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The enduring mystery of the Amityville murders

I was at a rural farmer’s market on a sunny day when something caught my eye. Amid stalls of questionable antiques was a treasure trove of old horror books that were in sad shape. Amid these gems was Murder in Amityville, written by Hans Holzer and published in 1979. Its two-dollar price tag made it too good to pass up, sad shape or no.

The DeFeo murders have always haunted me, even without the added notoriety of what happened to the Lutz family when they moved into the house a year later.

On November 13, 1974, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo Jr. stumbled into a bar in Amityville, New York, begging for help.

“I think my mother and father are shot,” he cried.

As it turned out, it wasn’t just his mother and father. DeFeo was the only survivor of a massacre that also took the lives of his four siblings, who ranged in age from nine to 18.

Ronald DeFeo Jr. was eventually convicted of the murders. He gave several different reasons for slaughtering his family, but the most chilling was that he heard voices in the house telling him to do it.

When several psychics, including the late Lorraine Warren–subject of the Conjuring movies–were invited to the house to conduct an investigation, they claimed an Indian chief was buried where the house now stood, and that he sought his revenge by getting any men living in the home to do terrible things.

Murdering six people would certainly qualify.

Here are the facts: DeFeo Jr. used a 35 Marlin shotgun to kill his family while they slept. He fired nine shots. His lawyer, William Weber, said the gun could be heard four to five blocks away when they tested it during the trial, and yet, all neighbours heard was the family’s dog barking.

Even more troubling, the DeFeos were all discovered in the same position–lying facedown in bed, apparently deep in sleep. The family’s bedrooms were on two different floors of the house. If the shotgun was loud enough to be heard four or five blocks away, how come none of the family woke up? The autopsy showed the bodies had not been moved after death, and there were no drugs or alcohol found in their bloodstream.

So if DeFeo did do it, how did he manage to kill six people with an extremely loud weapon without a single one hearing the blast and attempting to escape, or at least leaving their bed to find out what was happening?

I say if because the murders have always been cloaked in controversy. Some believe DeFeo had an accomplice, and many believe that accomplice was his eighteen-year-old sister Dawn. In one of DeFeo’s many versions of that night, a figure in a hooded jacket and dark gloves handed him the shotgun, and in his addled state (DeFeo both admits and denies he’d used drugs that night) he used the weapon to follow her bidding and kill his family. Sometimes the figure is a demon; sometimes it’s Dawn. Two aspects of Dawn’s death differ from the rest of her family’s–her killing was the most brutal, her head almost obliterated by the shotgun blast. There are also reports that her nightgown had unburnt gun powder on it, strengthening the theory that she also fired the gun. But if that was a valid suspicion, why not test her hands for gun powder residue?

Dawn DeFeo

Dawn DeFeo

Why would DeFeo show such brutality towards the sister he was closest to? The way she died fits the narrative that it was Dawn who killed the rest of the family. As the story goes, DeFeo was so horrified when he saw what she had done, he shot her in the head. (The rest of the family was shot in the back.)

During his interview with Holzer, DeFeo said he heard strange noises and “different things at night” starting on his very first night in the house at 112 Ocean Avenue. (The street name has since been changed to deter tourists.) “You felt as though somebody may have been walking around, pipes banging, all these strange noises,” DeFeo adds. “In fact, everybody thought there was somebody in there a week after we moved in.”

Sometimes the family could hear people screaming, DeFeo told Holzer, even though no rational source of the sound was ever discovered. A painting was moved from one floor to another, but everyone in the family denied they had done it. He said his parents believed that the devil was in the house, and that was the reason for the extreme amount of religious idolatry on the grounds. DeFeo in particular felt tormented by whatever was happening in the house, and ran away several times, warning his father that he feared he would kill everyone in the house if he wasn’t allowed to leave.

Clearly DeFeo was a troubled young man. He got in frequent fights with his father, who some claim could be physically and mentally abusive. He’d had problems with drugs and was often in trouble. Neighbours described him as a “punk.” But let’s say he was at least partially influenced by something in the house. I asked Laurie B., a noted local medium, if she believed such a thing were possible.

“Can evil spirits influence someone? The truth is yes, but only if the person chooses to be affected. You can have two people living in the same place and only one’s attitude changes. The reason is that within the individual (who changes) there was a lot of discontent.  And I’ve never heard of anyone killing because of a spirit; it’s mental health issues, a horrible childhood, jealousy or other personal reasons,” she said. “Now about Ronald DeFeo, back when I  heard about him, my first thought was that he suffered from schizophrenia or other mental illness.”

She goes on to explain why forces in the house could impact DeFeo and the Lutz family, while several people who lived in the home afterwards said they experienced nothing out of the ordinary.

“I found that the increase in spirit activity is equal to your emotional state. In places where no one pays attention, there’s no activity or it remains low, if anything at all. When people begin to notice, the sightings increase. If individuals provoke, or they’re uncomfortable with the situation or afraid, that acts like an adrenaline high for the spirit and their focus is all on you. Once the spirit has a taste of its impact on the living, he/she then continues to grow and get stronger. Even if the next person had never been there before, the spirit is more than capable of causing havoc.”

Since Laurie has never visited the house on Ocean Avenue, she can’t comment on whether or not the house is truly haunted, but she could say what she would expect to find in a house where six people were murdered.

“Most commonly found in locations where there were a number of murder victims, sounds of footsteps or voices, even sounds of furniture being moved around, were often heard. Others might see orbs, shadows, apparitions and observe objects move. Some people feel the spirit stroke their hair, touch them or in extreme cases become more aggressive. There are reports that range from pleasant smells like flowers, to the stench of burning flesh,” she said.

“In some locations, there is what we call a residual haunting. It happens when a dramatic event leaves an imprint on the environment, which will then be re-enacted over and over again. It would be like watching a video that was made when the individual was still alive, but now all you see is the imagery of it.”

If DeFeo killed his family, what was his motive? He had problems with his father, but was close to his mother and Dawn. Was it to protect his inheritance? Was it insanity? Or did the house drive him to kill?

And why did none of the family hear the shotgun? Why didn’t anyone try to escape?

Sadly, we’ll probably never know, as the one person who could tell us keeps changing his story. But what do you think happened? Did DeFeo have an accomplice? Did the house make him do it? Was it an untreated mental illness that made him kill?

With files from Hans Holzer’s “Murder in Amityville,” published by Belmont Tower.

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20 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Fact or fiction? We will never know the truth behind this event.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    I think it was a combination. Clearly he was unstable and there are demonic forces at work here on Earth. But forces strong enough to make people sleep through a shotgun? We’ll never know the truth.

    Reply
  3. Avatar

    I’ve actually been to the house – used to live a few towns over. I remember the murders being all over the news and the papers.

    What’s more amazing than none of the family hearing the shotgun blasts, is that none of the neighbors did! Contrary to the movie (and what many people think), the house is only a two-car driveway away from the houses on either side.

    Reply
  4. Avatar

    The most incredible part is the lack of reaction to the gunshots. How could they not hear it in the house? Or the neighbors? Maybe Dawn went on a rampage and Ron took her out. A bazaar incident, indeed. If there weren’t ghosts before the murders, they are likely there now!

    Reply
  5. Avatar

    I don’t really know what to make of this. I would be tempted to write off the idea that the house made him do it, but Lorraine Warren has definitely convinced me there’s something supernatural in that house. What’s to say he wasn’t under some sort of possession and that’s why his memories of the night are such a mess?
    Debbie

    Reply
  6. Avatar

    I can’t help thinking that if you know right from wrong and there is no emotional or mental issues, why no tell the voices in the head (or whatever) no that is not the right thing to do? Assuming there is a choice and the person has to be willing and there is no mental illness. Interesting thoughts.

    Reply
    • JH

      It depends on whether or not you believe in possession. Some believe evil spirits can force us to do terrible things. In the case of Ronald DeFeo, I believe mental illness did play a significant role.

      Reply
  7. Avatar

    Hmmm….it was proven they were all killed by the same gun? I have a feeling they were drugged and all fell asleep and then they were all placed in the same position. Back in the day, the coroner may not have done a complete autopsy. He and Dawn placed everyone in the same position but he killed her because he was distraught so her death was done in passion. I don’t know about the demonic possession or the actual haunting but, in this case, I do believe they were deranged.

    Reply
    • JH

      They weren’t drugged–an autopsy was done, which proved that wasn’t the case.They were all killed by the same gun. I’m not sure why Dawn and Ronald would have moved the bodies, and how they did this without getting blood on them, but it is an interesting theory.

      Reply
  8. Avatar

    The Amityville house has always been a fascination since I first read the book and saw the movie. (And saw Jodie the pig eyes out my window for months.) Something evil hung over that house. We’ll never know exactly how the family died though.

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s always fascinated me too, Diane. Even though a lot of the book was reportedly embellished, it’s still a good read and a classic haunted house story.

      Reply
  9. Avatar

    Well… I guess it is called a mystery for a reason. Maybe Dawn did the killing and then her brother shot her? But, what would have been her motif? And, I agree with the others, how could nobody have heard the gunshots? Did they use a silencer?

    I do think the guy was/is mentally ill, but I so wish he could tell the truth. Or, maybe he has in one of his versions. Yet, nobody believes him. Weird stuff!

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s really hard to say what Dawn’s motive would have been. Maybe the inheritance?

      As far as I know, the killer didn’t use a silencer. It’s too bad Ronald changed his story so many times. Now no one will believe him, even if he is telling the truth.

      Reply
  10. Avatar

    I never knew his sister was considered a suspect. How bizarre!

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s definitely a bizarre case in so many ways.

      Reply
  11. Avatar

    A truly chilling tale that never ceases to puzzle and horrify at the same time.

    Reply
  12. Avatar

    I don’t know what drove him to do it, but I do know that when someone shoots someone else in the face, it tends to be personal and implies they want to destroy that person.

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, Patricia. There was definitely something strange about their relationship.

      Reply
  13. Avatar

    One of those mysteries we will probably never know the answer to. Such a sad tale…

    Reply
    • JH

      It really is. I wish there was a more reliable witness.

      Reply

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