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Amityville having trouble distancing itself from the 'horror' of its past

It's been almost 50 years since Ronald DeFeo Jr.

It's been almost 50 years since Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered his entire family on Ocean Avenue in Amityville. The crime, the subject of a number of films beginning with "The Amityville Horror" in 1979, still draws people to the village just to see the house. Newsday's Steve Langford reports.

When Amityville officials began seeing more requests by filmmakers to shoot scenes in the village last year, some hoped quaint images of the "Friendly Village" by the bay might start appearing on big screens around the country.

But the most recent request to shoot — the first since the village passed legislation aimed at better controlling the filming process — was not the kind of screen time officials were seeking: a film on the "Amityville Horror" house, something village residents have grown tired of having linked to their hometown.

"We were hoping it would be a different kind of film," Mayor Dennis Siry said.

Streetcar Entertainment sought permission in May to produce a documentary about the house on Ocean Avenue, where in 1974 Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered his parents and four siblings. The "Amityville Horror" book and movies claim that the family who lived in the house after the murders was driven out by paranormal activity.

The haunted house claims largely have been debunked, but that hasn’t stopped the continuous stream of books, television programs and internet musings about the phenomenon over the past three decades. To this day, tourists regularly visit to gawk at the infamous house, much to the annoyance of the families who have lived there, as well as their neighbors.

Maggie Mock, of FOX Alternative Entertainment, told village officials the documentary would "dispel" the hauntings and promised to keep the film’s "footprint as small as possible," with only a few crew members and handheld cameras. She told officials that the impact of the paranormal legend on locals was one aspect that had intrigued producers.

"It’s not a story that hasn’t been told at this point so … why do people still care about it and what is it doing to the community is something that we’re interested in," she said during a May 10 Zoom meeting with village trustees.

Mock said the story has found new interest on social media and among people stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic who turned to horror movies for entertainment. She said the filmmakers would "love to show a different side and the fact that it’s frustrating to you guys that Amityville is defined by this incident."

Trustee Mike O’Neil countered that "for some people, Amityville is defined by that" and a new film is "only going to amplify … the influx of people coming into the neighborhood for months on end."

The family living in the house declined requests for comment.

"Having lived with this since 1974, I have to say that this is in my view a continued exploitation of a terrible situation in which a family was murdered," trustee Owen Brooks told the filmmakers. "I think this will only continue that pain for the neighborhood."

Siry said he’s never seen any of the horror films, and even a commercial for one causes him to change the channel. He knew the DeFeo family, he said, and remembers the murders.

"It’s why I’m not a big fan of anyone sensationalizing the aspect of it being a haunted house," the mayor said.

But in the end, officials allowed the filming, which happened over two days in May, with the company paying the village the required $1,000-per-day fee. Streetcar, based in Knoxville, Tennessee, is producing the digital documentary series for Tubi, a streaming service owned by Fox Corp. Representatives for FOX did not respond to requests for comment.

Siry said the green light was given because filmmakers promised that the documentary is "not going to hype the house," and that there would be no disruptions to the community.

The village regularly gets calls inquiring about filming, officials said, but few follow through with filling out a formal request, leading to only two such official applications in the past few years. Almost all of the calls are related to the "horror," officials said. A film production for a romantic comedy was approved by the board last year, but the company decided against proceeding after learning of the overtime costs they would have to pay for police and public works employees.

The village’s filming law sets restrictions on how and where film crews set up, how notice is given to neighbors and requires the village be reimbursed for any use of police or public works employees.

Officials can turn down requests based on logistics — such as filming in the village courtroom at a time when court is in session — or if the request includes something out of the village’s purview, such as filming inside the infamous house. But legally, Amityville cannot turn down an application based on the movie or television show’s content, said village attorney Bruce Kennedy.

"It’s a First Amendment situation, and it’s not up to us to regulate content," he said.

Trustee Brooks said he hopes filmmakers lose their fascination with the "nonsense" of supernatural activity in Amityville.

"If it was next door to your home, you wouldn’t be happy about it with people coming by from all over the country disrupting your lives," Brooks said. "We have a beautiful community here with great people. We don’t need to continue with that distraction."

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