This past week I was invited to an early screening of the new documentary My Amityville Horror in Denver Colorado before the Denver Film Society’s film festival that kicks off this month.
We all know the story. Whether we’ve seen the movies, read the books, or have heard the story through word of mouth at some point during the past forty years, the house at Amityville and the events that occurred inside are a source for many to speculate about. The reality of extreme hauntings taken to international attention and ultimately fictionalized for the horror audiences at home make for hot debate.
When any story is presented time and again, then fictionalized, then retold, then re-presented, it becomes a cultural story. An urban legend. A thing of exaggeration and conflicting reports.
After the story became a hot local news item, George Lutz and his wife Kathy went national with their story to clear the water and tell their side of what happened in the 28 days they stayed in that home. Though Christopher has come forward to speak out about his experiences, My Amityville Horror looks in finally to Daniel Lutz, who tells his version of events for the first time in some forty years.
The movie focuses primarily on his version of the events, the narrative pieced together through a series of interviews with him now as a grown man. Leaning heavily on the questions and perspectives of Laura DiDio (and later on the perspectives of reports and psychologists to wrap out the film), the film is about Danny. There’s no shocking evidence presented. There is no “actual footage” or “recordings” or new evidence presented. What’s already been presented remains. The popular re-imagining remains. The debate laps between them.
The Lutz family story, in the way it became a pop-culture commodity, is laced with the question of truth. Daniel’s story is much the same. The filmmakers here know this. They know that they’re bringing a new perspective to a story already overburdened with perspective. What makes this one fascinating is that it’s from an eyewitness. And yet, the question of truth still remains.
Less about the specific differences in the movie versus the recalled reality of Danny Lutz, the movie calls together the power of the mind, of emotional turmoil, of trauma, of broken families and a child’s imagination, and studies these relationships. But it doesn’t outright break them down, letting the truest work be done by the engagement of the audience, subtly nodding to possibility (cock-a-doodle-doo, if you’ve seen it), but without a feeling of the overt.
And it’s scary. Indeed, the very question of memory and our human experience is a frightening one. Eyewitness testimony is the weakest kind of evidence. Ever have discussions of childhood memories with your parents that differ wildly on the details?
When the movie was over, I turned to my buddy Connor and I said, That film was so many different kinds of crazy.
And I mean that. But not crazy in the derogatory way. Crazy in the way of the unreal. And the layers of crazy in this movie is in the dialogue between what was real and what wasn’t. If you outright don’t believe in ghosts at all, the film is a dialogue about the power of the brain, about childhood trauma, and belief. If you believe that there in Amityville, some supernatural activity happened, but perhaps not to such an extreme, that line between the extreme and the subtle becomes the subject of debate, and what it is that pushes the family member’s belief one way or the other.
The most haunting question by the end of the movie though isn’t whether it was all true, but more so whether it wasn’t. It’s clear that this man is deeply scarred from his experience. It’s clear even from watching Christopher’s interview with Jeff Belanger that he’s lead a life dealing with it too. Whatever happened in that house ran deep. That is fact.
But to affirm “truth” any further opens up a realm of debate, and a fascinating one, on the nature of experience, the nature of trauma, and the nature of the spirit world itself. And for a film to delicately handle all of these elements, while tackling the big questions, is a resounding success in my book.
My Amityville Haunting is still making the film festival rounds and has yet to specify any wide release.
Karl Pfeiffer is the author of the novel Hallowtide. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team, lectures across the country, and leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found on his website karlpfeiffer.com