To watch The Amityville Horror and be terrified is one thing, but what about hearing the actual ghost story that inspired Jay Anson’s original book? Yes, the movie is all based on stories recalled by the Lutz family while living in one of the most fabled houses in Long Island history, although there’s much controversy over the actual details – and that’s where documentary filmmaker Eric Walter comes in with his brand new film My Amityville Horror. Yup, this young truth-seeker was able to have George and Kathy Lutz’s son Daniel open up about the experiences he had in the house, unleashing all the horrifying details in an attempt to let viewers decide what to believe.
Being the horror nerd I am, there’s no way a chance to speak with Walter about his experience was slipping by me. Check out my exclusive interview with Eric as we talk about the curiosity that caused him to make My Amityville Horror, his experience with Daniel on the set, and what his final thoughts about the whole ordeal were.
We Got This Covered: Starting off simply, when you first watched The Amityville Horror, did you know it was based on “true” events, or did you think it was just a film?
Eric Walter: Well I first read the book when I was ten as a young kid who was interested in haunting stories, however over the years I’ve taken a passionate interest in everything that was surrounding the story. I wouldn’t say I bought the story completely, and through the investigations I’ve done, talking with the witnesses and reading the reports about the story, I would classify myself as a Amityville agnostic.
It’s very easy to call this a hoax. There are many things that were fabricated about this story by the press and media who covered the story, and some of it snowballed into something it never was, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say all of the Lutz’s statements aren’t exactly true either. There’s no way to prove anything they said or anything that happened through the process of this case didn’t continue on here. I think the truth lies between those two somewhere.
I developed a web archive, Amityville Files, when I was 17, and this basically was an unbiased presentation on all the known documentation like newspaper archives, trial transcripts, and all the interviews on the Lutz haunting allegations from families who lived there after the Lutz’s but said nothing ever happened. It was an opportunity for people to go to this one place and look over all of the documentation and make up their own mind about what happened, and for me that was the process I went through, and I wanted to share that with everybody.
As much as I sought this case out, my film also kind of found me. Out of the blue sky, a friend of Daniel Lutz contacted me in 2009 and claimed Daniel was interested in going public with his story in the form of a book. Initially I was extremely interested yet a little skeptical if he would talk to me, so first I just had to hear what he personally had to say, and also what did he want to do. Was he looking for profit on this? What was this about?
I flew to New York during August 2009, and conducted almost 12 hours of audio interviews over the five days I hung out, where you could just feel the years coming off his chest as he told his story, so I just let the tape recorder roll. In the film itself there’s these segments with grainy audio recordings, and a lot of those recordings are our actual first conversations.
That was my perception. In meeting Danny I don’t really feel that this all was a hoax. I definitely feel Danny believes what he’s saying, however I do believe a lot of what he’s saying has been mixed and matched with things from the media, like the films and the books that have come out based on his alleged experience.
We Got This Covered: So I’m going to follow that with a pretty hokey question, but were you ever afraid to uncover the truth behind Daniel’s story?
Eric Walter: I was more afraid of what I might find with Danny in the sense of his intensity and anger towards the whole event, and his sheer disdain for his stepfather – that’s what was really frightening to me. I’m 27 now, but I started this film when I was 24, so I was only a young guy who showed up interested in what I might find, but I did not expect what I got with Danny, and I guess that’s a good thing in the way that he wasn’t a calm and collected individual. He was extremely pissed about the whole thing, and did not chalk this up to a hoax. He felt George Lutz was responsible for the hauntings, that he had triggered the hauntings on the family through his exploration of the occult and his practicing of satanism in the house – which was a completely different revelation than I’ve ever heard of. In various venues his brother Christopher has come out with the same details, and this is two different corroborating witnesses who have come out with this. Danny and Chris are not on speaking terms either – it was a unique picture.
If there was anything I was afraid of it was how far could I push this person to get the truth before I was under fire. That’s why I chose to shoot the film the way I did in that first-person perspective, with Danny looking right into the camera, because I wanted to have his intensity, which I knew was frightening. His ability to convey his story in this rigorous, angry way was going to make this documentary, and that was ultimately the narrative I wanted to show people.
We Got This Covered: Looking back on all the data collected and all the information, can you say you believe in the paranormal if you didn’t already?
Eric Walter: I believe there are elements of truth in the realm of the paranormal. I think there are unexplainable occurrences that people have that cannot be attributed to a dream or some kind of electric current. I definitely think there are unexplainable things, however, I think the problem with Amityville particularly is so many people tried to come out and say it happened, like self-proclaimed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who essentially scared the Lutz’s. They didn’t believe the house was demonically possessed already, but upon their investigation they told the family back in 76′ they could not fix the house and they would have to get a Roman-Catholic priest to do an exorcism. George was on record saying he didn’t feel they could ask a priest to do this because he didn’t want to put the priest’s life in danger. They left everything in that house, furniture, food, clothes, vehicles, you name it, and moved into Kathy’s mother’s home for a few months when they were deciding what to do, subsequently moving to San Diego while living on food stamps. All their assets were tied up in the house, George’s land surveying business was back in New York, and the event sent an enormous shockwave through their family at the time.
Their actions afterwards tell me they were definitely afraid of something. For me, my own feeling is a lot of that was fed into their mind because they were living in a house which was the sight of a mass murder the year before. Peter Jordan, who is a psychologist who’s in the film, says it was a low level paranormal phenomena, and what he means is unexplainable noises, feelings of eerie vibes about the atmosphere, and those types of things started happening to the family. When those things happen, you have to make the connection “Well we’re sleeping in the same positions this previous family was murdered in,” and that has to play into your mindset somehow.
However, there are claims of levitation, and these are things I can’t say that I fully believe. Do I believe they believe it? I do, specifically because I didn’t get to interview George and Kathy for myself. With the hours upon hours I’ve heard of George Lutz talking about his experiences, it’s a unique opportunity to hear how they clash with what Danny was talking about. For anybody who believes in the paranormal, this will definitely speak to you, but if you don’t believe in the paranormal, I think it definitely will show a perception of someone who does and how they cope with it in their life. It will speak to people in different ways, but will be entertaining none the less, while also being extraordinarily tragic. I hope Danny can find peace now that he’s gone through this personal catharsis in the way that he’s got his story out to the public and can finally move on from it.Next
We Got This Covered: Were there ever any moments the interview with Danny become too intense and you had to stop shooting on My Amityville Horror?
Eric Walter: Yes, and the one that comes to mind is the way the film ended where I ask him to take a polygraph test and getting his intense, angry reaction – that’s how the interview ended, and also how our day ended. That was the first day of shooting, and it wasn’t really a great feeling at the time. I thought I’d pushed too far, but what I think I did do was ask him that question without priming him because I eventually allowed him to pour his heart out for eight hours in that interview setting. There were camera operators and production specialists around the whole time, so he was slightly uncomfortable with that, however, we were in his garage where he had his guitars, so we tried to make it as comfortable for him as possible.
Of course he and I also had a friendship prior to this interview already anyway, which is what you have to do when you do a film like this – you have to be friends with the person.
Anyway, George and Kathy Lutz in 1979 took polygraph tests where they were asked questions like “Did you levitate,” “Did you see yourself as an old hag,” “Did you hear a disembodied marching band downstairs,” you know, all these crazy things claimed by George and Kathy. As a result, the two answered all these questions “Yes” and passed the lie detector test with flying colors, so I thought it was reasonable to ask Danny if he would be willing to do that, but he took that as an assault on his credibility from my perception. I don’t think his anger in that was because he was unwilling, I think he really felt I was trying to insinuate he was lying. He’s lived a life where all his friends have been telling him he’s a liar, his parents are liars, the whole thing is a hoax, and so I think anyone who pushes those buttons will see that anger.
I knew I really pushed some buttons on-set because everyone was looking around thinking “What did he do?”
We Got This Covered: Was there ever an eeriness about hearing different witnesses give the same evidence or hearing the same stories repeated perfectly by different people?
Eric Walter: Oh there were absolutely eerie undertones because for the first time you were taking a lot of people that had primarily been featured in, for example, a History Channel documentary as a headshot where they’re all edited together in post production, whereas my method was I wanted to bring all these people together in the same room and hash it out. Bring the skeptics along with the believers and let them debate among themselves. Unfortunately a lot of the first-hand witness have passed, leaving the stories to younger generations, as even Danny has been rather unknown besides being a character in the original story and book. For him to come out of the woodwork now is an extraordinary proposition, and there was definitely something eerie about that and everyone’s reaction.
If you remember in the film Lorraine Warren’s reaction to some of the things Danny was saying about George, I purposely let the camera hold on the wide angle of the table so you could see Lorraine’s eyes dart up at Laura and you can see the emotion. I wanted that raw feeling, and I let the film breathe in that way. It’s a character study, so you really need to have the ability to not let post production and all the facts get in the way of what the film’s ultimate purpose is – analyzing the psychological impact the events had on Danny.
We Got This Covered: Was there every any doubt about the details while filming My Amityville Horror?
Eric Walter: Oh yeah, especially from the early onset. There’s stories of Danny being hurled up the stairs, or Danny’s bed floating in the air and hitting the ceiling – I had an extraordinarily hard time swallowing that stuff. The absolute hardest part for me to believe was Danny’s accusation that George had successfully uses telekinesis to float a wrench, taking everything out of the realm of the paranormal to where George could actually do this. I’m not going to go and say Danny is lying about that, however I do believe that his anger towards his stepfather colors a lot of his statements, and I feel there’s a motivation there to blame everything on George.
In a way I feel that’s unfair, certainly I wish George were alive so we could get his perception, and there were a lot of concerns I had personally about presenting his perception on it strictly because not only did the other kids not want to talk in the film, but many witnesses are no longer around. The way I chose to structure the documentary was about Danny and Danny only, just his perception of what went down there, and it was a window into what may or may not have actually been happening in the house. The family strife and the family dynamic at the time may have had much more to do with what was going on than any ghost actually did. The overwhelming factor for me was George’s role in the story and Danny’s version of the story that he plays. George seemed to haunt Danny.
Here’s another example I can give of the impact media had on the story – in the 1979 movie there was a scene where Rod Steiger, who plays the priest, goes in a room and hordes of flies attack him. Now when Danny describes that scene on move-in day, Father Ray comes into the house to do a blessing, then he claims he saw Father Ray run out of the house, and when he saw the room where the Father had attempted to do his blessing, there were about 400 to 500 flies buzzing about. I found that interesting because it sounded like a movie version of what that was, because George and Kathy had described them inviting the priest through the house and that he calmly claimed he felt something in the upstairs bedroom and they simply shouldn’t use it as one.
For me, the fact that Danny says he saw the priest running from the house sounds like a movie version of what had been told. I don’t think he’s fabricating that, but it’s more like attributing a childhood memory to things he’s heard about, read, or seen, thinking what’s depicted in the film is exactly how Mom and Dad said it happened. That’s what I tried to show in the film without saying out and out it’s a lie, because we have no proof. I was very into letting the film be objective so audiences could make up their own minds.
We Got This Covered: So I’m curious, are there any other mysteries you’d like to solve with your next project? What’s coming next for you?
Eric Walter: [Laughs] So many people have been asking me that.
I’m currently working on a new feature documentary along the same lines…well…actually it’s not along the same lines really. It’s not Amityville related. It’s not haunting related. I can’t really go into the details right now because I’m currently in development on it and working on gaining access to various peoples involved in the story, but I’m very excited about it. It’s an “unsolved mysteries” type of scenario.
I’ve always been very interested in that material though, it’s my niche, it’s what I want to do. I think documentaries are so much more relative and so much more frightening than anything you can make up, and to shed light on some of the world’s most interesting cases is what I feel I’m here to do. Obviously it’s working out well!
Thanks so much to Eric Walter and you can catch My Amityville Horror in select theaters or streaming through any VOD format!Previous