Friday, April 5, 2013

Why so Famous: An Examination of The Workings of The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror differed greatly from my expectations. I've seen the movies and the remake countless times because I enjoy haunted house stories, but I can't say any of them were spectacular. The book, which I expected to elaborately illuminate the infamy of the cursed house, seemed simplistic. The writing itself was neither interesting in a literary sense nor elaborate in a true, biographical account. Because of the shortcomings of the book, I had to wonder why it became so popular. I'm still not positive, but I think it might be due to the sensationalization of the story to the masses. The book is very easy to read and aims to scare readers through a nonfiction stance. Since I expected more substance, I was let down.

Memories are easily corrupted, so it’s no surprise eyewitness accounts are considered weak evidence, and likewise, even if this book were nonfiction and believable, the accounts would have been inflated to make the story more interesting. But too many random events happened to make the story believable, and the narrator comes off over-embellishing those events with details no one could remember in order to build tension. However, instead of instilling fear, he comes off almost as if he’s pointing to the events and screaming, “These are real! Really! Believe me!”

The narrator’s determination to force readers into buying the supposedly true story then pushes the reader to question even more. For instance, the parents become volatile towards their children. The narrator tries to brush this off onto the house’s psychological corruption; however, when examining these events in the light of reality, flags are raised by this couple’s actions. As I read this book, I couldn’t help but hope the cops would take the children away because the parents seemed like meth addicts (can’t get warm, violent, squandering money) who were abusing their children and blaming the house for their own actions. When the mother forgot to buy her children Christmas presents, I kept thinking the real reason was because she’d blown her savings on drugs.

Though the book is portrayed as a nonfiction examination of the events in the house, a number of reports have come out clarifying the fiction of this story, but the book doesn’t work as fiction, either. As nonfiction, the events are too unrealistic and raise warning flags of domestic problems. As a work of fiction, the book doesn’t work well either because it’s blending too much and character’s don’t behave rationally in terms of a horror tale. For instance, the priest never does much of anything except complain about a rash and get sick--he never develops. The cops sit back and do not help or hinder the situation. And the family, especially the parents, seem to confront one random disturbance after another without really learning, adapting, confronting, or overcoming the problem. Instead, at the end, they simply run away, which is what they could have done from the start. Another book I’ll blog on soon works better in both senses because the characters do eventually find a way to overcome the problem of their haunted house, but more importantly, as an honest account, the events aren’t so sporadic--from marching bands to hostile statues to hooded demons--as they are in The Amityville Horror.

So, I was left wondering why this book became so popular when other haunted house stories do not. Partially, I think people want to believe the uncanny and macabre is real. Most people like to have something to be scared of, and some can only be scared when the line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred. This explains why Blair Witch Project became so popular, too. This book also simplifies a variety of folk lore. It’s overambitious and becomes silly to me as a horror reader and writer, but for general audiences, maybe that combination works here because it enables them to believe the folklore has some truth.

In the end, this book might just be dated. It took a different approach than previous haunted house books by masking itself as nonfiction. It lost its credibility, though, at least to a more contemporary reader. The writing style wasn’t official enough to be considered biographical, but the story also failed as a work of fiction. Reading the source of all the hype was interesting, yet it just didn’t live up to the momentum it’s gained over the years.


  1. Looks like we had similar problems with the book. I felt like it tried to tip-toe the line between non-fiction and creative fiction and fell short on both ends. I think if someone took this, and ran full steam ahead with a creative flair, it could be so much more.

  2. “So, I was left wondering why this book became so popular when other haunted house stories do not. “

    The only explanation I can come up with is “Crap happens” plus the snowball effect, rather like the current hype surrounding “50 Shades of Gray.” I suspect, somewhere down the road, people are going to look back and see the sales numbers for 50 Shades and wonder “Why?”—even more so than we do now. Knowing that the acceptance of Amityville as truth wasn’t as widespread as hindsight would have us believe, I shudder to think of what future readers will say about the readers of the 2010’s.

  3. "However, instead of instilling fear, he comes off almost as if he’s pointing to the events and screaming, 'These are real! Really! Believe me!' "

    Yes. O.o Especially with all those exclamation points Anson was wielding. Talk about a case of protesting too much.

    Lol. Meth addicts. Hmmm... Not enough scabs from picking at their face and arms, I'd say. Usually I'm told those are dead giveaways for cops. But if you were to throw some of those in for flavor--we already have the dad and his grungy/hygiene issue--I'd say they'd be downright passable.

    I'm going to echo Patricia's sentiments above. Too many terrible stories gain popularity for no explicable reason, other than some underlying aspect of the story resonated with the audience at the time. 50 Shades is just one example out a list of countless others that we all collectively groan over.