assaulting his credibility. I wasn't assaulting his credibility, I was asking him about a question, and I prefaced it with this, because in 1979 his parents had taken a polygraph test and passed with flying colors, so I was asking "Would you be willing to take a polygraph?" His emotional reaction to that is sitting right in the film.
His entire story, the controversy itself, is based on "Is it a hoax or is it real?" And that's what I wanted to leave the film on, because our film is a child's, an adolescent's, perspective on the fuzzy line between reality and dreams and what's real and not real. Honestly, I think Danny had trouble differentiating some of those things, despite his ability to so accurately describe where he was, at what time, in what state, in other things, he's not able to do that. What gaps is he filling in from his memory? That's why we tried to do. The film is less interested in proving certain facts about the story [than] talking about how someone has been living in the shadow of something for so long they can't differentiate that from reality. That's a tragic and sad picture.
Did the time you spent with Danny change your view of him, or the story itself?
Walter: Yeah, it did. My opinion hasn't changed -- in a sense it's been more reinforced -- that I think something happened there. I don't think someone ends up like that by it all being some sort of made-up hoax, and 35 years later comes out to talk about it. He could have done this years and years ago, if he wanted to. He didn't and none of them have. What's changed [for me] is the perception of the family dynamics, what was going on in that house. In so many ways, Danny's story -- his haunting claims -- are mixed with his memory of his stepfather. He's almost haunted by his stepfather in a figurative, metaphorical way. That's even more frightening, because George was the main voice of the story for so long, for over thirty years. He was the main participant talking about it on the lecture circuit, on radio shows, on documentaries, television, you name it, he was there.
Now we're seeing the flip side of the boys -- I know Christopher is not involved in this film, but he's said many similar things. The boys, apparently -- and I don't want to speak for them, but I think it's apparent in the film -- hated him. So you have a situation where they loved their natural father, who was removed from the picture and replaced by this ex-marine, militant figure, who by all accounts -- at least according to them -- was physically abusive and mentally abusive as well. It's been a great concern of ours, as filmmakers, how to approach that delicately, to not make allegations when he's not here to defend himself. Both he and [his wife] Kathy have passed on.
One last question, what does Danny think of the film? Is he happy with how it came out?
Walter: I think he's gone back and forth about what he thinks about the film, to be quite honest. I don't want to speak for him, but he did actually call me the other day to congratulate me on the film and thank me. I think it speaks for itself. He's generally happy to have gotten this off his chest and moved on, and I think it's helping him reconnect with his children. That's a wonderful thing for us to hear, as producers.
Adams: I agree with Eric. I think maybe he had a different opinion about it, then the reviews started coming out and that changed some of his perspective. The fact that he thanked Eric for his involvement really says a lot.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.