The horror began on a cold November morning in 1974 when demonic voices supposedly commanded 22-year-old Ronald DeFeo to pick up his high-powered rifle and slaughter his parents and four brothers and sisters as they slept.
Mr. DeFeo claimed at his trial that it was demonic voices, not drugs or hatred for his father, that drove him to murder his family. He was sentenced to six consecutive 25-years-to-life prison terms.
The following summer, George and Kathy Lutz moved into the handsome Dutch Colonial home at 112 Ocean Ave., in an upscale residential section of Amityville, N.Y. The Lutzes had known about the murders but decided the neighborhood would be the perfect place to raise their three children.
A month later they were gone, chased away by a series of paranormal events that turned their Long Island dream home into the most famous haunted residence in the world.
A book by Jay Anson two years later detailed the Lutz family's brief but horrifying ordeal. Ghostly voices, oozing slime, blood-splattered walls, levitating pigs, glowing red eyes, infestations of flies and a pit into hell in the basement were just some of the spectral happenings revealed in The Amityville Horror, which became the basis for a hit movie staring James Brolin and Margot Kidder.
At one point unseen voices urged the Lutzes to get out of the house. The same diabolical presence woke them up every night at 3:15 a.m., the time that the murders took place.
Before fleeing, the Lutzes brought in psychic investigators and religious leaders to purge the house of its evil specters.
Television crews and newspaper reporters from around the world descended on the premises to observe and probe. Two of New England's most respected clairvoyants - Ed and Lorraine Warren of the New England Society for Psychic Research - found "strong evidence" that the property was either haunted or possessed by malevolent spirits.
According to one report, the house was atop the site of an ancient Indian ceremonial center where blood-lettings to appease evil spirits were commonplace. Another study showed that a sorceror named John Ketcham had settled on the spot after fleeing Massachussetts in the late 1600s on charges of practicing witchcraft.
While news of the Amityville house continued to make headlines around the world, a few skeptics stepped forward to say the paranormal events were actually a hoax perpetrated by the Lutz family and their lawyer, William Weber, who also had represented Ronald DeFeo.
"Their primary objective was to make money on a book and movie deal," said Steven Kaplan, president of the Parapsychology Society of Long Island. Dr. Kaplan and others argued that George and Kathy Lutz dreamed up the story because they "felt creepy" at the Amityville house. Dr. Kaplan maintained he had photographs and tapes to show it was a hoax but never produced the material even when offered $5,000 by the Warrens.
Charges by Dr. Kaplan and other skeptics have been disputed by several investigators who support the Lutz family's story. The Warrens, for example, found that Mr. Lutz's description of the paranormal activity in the home was very accurate for a case of demonic possession - even though the Lutzes had never studied demonology and would not have known how to fabricate the story they told.
The story came close to unraveling when Mr. Weber, the attorney who had represented Mr. DeFeo, sued the Lutzes for stealing his ideas for the Amityville Horror.
That case was settled out of court, along with others brought by subsequent occupants of the house who complained about all the negative publicity and nonstop tourists.
The house still stands, but its address has been changed. New siding and windows to replace the sinister-looking panes at the top of the house - where the glowing red eyes were often seen - have helped the current owners disguise the exterior.
Visitors still find the handsome old Dutch Colonial anyway, drawn by an insatiable curiosity to see the most famous haunted house in the world.
Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd's latest book is 100 of the World's Greatest Mysteries: Strange Secrets of the Past Revealed. He can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.