Director Eric Walter talks about the intersection of haunting and memory in MY AMITYVILLE HORROR
When Jay Anson’s book documenting the controversial haunting of Long Island’s 112 Ocean Avenue came out 1977, I was only five years old, but even then I couldn’t escape the book’s cultural impact. It was a bestseller and a source of wild debate everywhere you went, with speculation bolstered further by Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 blockbuster movie adaptation. Once I could read, I pored over it again and again, but even before that I would spend hours scrutinizing the blueprints that depicted each floor of the house. The blueprints were a nice touch; not only did they turn a source of terror into something objective and flat, devoid of the emotion that coloured so much of the tale’s reputation, but these were proof to me that the story was real. I could accept the story because there was a map of it. A means of navigation. Of course, this logic doesn’t hold up, but as a kid it made perfect sense.
A child’s internal logic, and how that interacts with the ever-elusive “objectivity” of real life, are very much at the center of Eric Walter’s new documentary, in which the eldest child Daniel Lutz recounts the tale from his perspective for the first time. Where Daniel’s brother Chris Quaratino (their original last name prior to their mother marrying stepfather George Lutz) has been outspoken about the haunting in the media for several years (and has been at work on his own book about it), Daniel has been surprisingly reticent. Here, he undergoes a therapeutic process that includes visiting the old house at 112 Ocean Avenue, and reconnecting with both famed exorcist Lorraine Warren and the channel 5 reporter who saw his family through the aftermath of the ordeal.
While Daniel’s aggressive responses to probing sometimes seem contrived, the first-person doc allows for a lot of rumination on questions that extend beyond the framework of the Amityville story. Questions of memory (and its reliability) and manifestations of emotional trauma that make the film compelling viewing whether you think the famous case was a haunting or a hoax. Director Eric Walter was kind enough to speak with Spectacular Optical on the eve of his World Premiere at Fantasia.
Did Daniel approach you to make the film or vice-versa?
In January of 2007, I launched AmityvilleFiles.com, the web’s largest archive of Amityville-related research. I wanted to create an unbiased presentation of the known facts and personalities surrounding the case – somewhere people who are interested in these events could go and read through the original newspaper articles, view media and essentially draw their own conclusions on what they believe went down in that house. It was through this website that I was approached by friends of Daniel Lutz, who suggested that I needed to speak with him.
Talks of creating a documentary were not on the table at that time. Daniel was making the choice to come forward with his story and was seeking assistance in putting together what was initially supposed to be a book on the subject. He did indicate to me that he wanted to work with someone who knew the story inside and out, so I felt honored to be chosen to collaborate with him on this. But, as I got to know Lutz more and began conducting audio interviews with him, I felt strongly the revelations I was hearing were ripe for a first-person documentary. I knew instantly that Daniel’s intensity and dramatic new testimony would not only be groundbreaking, but extremely effective as a character study in its own right.
He seems very hostile. Was the filming process uncomfortable?
At times, things would be become very tense between Daniel and I, which is more than evident in many of the interviews I conducted in the film. However, I will say I’m grateful to him for being cooperative with us and allowing us to capture his story.
Both Daniel and his brother Chris hold that George Lutz dabbled in the occult, but I never heard these stories until recently. When did you first become aware of George’s alleged occultism and what credence do you give these stories?
I first heard of these allegations in 2005, following the release of Michael Bay’s remake of The Amityville Horror. Christopher Quaratino had done several brief television interviews and was engaged in a lawsuit with George at that time. Mentions of George being involved in the occult and bringing the troubles on the family was something totally new, as George and Kathy Lutz had publicly maintained that they “didn’t believe” in such practices prior to living in the Amityville house. So your guess is as good as mine! Although very young, Daniel and Christopher were there, not I or anyone else. So I’m hesitant to say whether I believe these allegations or not. There are so many claims being made in a twenty-eight day period, that so much of it appears implausible. But, who knows?
So much of the film is focused on Daniel’s relationship with George creating suspicion about the credibility of the haunting, even Lorraine Warren admits that George could have brought on the hauntings because of his personality. The channel 5 reporter Laura DiDidio also focuses on Daniel ‘demonizing’ George because of the trauma of adjusting to a new stepfather, especially one with a supposed militaristic strictness . So in a sense the haunting is characterized by many people in this film as the outpouring of familial distress. Was it your intention to create this kind of a narrative?
As a documentarian, my job wasn’t to direct the narrative, it was to channel Daniel’s account onto film and to extract these emotions by placing him in different scenarios, interviews and reunions. I feel the real story here is one that has never been told. It’s a story about the dynamics within the Lutz family at the time. The blend of both unexplained phenomena and family discord fills so much of Daniel’s account, one can’t help to question whether there’s a difference between the two in his mind.
In your opinion was Laura DiDidio trying to convince him that he imagined the events at Amityville or was she just playing devil’s advocate?
Laura DiDio was pressing him on his beliefs, not necessarily trying to convince him that he imagined anything. I think it was an excellent demonstration of what is very clear once you get to know Daniel – that he absolutely believes the haunting was real. I’m very grateful to DiDio for providing an objective foundation for this particular interview.
Do you believe that shared delusion is more probable than a supernatural occurrence, not just in this case, but in general?
I am a skeptic at heart and would need to see hard evidence of such an occurrence before I would believe anything outright. While a shared delusion is more probable to me, one can’t immediately discount these allegations so easily. I believe the supernatural to be very natural – we just don’t understand it. Millions of people have paranormal experiences with no way to explain them. It isn’t how we prove these things to be fact as much as how we deal with them, which is where the heart of this film lies.
One of the things I found really interesting about the film is how it also questions memory, the function of memory, the idea that we can be “soaked in suggestion” and form fictional memories. I myself just wrote a book that’s part memoir, and my family members all remember everything differently. But I find that as I get older I just don’t remember things period, whereas the memories from my childhood are extremely vivid, and yet people tell me I’m remembering things wrong. And so I related to these parts of the film a lot. Did you emerge from this project with any ideas about what constitutes a ‘real’ experience? At what age does our memory suddenly become ‘reliable’?
I found this to be a unique opportunity to explore the subject of memory. Not only was Daniel very young at the time of these events, he’s dealt with being labeled ‘the Amityville kid’ for his entire life. Countless books, movies, articles, television shows and documentaries have been produced for nearly forty years on this subject. Surely, this has to have had an effect on how one would remember such events. I think it would be nearly impossible not to be affected by it. For me, the years of media onslaught surrounding this story clearly have taken a toll on Daniel, whether he realizes it or not. So, I had to keep this in mind as I pressed forward and naturally this became a strong point of focus for the film.
Why do you think the Amityville story is the most famous haunting in the world? What is it about this particular story that endures?
Amityville is the perfect storm of the paranormal. It has all the ingredients: murders, possessions, poltergeist activity and the list goes on. I think much of the debate surrounding these events are directly attributable to the personalities that surround it. Even the house itself is a character! This controversy would have never continued if the original participants weren’t still entangled within it. In so many ways, nearly everyone involved has been directly impacted by these events. It’s just amazing to me that one of the most intensely vocal participants, Daniel Lutz, is just now stepping forward from the shadows after nearly forty years of silence. My suspicion is this film will drudge up more debate and probably bring forward further witnesses. It’s the story that will never die.
MY AMITYVILLE HORROR has its World Premiere on Sunday July 22 at 10:10pm, and screens again July 27 at 5:05pm, both in the Salle JA DeSeve, hosted by director Eric Walter and producer Andrea Adams. More information on the film page HERE.