Dangerous Characters

Sady recommends horror.

A Substack newsletter by Sady Doyle

Sady recommends horror.

The Homeowner: The Amityville Horror (dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1979)

Why is this all going wrong?

I hate few people in horror more than I hate Ed and Lorraine Warren.

This is a mean sentiment, though only Lorraine is still alive to be hurt by it, and she is, by now, much too rich to care. The Warrens have entered the canon as sweet little old people, very Christian, oddly endearing, who just happen to exorcise haunted houses with their psychic powers. As portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring series, they are also hot. This takes the edge off their evangelizing. 

But the Warrens were grifters, with a particularly shameless grift; on the worst day of your life, they arrived on your doorstep with a Bible in hand and money signs in their eyes. The typical Warren ghost story goes as follows: Your family’s house is haunted, and it is your fault. The ghosts are not ghosts, they are actually demons; demons must be invited, which means you did something wrong, allowed yourself some ungodliness that is now destroying your family. You haven’t gone to church every Sunday. You’ve tried meditation or yoga. You’ve bought crystals from a New Age store, read the astrology column, got a Tarot reading. You have gotten, or are considering, a divorce. You are, through choice or circumstance, a single mother. Your children have been having premarital sex. Your children have been using drugs and playing rock’n’roll music. Your children saw you arguing with your spouse. You saw your children playing with a Ouija board, and you didn’t immediately wash their hands and eyes with a bottle of holy water. You are a failure as a parent. You have failed. 

You failed because you aren’t happy. You failed because you aren’t godly. You failed because you aren’t normal. You’re supposed to be those things; you’re supposed to be a happy, normal, Christian nuclear family, god damn it, you’re supposed to have some family values around here. But you don’t have them, because you’re a bad person, and that’s why your house is haunted and your marriage is falling apart and your children are in danger. The Devil has come to claim his own. Fortunately for you, the Warrens are here to save you, which they will do by getting you back into that church every Sunday. They will make you act like a happy, normal, traditional family if it kills you, because the alternative will kill you worse. Now,  they’ll need to collect some of your dangerous possessed belongings to display in their museum, it’s $12.50 a tour, and by the way please sign away your life rights in case they decide this story would be good for a book or a movie later. Rest in Jesus, friends! 

What hucksters. What awful con artists, showing up for terrified families to provide the “service” of shaming them. But when people talk about horror as an inherently conservative genre, this is what they’re talking about. The Warrens created a new and elaborate cosmology, in which the paranormal hinged exclusively on whether white middle-class people upheld Republican family values or let the Devil in by flirting with “alternative lifestyles.” But, because they were skilled at manipulating the media, their scare tactics are embedded in most of the haunted house stories told in the last four decades.

The Warrens were grifters, and The Amityville Horror was their first big scam. 

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The Amityville Horror is the “true”(ish) story of a family trying to leap into the middle class, misjudging the distance, and knocking their teeth out in the resulting fall. George and Kathy Lutz buy a big farmhouse — riverside exposure! A boating dock! A gardening shed that could serve as a guest house! — that is much cheaper than it should be, primarily because the previous owner murdered his whole family in there. (I was surprised, upon re-watching, to discover that George and Kathy actually know about the murders, and decide to buy the house anyway; in contemporary ghost stories, no-one ever realizes they’re buying the murder house, maybe because filmmakers assume contemporary homebuyers have all seen The Amityville Horror.

“This is a big deal for my family,” Kathy says. “We’ve always been renters.” Her yearning for home-ownership, the suburbs, the whole Norman Rockwell package, is palpable. But cheap things are usually cheap for a reason. It only takes George and Kathy a few days of living in the house to discover why no-one else would buy it. 

The toilet starts bubbling with black goo. A babysitter gets stuck in a closet for hours after a door slams shut and won’t re-open. One of the kids nearly loses his fingers after a window, which is supposed to be open and locked, falls shut on his hand. Stephen King has written at length about the “economic horror” of Amityville, and I won’t burden you with repetition. (Famously, the house literally eats money, causing a $1,500 payment for a relative’s wedding to vanish into thin air.) Suffice it to say, a lot of the scares could be caused by demons, but they could also, much more plausibly, be caused by George and Kathy discovering that they bought a shitty, run-down house. 

But this is a Warren story, so there’s another, uglier moral lurking under the surface: The house isn’t built right because the family isn’t built right. They aren’t happy because they aren’t normal. 

One of the most important moments in Amityville occurs early on, and someone watching the movie for the first time in 2018 would likely miss it. The real estate agent asks if they’re planning to have kids, and Kathy says they already have some — hers. George is a stepfather, not a father. In the middle of the ‘70s, with divorce rates spiking, this would have marked the family as visibly askew, a modern creation rather than a “real,” traditional, nuclear unit. We see that George and Kathy have sex, and that they actually enjoy it (“you make me feel like a kid in the backseat of a car,” George says) in the way new couples do. This might look like fun, but in a conservative Christian context, it’s just something else that is wrong with them: Their connection is forged by lust, by selfish personal desire, rather than duty.

There are other, more overtly Christian “faults” at play — in Jay Anson’s original book, we learn that neither Lutz had been going to church, and that Kathy had been practicing the forbidden arts of Transcendental Meditation — but the Lutzes’ unnatural marriage drives most of the action. Over the course of the movie, we see George become steadily more conscious that Kathy’s children are not his. He goes from piously telling Kathy how much he hopes the children will “accept him” to snarling at her that “those kids of yours need some goddamn discipline,” and this is before he starts beating her up.

Yes, of course: He beats her up. George, in the paranormal version of this story, is the house’s victim. He becomes steadily meaner and more disheveled over the course of the story, snapping at people, issuing threats, refusing to put a comb through his 46 pounds of luxuriant ‘70s hair and beard. James Brolin gives the best performance he can while also being basically just a pair of eyes poking out from between two large piles of fur, but the hair does most of the acting here. To wit:

Happy hair.

Ghost hair.

Supposedly, the ghost hair and asshole behavior are a sign that George is being “possessed” by the same demons that made the previous occupant kill his family. Supposedly, we should feel bad for him. But when George shouts at Kathy to control her children, then backhands her for arguing with him, or when he comes after her with an axe and then assures her he didn’t know what he was doing, a much more obvious, less exculpatory version of this story snaps into place. 

Maybe Kathy just bought a shitty house. Maybe Kathy just married a shitty person. Maybe the ghosts and the demons are all just ways to put a name to the deeper unease here, which is caused by the growing realization that George is horrible, and Kathy’s children aren’t safe with him, and another marriage is falling apart, and the dream of homeownership — a big, happy home, a nice neighborhood, good money, a family like the ones on TV — was just never going to happen. Not here, not this time, not with him. They really aren’t wealthy enough. They really aren’t happy enough. They really aren’t normal. 

Unless — and this is worse — this is normal. Maybe this horror with George is what “normal” feels like; maybe that’s why so many women refuse traditional family life, or leave it. Maybe Kathy already has her dream, and there’s no better place to get to, because this is all “normal” is. 

“You’re the one who wanted a house,” George shouts at Kathy. “This is it, so just shut up.” 

Maybe he’s right. 

You can’t tell a story this way. People would riot. If every haunted house story ended with a woman realizing the nuclear family is a racket, and there is no happiness in service to patriarchy — which, to be fair, is what many of them suggest — then there would be no closure, no neat catharsis of all the uncomfortable truths it dredged up. The story would start to make demands on us. It would tug at our minds until we did something about it, and our lives, our values, our society would change. 

This is not a desirable outcome for most people. We have a lot invested, as a society, in things being normal. It is important for us to believe that there is some better place to get to, and that the rules exist because following them will make you happy. So here come the Warrens, to save us all — to save George and Kathy and their children from the house, and to save the rest of us from having to think about what happens next, or what their story might mean. 

They save us by giving us a new story, in which this is all Kathy’s fault — for not keeping her first husband, for marrying her second one, for liking sex, for skipping church, for meditating. They tell us that nothing George did was his responsibility; it was the demons, slipping in, infecting him, making him act as if he were an abuser, when in fact he was a perfectly good husband all along. 

The Warrens don’t show up on screen, in The Amityville Horror (an error that The Conjuring series seems intended to avenge). Their role in the story is largely filled by a “psychic” friend who has a suspiciously large amount of information about demons. But they’re in every frame, quietly, poisonously soothing us with the promise that none of this is real and everything will be fine if the family just agrees to be normal. If they, and we, agree that normal is a good thing to be. 

What grifters. What con artists. What frauds. 

The real Lutzes were grifters too, of course. Years afterward, a lawyer admitted the haunting was made up. It really was a shitty house, and they couldn’t afford to leave it, and they made more money selling the ghost story than the house itself. The question of how much of it was fabricated, and by whom, and exactly how demonic George’s behavior really was, is unsettled. For the most part, we’re still asked to believe that the house was the problem, and the Lutzes cured everything wrong with them by leaving. “They live in another state,” the closing title card of The Amityville Horror tells us. One can only hope that is true. 

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The Amityville Horror is streaming on Hulu.

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Sady recommends horror.