6 Reasons Why “The Amityville Horror” Is Still Scary All These Years Later

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Haunted house movies come and go, but The Amityville Horror still casts a spell decades after its initial release. Why? Well, the walls bleed and there’s nasty glop oozing from the plumbing, but the main event isn’t spooky special effects. It’s the Lutz family: Parents George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) and their three kids, all normal, reasonable folks who aren’t about to cut and run just because of a little leaking hemoglobin. Here are six other reasons why The Amityville Horror is still scary as hell.

1. Creepy Kathy
Shortly after the Lutzes move into their new home, Kathy (a former dancer) is doing barre exercises in front of a mirrored wall decorated with winding tendrils of tarnished gold paint. Focused on her form, she doesn’t notice how the paint makes her pretty face look skull-like, presaging the creepy stuff that’s about to stress her family to their limits… or does she? When George quietly enters the room, Kathy isn’t just startled: She jumps like a scalded cat, backs up against the wall and gasps in horror.

2. Good George/Bad George
While exploring the basement’s creepy “red room”—where the sweet family dog, Harry, spends so much time scraping the floor that he rubs his paws raw—George sees a brief, ghostly vision of someone who looks almost exactly like him. In fact, James Brolin’s mirror image in the scene is actually footage of his real-life brother. The siblings look similar but not identical, adding a dash of off-kilter tension to the scene.

3. Jodie the Pink Pig
“Jodie is my friend and she comes to play with me,” says daughter Amy Lutz (Natasha Ryan) about the malevolent, red-eyed, lady-pig spirit who becomes Amy’s “invisible friend.” Scary-movie fans are used to horror stories involving possessed pussycats or demonic dogs. But a hell pig that sniffs around a child’s bedroom? That’s just freaky.

4. Scary Kathy
In a toe-curling scene between Kathy and George, her face appears deeply lined and papery one moment, as though she’s aged decades in a matter of seconds. But in the next moment, George sees that her face is youthful once more. That’s just one example of the movie’s stellar use of subliminal scariness: You feel something’s wrong, but can’t put your finger on it because it goes by so fast.

5. The Flames of Hell
Because the house is always strangely cold, George spends a lot of time chopping wood in the front yard with a scary axe and an increasingly scary look on his face. Matters come to a head when he piles split logs into the fireplace to offset the chill; as he watches the blaze, he looks as though he’s being licked by the flames of hell. The shot’s perspective is also totally disorienting: Whose point of view are we actually seeing from behind those burning logs?

6. The Telltale Chandelier
In three different scenes, the elaborate glass chandelier hanging in the entryway of the Lutz home begins to sway, tinkling like wind chimes in a breeze; in each case, the undulating fixture marks a major character transition. It ushers in a key scene where Kathy (who’s been trying valiantly not to be spooked by the fact that an entire family was murdered there a year earlier) wakes up screaming from a nightmare. Kathy’s sister Helena (Irene Dailey), a nun, later runs from the house when she experiences the chandelier effect, stopping only to vomit by the roadside. Finally, Kathy and George, unable to deny that something unholy is making the chandelier sway, pick up the silver crucifix they find tarnished and inverted on the wall and walk through the home while praying their hearts out: They’ve acknowledged that the only help they’re going to get will come from a higher power.

Check out our list of the all-time deadliest horror movies, as ranked by body count.