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In 'Amityville,' A True Real Estate Horror Story

It's growing increasingly frequent for a newspaper's Real Estate section to send shivers down one's spine, but recently I saw a new listing for an old home that has chilled millions of vertebrae for over 30 years. The $1.15 million property in question served as the main character in the debatably nonfiction book (depending on whom you believe) The Amityville Horror.

The original story, published in 1977 by Jay Anson, was based on taped interviews with the house's former owners, George and Kathleen Lutz. The couple and their three children had purchased their dream home in Amityville, Long Island in 1975, only to move out 28 days later. Over the course of those 28 days, they endured countless terrifying paranormal experiences, including demonic pigs and green slime oozing from the walls. Their story became an instant bestseller.

At the time America was enduring its own big national horror story -- rampant inflation, sky rocketing interest rates, oil shortages. And The Amityville Horror wasn't shy about exploiting them. As the story unfolds, George's business founders in the depressed economy. And on top of that, IRS agents launch an investigation into his taxes. American readers could share much of the family's horrors, even if their own homes weren't leaking paranormal slime.

The book also exploits contemporary trends in the pulp horror genre, cribbing a beleaguered priest and excessive vomiting (from The Exorcist,) a hard-drinking father growing uncharacteristically cranky (The Shining) and even its northeast beach town setting (Jaws.)

As far as I'm concerned, with horror stories, the worse the writing and the more cliches used, the better. As soon as a character concludes "everything that's happened around here must have a logical and scientific explanation," you know that sooner or later he'll be screaming "Get out! Get out in the name of God!" The predictable hyperbole and hackneyed plotlines are a guilty pleasure. But more than that, the overblown horrors distract me from my own personal anxieties.

Ever since our national terror levels have reached a point where we actually have to color-code them to keep them straight, I've found myself turning to bestselling, pulp horror more and more, and the more sensational the story the better. It's almost as if the machine gun fire of exclamation points (I counted 11 on one page alone of Amityville) eventually numb me to that which they were meant to warn me.

So sure, I have two giant mortgages on properties that have lost a good percentage of their value in the Great Real Estate collapse. But, after spending a quiet evening in my 208-year-old creaky home re-reading The Amityville Horror, I sleep easier. I'm reminded of the first time I read it, as a 10-year-old, overly sensitive boy whose father was out of work, who had to sit patiently in gas lines, and lived in daily fear of Soviet nuclear annihilation. I survived all that. We all did.  And I'll make it through this too. As bad as it seems sometimes, at least I'm not being chased from my home by evil pigs and bleeding Catholic priests.

Josh Kilmer-Purcell Is the author of The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers.

My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

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Josh Kilmer-Purcell