One of the finest ghost stories ever written was Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It was made into a 1963 movie The Haunting regarded as one of the best supernatural movies in cinema history. The movie was modestly received when it first came out and scared many viewers. Using cleverly designed sets and distorted angles, the film stands out as a first rate psychological horror movie that is unmatched. A remake in 1999 starring Liam Neeson, Lilli Taylor and Catherine Zeta Jones did not capture the original film’s essence and failed at the box office. Although the 1973 movie The Legend of Hell House incorporates themes of the Hill book, it was based on Richard Matheson’s book and he wrote the screenplay.
There is no gore in the book or original movie but instead relies on the terror the people experience as the entity makes itself known. This theme inspired Stephen King for his book The Shining and later for a made-for-television story Rose Red. As the story unfolds (in the book and movie) it comes clear that Eleanor becomes the target of the entity and one point even possessed by it. The unsettling end where Eleanor dies leaves one to speculate whether it was caused by the entity or her own emotionally disturbed state. There is no doubt the house is haunted by a malevolent entity but now it has claimed a new victim whether by its hand or not. And these haunting words, a voice over by Julie Harris who played Eleanor at the end, sums it all up:
Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And we who walk here… walk alone.
Important note to parents: Neither the book or movie is for young kids and has themes that might trouble parents.
It is that time of year when supernatural tales abound. Most are fiction but sometimes stories come along that purport to be true. A very long time ago while in a bookstore I came across a book called The Amityville Horror by Jan Anson. Being into things supernatural back then, I bought and read it eagerly of the tale of people living in a house being tormented by demons. It scared me and the original movie had its scary moments as well. At the time the book came out, there were some who said the story was not true but they were barely heard at the time. The book claimed many things occurred and even witnesses to them. Yet when patient investigators began following up on the sensational claims, things just did not add up. And later it would be learned that a defense attorney worked to create the story so that his client, who killed his family in that home, be judged insane.
The story begins on 13 Nov 1974 when Ronald DeFeo, Jr. killed his parents, brothers, and sisters by shooting them in the beds they slept in. It was a horrific crime and DeFeo was arrested, tried, and convicted of the murders. The defense claimed insanity stating he had heard voices telling him to kill his family. A prosecution witness countered that he suffered an antisocial personality disorder making him sane at the time the murders were committed. The jury found him guilty of six counts of second degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison in 1975. That normally would end the story, except for the usual appeals by defense counsel.
In 1977 the book The Amityville Horror was released (to become a 1979 movie of the same name). It told the tale of the Lutz family that lived in the DeFeo house for 28 days between December 1975 and January 1976. The family consisted of George and Kathy Lutz with their three children. The book related tales of poltergeist and demonic activity that would drive the Lutz family out of the house. Doors opened and closed on their own, mysterious voices and hooded figures, green slime appearing on walls, mysterious stenches and insect infestation, supernatural attacks on George and Kathy Lutz, and even demonic possession, and a priest driven from the house. And there were even demon footprints in the snow.
The problem was that many things they either saw, heard, felt or smelled had no independent witnesses. And the physical damage (doors, hinges, windows etc)claimed were not found when the building was inspected. Many other details when more closely looked into proved to be dubious, questionable or false. Joe Nickell notes that at no time while the Lutze’s lived in the house they never called the police (both the book and original film said this happened but official records have no record of any calls from the Lutze’s). The so-called snow demon footprints could not have happened as there was no snowfall during the time in question.
So then the next question is why they would make up such a story. To make money from a sensational story? That is certainly plausible but there appears another motive as well. William Weber, who was the defense lawyer for Ronald DeFeo Jr., said in People magazine (17 September 1979) that “We created this horror story over many bottles of wine.” It would be a win-win for both. The Lutze’s would have a sensational story they could market (which they did) and Weber would be able to use it on DeFeo’s appeal and get a new trial.
What they did not count on, it seems, were people who began to look seriously at the claims and start exposing the fabrication. The Lutze’s never fully retracted their claims though had to pull back on some of them. Lawsuits began to fly as well between the Lutze’s, Weber and other parties in 1977 claiming invasion of privacy, defamation, and sought damages of $4.5 million. Weber countersued claiming breach of contract. The underlying issue was whether the book was true or not. The Lutze’s argued that it was. U.S. Federal District Jack B. Weinstein heard the case. He dismissed the corporate defendants for lack of proof. In September 1977 he would dismiss their claims entirely concluding that “Based on what I have heard, it appears to me that to a large extent the book is a work of fiction, relying in a large part upon the suggestions of Mr. Weber.” He also questioned the ethics of defense attorney Weber and recommended an investigation by the New York State Bar Association.
A 2005 remake of the 1979 movie brought a lawsuit from George Lutz against the film company, producers and directors in 2005 alleging defamation and breach of contract. However the judge dismissed his claim saying that the film was a work of fiction protected by the First Amendment and that Lutz had signed a release agreement many years ago giving them the right to use the story and agreeing not to sue for defamation. His other claims of being denied profits from the original movie went forward but was apparently settled before he died in May 2006.
The Story Today
While the Lutze’s story has been largely debunked, some in the paranormal community (psychics, clairvoyants, and others)continue to say the house has an evil presence. This despite the fact no one else who has lived in the house since then has reported anything unusual. In fact, to protect the homeowners its address was changed and was extensively remodeled so it looks nothing like it did in 1975 when the Lutze’s moved in.
Father Ralph Pecararo was the Catholic priest involved in the story. He initially stated that his only involvement as what was going on was a telephone call. Nor was his relationship close to them either. He would curiously alter his testimony when he testified (by phone) and said he did go to the house and heard the word’s “Get Out!” but ascribed no meaning to them (meaning no supernatural element). He would later give an account in 1979 to the television show In Search Of which seemed to back up the original book account of what happened. However the discrepancy between his original statement and later statements cannot be resolved. The contradiction has caused many to believe he became part of the hoax. The official position of the local diocese however is(as detailed in 2002 letter to Ric Osuna):
The Diocese maintains that the story was a false report. In November of 1977, Diocesan attorneys prepared a substantial list, to be submitted to the publisher [of The Amityville Horror], of numerous inaccuracies, factually incorrect references and untrue statements regarding events, persons and occurrences that never happened.
Since Father Pecararo has passed away, we will likely never know why his testimony changed. His superiors in the church, who asked him to detail what happened, have not altered their position since 1977 on the matter. And they were in the best position to ask the obvious questions that arose later when he changed his statements that more closely followed the book sequence of events.
Finally Ronald DeFeo Jr. did try various appeals; none of them worked and at last check was still serving out six life sentences.
The real evil was not supernatural but Ronald DeFeo Jr who killed his family while they slept in their beds.
Kaplan, Stephen and Roxanne Kaplan. The Amityville Horror Conspiracy. Laceyville, PA: Toad Hall Inc., 1995. ISBN 0-963-74980-3.
Nickell, Joe. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995. ISBN 0-879-75961-5.
Moran, Rick and Peter Jordan. “The Amityville Horror Hoax.” (Fate magazine,May 1978)
Moran, Rick. “Amityville Revisited.”(Fortean Times, January 2005)
Nickell, Joe. “Amityville: The Horror of It All.”(Skeptical Inquirer,January 2003.)
Ronald DeFeo,Jr. (Biography)
The Amityville Horror (Snopes.com)
The Amityville Horror: A Scam Debunked(Decodedpast.com)
The Amityville Murders (Ric Osuna’s site)
The Amityville Horror (Wikipedia)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not the first vampire story but certainly the most memorable. It starts out as Jonathan Harker records his trip to visit Count Dracula about property he has purchased in London. We are given fascinating details of the journey but foreboding as well. Although welcomed warmly by Dracula, he begins to suspect things are not right. And that leads him to discover Dracula is not at all what he seems but a monster that will spread evil into the heart of Europe.
Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will! He made no motion of stepping to meet me, but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him to stone. The instant, however, that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed as cold as ice–more like the hand of the dead than a living man.
Readers then and now are surprised at how Stoker did not hold back in what Dracula does. Perhaps the most horrific–and rarely seen in film or miniseries adaptations–is when the three vampire women at his castle are given a baby by Dracula as a meal. It shows what truly a monster he is and those that serve him as well. Stoker builds on that horror as Dracula arrives in England to begin spreading his evil. The strange illness ofbrings us the character of Van Helsing who suspects a vampire is at work. And Jonathan’s return helps the group that forms that they are dealing with an evil creature that must be destroyed.
But they also fail to see he is already working against them by feeding on Mina, Jonathan’s wife. They get the upper hand though by tracking down all his hiding places to sanctify making them unusable to him. He taunts them at one point and then flees across the ocean back home. The chase to get there before he does is perhaps the most thrilling part of the book. In a dramatic ending, they catch him as the sun is starting to set and he is about to have full command of his powers. The end is quick with a dagger in the throat and the heart. And then he is no more. Unlike some depictions, he goes to dust with just a momentary sight that his soul was at peace now. The evil is vanquished never to rise again.
Dracula spawned other books and movies both inspired or based in some way on the book. The famous 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi cemented a certain image of Dracula that stood out for a long time. Yet except perhaps for the Coppola movie, few show what Harker saw:
Within stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.
Most depictions have no moustache and Dracula neither appears old or young (somewhere in between). They also rarely show the trip to the castle (quite long as Dracula was looking for blue flames to find hidden treasure and his command of wolves). Dracula in the book can get about by day. The myth that sprung up was that vampires had to walk at night. Not so in the book at all. Dracula could get around in daylight but it constricted his abilities. At night be could use his full range of abilities but daylight limited him to whatever form he had at that time (he also had to be careful about running water).
Dracula was not conflicted nor concerned about what he became, like vampires in some modern novels are sometimes depicted as. Dracula was a creature of evil that served evil. He had no qualms about killing anyone who got in his way but despite all that, as Van Helsing observed, he was not without weakness. He could live centuries but he could be killed by staking through the heart or kept at bay with a crucifix. And when confronted with a determined group out to destroy him, he fled back home to live to fight another day.
Dracula stands out as masterful horror fiction because it reveals a story slowly, deliberately, and then like a hammer hitting anvil hits you with full fury. Reading it today is still gripping despite all the movies inspired from it. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot follows a similar pattern of building the story up slowly until it reveals what the horror is. And it appears Stoker did his research well for he based it on a real historical figure (Vlad the Impaler) who for a time brought fear to Turks who tried to dominate central Europe. He was so ruthless that he made sure that lands were burned, wells were poisoned, and many of their soldiers were found impaled on stakes as they approached his lands.
It is debatable how much Stoker really knew about Vlad the Impaler but learned enough from the information he had to craft his vampire story. And a great one it is that stands the test of time while other vampire stories remain forgotten on library shelves.
We begin our Halloween season with a classic. Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven really caught the attention of the public back when it was published in 1845. The narrative poem is known for its musicality, use of stylized language, and its supernatural aspects. A talking raven, a distraught lover, and fallen into madness are the themes of the poem. After its initial publication, it would be reprinted elsewhere bringing him popularity (though he made little money off the poem itself it seems). It remains one of the most famous poems ever written. And made Poe famous.
Sit back and put on some spooky music (a suggested musical accompaniment is below from You Tube) while you read this poem.
The Raven (Edgar Allen Poe, 1845)
Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word,
Lenore?, This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word,
“Lenore!” Merely this, and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping, something louder than before,
“Surely,” said I, “surely, that is something at my window lattice.
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore.
Let my heart be still a moment, and this mystery explore.
” ‘Tis the wind, and nothing more.”
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven, of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.
Perched upon a bust of Pallas, just above my chamber door,
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly, grim, and ancient raven, wandering from the nightly shore.
Tell me what the lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore.”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning, little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door,
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
But the raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered; not a feather then he fluttered;
Till I scarcely more than muttered, “Other friends have flown before;
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master, whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster, till his songs one burden bore,—
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore —
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
Thus I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl, whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o’er
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee — by these angels he hath
Sent thee respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, O quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore!”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!–prophet still, if bird or devil!
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted–
On this home by horror haunted–tell me truly, I implore:
Is there–is there balm in Gilead?–tell me–tell me I implore!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting–
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming.
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!