The Amityville Horror (1979) and the Banality of Domestic Abuse – Retro Review

I’ve been listening to a lot of the You’re Wrong About podcast recently — I’ve devoted the past few days to their series about the O.J. Simpson trial and the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. The two episodes that were just about Nicole coincided with my watch of The Amityville Horror, and I think there’s a connection to be made between the two about the American perception of domestic violence. 

The Amityville Horror is the ~true story~ of the Lutz family’s horrific experience living in a house that clearly doesn’t want them there. A year before they moved in, the previous owner, Ronald DeFeo Jr., shot and killed his entire family in their sleep — the implication being that whoever takes over the mortgage would end up doing similar senseless, irrational violence to their loved ones. We see a seemingly happy family devolve. Weird things keep happening in the house, like hundreds of flies congregating on a window, and unexplainable voices, and red rooms popping up that may or may not be the gateway to hell. 

And something else happens — the house patriarch, Mr. Barbra Streisand, who was always a pretty cool guy, starts chopping a lot of wood, like that Puritan dude in The VVitch, or Captain America in Age of Ultron. This is unkosher behavior, which culminates, as good Chekhov’s guns do, in Mr. Barbra Streisand wielding his wood-chopping axe against his wife’s children. Possessed by whatever spirit is possessing the house, Mr. Barbra Streisand gains a violent streak. 

Mr. Barbra Streisand and Ronald DeFeo Jr., the movie contends, hurt their families as a result of a malevolent spirit making them lose control. That’s a really scary thing to put in your movie or book — this idea that someone you love and trust can be capable of extreme violence under the right circumstances (in this case, possession).

Friends on friends on friends told Nicole Brown Simpson to stick with O.J., the man who’d been hurting her, physically and emotionally, on a regular basis over the whole of their fifteen-year relationship. They perceived him in a way that contradicted her lived experience of abuse, and, despite her sharing those details, no one ever quite believed her enough to support her escaping that situation. 

Movies like The Amityville Horror and cases like the Simpsons’ show us different ways victims of domestic abuse have been scared into silence, with catastrophic results. In the former, viewers infer there must be something preternatural about a man who would hurt his family. In the latter, the public infers that a man with such a wonderful community standing could never show a different side of himself behind closed doors. 

Assumptions like these have surely led to many, many deaths — including, I think, Nicole Brown Simpson’s. 

We know now that there’s nothing preternatural about domestic abuse — that it’s as common and American as McDonald’s, or ethnic cleansing. But I think The Amityville Horror is psychologically interesting, especially if you think about it in the context of a victim’s making sense of their abuser’s behaviors. Domestic abuse is not preternatural, but it is irrational, and it makes sense to wonder about the why.

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