On November 13, 1974, the house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York became a place that locals feared when 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo murdered his entire family under very mysterious circumstances. In September 1977, it became a place the entire world feared when Jay Anson’s book “The Amityville Horror” was published (later adapted into the popular series of films), bringing the house international notoriety and instant entry into the occult history books. Not so much because of the DeFeo murders, but because it told the tale of what happened to the next family who lived there, one year after the massacre. The Lutz family.
In 1975, they were dwellers for all of 28 days before fleeing in mortal terror, the victims of widespread supernatural happenings that pushed them to the brink of madness and had them fearing for their lives. A media circus began that never fully ended. Straight up to their recent deaths, George and Kathy Lutz have never gone back on a single claim. Daniel Lutz was ten years old at the time that his family literally went to hell. Never before in the 35 years since living through the ordeals has he gone on record about his experiences. This is his story, in his words. ‘My Amityville Horror’ reveals the horror behind growing up as part of a world famous haunting and while Daniel’s facts may be other’s fiction, the psychological scars he carries are indisputable.
Eric Walter is a writer, director and documentarian specializing in the exploration of the unexplained. As a Maryland native, Eric began writing and producing original short subject films at a very early age, refining his artistic skills in nearly every medium he could lay his hands on. He passion for the story of Amityville led to the creation of www.amityvillefiles.com, the definitive online source for the subject. In 2008, Eric moved to Los Angeles to pursue his career in the film industry. His continued research into infamous unsolved mysteries fed his desire to pursue documentary filmmaking. As fate would have it, the paths of both Daniel Lutz and Eric Walter would cross and result in an amazing look at a never before seen side of “Amityville”. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with the film’s director, Eric Walter, to discuss the path that lead him to this amazing story, the challenges involved and how it changed him as an artist.
It’s great to speak with you, Eric. We come from the same neck of the woods, Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Yeah! I grew up making little horror films on the East Coast, so I am very familiar with the territory! [laughs]
I want to start by giving everyone a little background on you and how your past resulted in the creation of “My Amityville Horror.” What attracted you to the world of filmmaking?
Primarily, it was my interest in the unexplained. Those elements mixed together in the sense that every time I thought about one of these cases or became really interested in something, I would always pursue it in a creative venture. That is kinda how I always approached it. Not only Amityville but paranormal, supernatural, true crime, missing persons and unsolved mysteries in general were avenues which always intrigued me. With Amityville, I felt this film was something that had never really been done correctly. The films that had been made, especially the last remake, which was made in 2005, were really abominations of any kind of credibility or element of truth the story had. I think the reality of it is so much more powerful and scary than anything you can make up! When I was encountered by this gentleman, Daniel Lutz in 2009, his story had such a compelling narrative and such a strong distain for just about everything that swirled around the story. That was the real narrative I wanted to show people. I think it has worked out really well.
Absolutely! I believe you created a powerful and moving film. It centers on Daniel Lutz. How did you first encounter him and learn he was ready to come forward?
I have had an interest in the Amityville story since I was very, very young. I developed a website called www.amityvillefiles.com. It is a virtual treasure trove of everything about the case. It is an unbiased, objective presentation of all the known archival information on the case. It has newspaper articles, trial transcripts from the DeFeo trial, information on the haunting allegations and subsequent families who have lived in the house afterward. You name it and it’s up there! I was in the business, essentially, of trying to present an unbiased perspective because there are so many people who claim this story was an outright hoax, a fraud and that it had no truth to it. There were also people who said this all was true and everyone who was saying it was a lie was wrong! I think the truth actually lies between those two points somewhere. For me, I wanted to have a place where people could go, discover this material and decide for themselves what really happened.
In 2009, I received phone call out of the clear blue sky from a guy who was friends with Daniel Lutz. He had seen the website, along with Danny, and was impressed by the presentation of it and wanted to chat with me about Daniel possibly coming out to tell his story. At the time, he wanted to do a book on his story. I flew to New York in August 2009 with a digital recorder and a handful of investigation photographs from 1976 that I used to lay in front of him to help trigger the memories. When I arrived there, I was totally struck by his anger for the situation and his distain for his stepfather [George Lutz]. He felt his stepfather had triggered the haunting of the family by his alleged involvement in cult activity. Also, his stepfather continued to perpetuate the story over the years. This story has had legs since the day it was initiated, it’s never stopped. Here it is 36 years later and we are still looking at two feature films coming out next year from major studios. Our film is, of course, independent but I think it is attracted people to such a degree because of the power of Danny’s narrative, the unanswered questions that surround it and for the first time we are shedding a personal light on the psychological impact this has had on the family and Daniel Lutz. I think that is the real Amityville Horror.
Daniel Lutz came up with the title for the film, is that correct?
Correct. That was actually the very first day I met him. He told me he was interested in doing a book and he said to me, “I would like to call this My Amityville Horror.” I have never wavered on that decision. Subsequently, I feel it really speaks to the final product for sure!
Daniel Lutz wanted to get his story out there but how wary was he of you going into this project?
Ya know, we have had an interesting relationship. I wouldn’t say it has been a totally open thing. I think over time we have established a trust factor. He definitely trusted that not only was I very, very interested and knowledgeable about the story from a factual viewpoint but also, as a filmmaker, I cinematically wanted to present the story. I didn’t want this to be a typical run-and-gun documentary like you might see on the History Channel, which are done in typical documentary style fashion with a typical headshot type of scenario. I obviously wanted to include the interviews but I wanted people to experience what I experienced. That experience was Danny looking me in the eye and telling me a story. Honestly, the most frightening thing of all was that experience and being there for five days in 2009. That is when I was there for the first time and recording interviews with him. A lot of those original interviews you hear over the tape recorder, those grainy interviews, were actually our first conversations in 2009. Coming away from that, I wanted other people to experience it. I felt like it was really going to be a compelling film from the first person perspective because certainly you can’t present any hard proof that this actually happened other than Danny’s sheer and complete belief that it did happen and his continuos fear of it. As he admits later in the film, he still fears the things he cannot control, the unexplained and the demonic, as he calls it. His sheer belief is what I was interested in. I would say the film transcends the Amityville topic. As it goes on, it expands from being about the house and his experience to being about him and people who witnessed the paranormal and how they cope with that.
You are certainly the authority on all things Amityville. Aside from Daniel’s story, did you uncover anything else you might not have previously uncovered while preparing this film?
Yes, actually. In the film, Peter Jordan, who was a parapsychologist, talks about a lot of things. He talked about a lot of things I didn’t get to use in the film because I was trying to keep the film totally focused on Daniel, however I did include a copy of things which I had never heard before. Peter Jordan talked about the Cromartie family. A lot of different families moved into the house after the Lutz family fled. The Cromartie family moved into the house in 1977. He talked about how they brought a psychic into the house, which was very fascinating because the Cromartie’s actually sued the Lutz family for invasion of privacy and a bunch of other things. There have been so many lawsuits surrounding this case for so many years! They brought in the psychic primarily because they wanted to find out what of a paranormal nature was going on in the house and whether there was any validity to it. I found that very interesting. Peter Jordan, who appears in the discussion segment of the film, talked about the psychic talking about how black magic, the black arts triggered what had happened. This of course is what Danny talks about. I found that very interesting. I don’t say I hold it to be something that is hugely credible but it was interesting to hear a whole gamut of new perceptions of things I had always heard in soundbites on different shows over the years. When you get to hear it from the horse’s mouth and hear all of the unfiltered discussion, it starts to effect the things you have been putting together for a year. That is what I tried to do, put together pictures and focus on the new things. Actually, the majority of the things Danny talks about in the film, the haunting allegations and his experiences, were totally new. People who know and are familiar with the story will recognize that right off the bat — the thing about being thrown up the stairs by an unseen force and things like that, none of that was in the book or any of the movies, they were just incredible revelations to hear!
What has your relationship with Daniel Lutz been post-documentary? Are you still in touch with him?
I am definitely still in touch with him. We are still on friendly terms. Obviously, he is trying to move past this himself. He is not doing any press for the movie, unfortunately. I understand his not wanting to do that. I don’t know if it speaks to his credibility but he has been very controlling in the sense that he doesn’t want to talk about the case a thousand times and answer the thousands of questions about the haunting. When I started this project, one of the very first things he told me was, “I am going to do this once. I am going to tell this story one time and I don’t want to have to do this.” It was kind of understood from the beginning. We have tried to get him to engage on various things, like coming to screenings and things around the movie but he is a pretty uncomfortable personality as you have seen in the film. That is not an act. The guy is truly like that. He can be in a good way and then suddenly it is like flipping a light switch and he’ll be in a whole new realm suddenly. It is a very strange thing and I tried to show that in the film, how he goes from a slightly lighter and jovial opening where he talks and it is humorous at times and it transitions to sheer anger. Again, his narrative is so compelling that I really feel the film has such power.
You brought Amityville from a personal interest to a website and, ultimately, to an amazing documentary. How has this journey impacted you as an artist and filmmaker?
Tremendously! I could write my own book with the same title, “My Amityville Horror,” about my story! [laughs] It has been amazing! I have learned so much on this project, so much so I am now feverishly wanting to do another documentary. I feel like I have gone through such a process that I could cut a year off of the production now by doing things a bit differently. True filmmaking is the experience of just doing it. I think my training has been the process of studying not only these cases but the cinematic value of different filmmakers that I enjoy. Obviously, there are elements of Errol Morris’ style in my film. I really love Herzog and Morris and when it comes to documentary filmmaking. I was also schooled on the works of Hitchcock and classics like that for creating anxiety and tension with the audience. I think if you are going to do a haunting story, what I really can’t stand about the current state of the horror genre as it stands is everything is quick cuts and very fast paced. They don’t allow that creeping threat to come up behind the audience and scare them. What really scares you is what you don’t see. For me, Danny was the embodiment of that for this film and I think that is why it worked very well. Again, for me, that is what the real Amityville Horror is and I am very, very pleased to have accomplished that and to have been able to open that door for Danny. Hopefully, he can find some peace after having gotten his story out publicly.
I am excited for the release of the film and for people to check out your work. It is a really impressive piece. What is up next for you?
I can’t go into total specifics at this time but I am working on a feature documentary currently. I am working on two different concepts and the first one is being developed now. I am also interested in doing a narrative film at some point but with documentary filmmaking, I feel totally overtaken by the craft! I think reality is so much more interesting than fiction. For me, that is where it really stands, picking my life-long interest in cases like Amityville but others and pursuing them in that craft!
Thanks for taking time out to talk with us, Eric! We will be spreading the word and look forward to speaking with you again soon!
Thank you so much! It was great speaking with you!