Amityville Files: Explain how you first became involved in ghosts, hauntings, and the paranormal in general?
Roxanne Kaplan: When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by mysteries and ghost stories. I would read the Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton stories, and when I ordered from the school book club (Scholastic?) I would always order books like “Stranger Than Fiction” or anything that told about supposedly true paranormal phenomena. When my friends and I put on a back yard carnival, we would always include a make-shift “haunted house”, where kids had to stick their hands into bowls of “guts” (mushy spaghetti) or “eyeballs” (peeled grapes). I even had a little game we played outside at twilight called “Attention All Spooks”. Then, as a teenager I discovered the old TV gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows” and I was hooked! During the run of “Dark Shadows” I talked my Mom into signing me up for the “Universe Book Club”, where I would order books about ESP, ghosts, UFO’s, aliens, tarot, astrology, out-of-body experiences…..the list goes on and on. At the age of 20, I attended one of Stephen’s lectures, and the rest as they say, is history.
AF: Have you ever had a ghostly encounter of your own? What was it like? Was it what you expected?
RK: My first strange encounter was as a teenager, and it involved a Ouija board. I told my Mom about someone who had talked to me on the board and given her initials, and I described the person to her in detail. My Mom told me that I had described my Great Aunt Lydie, who had died 2 months before I was born. Aunt Lydie continued to tell me things about my family for several years, a lot of it unverifiable but some of it quite accurate. My other experiences were after I met Stephen and joined the Parapsychology Institute of America (PIA) as a researcher. On one occasion I only heard the “ghost’s” footsteps coming up the stairs from a deserted basement in a house where we were having a séance to contact a woman who had been murdered there. During another case, I actually saw an apparition, which looked like a misty blob that was roughly in the shape of a human head and shoulders.
AF: How did you and Stephen first meet?
RK: During the summer of 1974 I was moping around my house trying to recover from the breakup with my first love the previous December. My Dad saw an article in a local paper about a free lecture being given at the PIA on strange phenomena. Knowing my interest in the topic, he showed it to me, hoping to get me out of the house and interested in something again. I was amazed to discover that Long Island even HAD such an organization, and I reserved a spot at the lecture immediately. The lecturer was Dr. Stephen Kaplan, who was conducting a whole series of free summer lectures that year. The PIA turned out to be located in the office adjoining his home. Stephen was in a failing marriage at the time and had 2 small children. I attended the summer lectures, then signed up for a class he was teaching that fall at an adult education program. In October, Stephen opened the PIA to new members and I became a researcher and Corresponding Secretary. I turned 21 that same month; I was the baby of the group. We all had such great times researching the unknown and trying to help people to solve their paranormal mysteries. In 1977 after Stephen was legally separated from his wife (and eventually divorced after several grueling years of court battles), we began dating, and in 1982 we were married.
AF: Tell us a little about Stephen’s background, and how he first began investigating the paranormal.
RK: Stephen was born and raised in a middle class Jewish family in the Bronx, NY City. His Dad was a Tool-and-Die maker, a limo driver for Mayor Beame, and held various other jobs when he was able to work, having been disabled while in the service. His Mom was a homemaker and doted over Stephen, his twin sister Rochelle, and his older brother Warren. The kids loved to go to the movies, where you could pay a dollar or so and watch movies all day long; Stephen’s favorites included ones about werewolves, Dracula, mysteries and comedies. Stephen had a severe visual impairment as a child, and was often told by school officials that he should give up his dream of college and learn a trade. That just made him more determined to succeed, and he certainly proved them wrong! Stephen earned a BA and an MA from City College of NY, another Masters degree from State University at Stony Brook, and a non-traditional PhD from Pacific College of CA. (Although there has been much criticism of this last degree, it is very similar to degrees that are now available from colleges such as Empire State College, which is now accepted as a part of the NY State University system. Back in the 70’s, it was quite a revolutionary idea, and Stephen took a lot of flak for it from people such as the Warrens, but he enjoyed being a pioneer in the field of alternative education.) Stephen majored in Education, minored in Sociology, and also took many classes in Anthropology. He became a teacher for the NY City Board of Ed, specializing in language skills, remedial reading and ESL (English as a Second Language). His interest in Anthropology led him to study primitive societies, which in turn led him to wonder about strange rituals and practices in our own society. The 60’s were a hotbed of interest in all kinds of strange phenomena, and it was then that his interest and his research first began.
AF: George Lutz claimed that the reason he canceled Stephen’s investigation was because Stephen went to the press. Do you believe that was Mr. Lutz’s real reason, or do you think he felt intimidated by the fact that Stephen would expose him, if Stephen found out that the story was fake?
RK: George’s story was told in the press BEFORE Stephen became involved. after several articles were printed about the Lutzes, several papers, knowing that Stephen had the only local paranormal research group, called him to ask his opinion on the case. Stephen was quoted as saying something like “…they should leave it to the experts to investigate.” George Lutz read the quote and called Stephen to ask him to investigate his house. The PIA made plans to do so, and when Stephen was next interviewed, he mentioned that our group had been asked by Lutz to investigate. Stephen also told Lutz from the beginning that although there would be no charge, we were a public service group and would reveal our findings to the public whether we found legitimate phenomena or fraud. George called several days later to cancel, saying he wanted no publicity, but then called in Channel 5 News, the Warrens, and a whole circus of people who paraded through the house on the evening news. There is no doubt in my mind that George only wanted people who would substantiate his claims. If he cared so much about avoiding the press, then he never would have held those initial press conferences and he certainly wouldn’t have allowed Channel 5 into the house. What he did want to avoid was anyone DISAGREEING with him in the press.
AF: Were you at first skeptical or did you believe what the Lutzes were initially saying?
RK: I was skeptical, not because I didn’t believe in strange phenomena but because they had TOO MANY all in one house! And that was only the beginning; their list of phenomena continued to grow longer and longer as each article, and eventually each book, came out. -There are many people out there today that say that Stephen was not qualified to investigate the house. What do you have to say about that? I strongly disagree. Who decides who is “qualified”? There wasn’t then, nor is there now, any certification required to be a parapsychologist or a “ghost hunter”. You could hang out a shingle tomorrow and start your own research group. As long as you are not attempting to give medical attention or psychotherapy to clients, you are breaking no laws. In 1976, Stephen had more experience investigating strange phenomena then almost anyone in the country, with the possible exceptions of the Psychical Research Foundation at Duke University and maybe the Association for Psychical Research in Manhattan. And neither of those 2 groups was willing to go public with any findings regarding Amityville.
AF: Tell us about the first time you entered the ‘Horror House.’ What were you expecting? Were you nervous, or did the house seem like a fairly comfortable place to live?
RK: I was expecting to be nervous about being in a house where 6 people had been murdered, but I was surprised to find that the Cromartys had made their home such a comfortable place to be that I was able to relax. That’s not to say that I didn’t think about the sad fate of the DeFeo family; I did. But I never sensed any evil presence, or any other kind of presence, there at all.
AF: Explain why Stephen spent so much time trying to debunk the Warrens’ claims.
RK: Stephen spent so much time trying to debunk the Warrens because they are dangerous people. They prey on people who are scared or lonely, and this is how they make their living. We never charged people more than minimal travel fees, and Stephen earned his living from teaching for a NYC public school. Stephen hated that the Warrens passed off fiction as fact and made the whole field of parapsychology look bad by association. We also had personal contact with families who had been told by the Warrens to abandon their homes because there were demons or evil spirits there, when all it was were spirits of deceased family members who were trying to get a message to their loved ones. Those poor people suffered being homeless needlessly because of the Warrens’ bad advice, as well as suffering financially from paying their fees.
AF: Tell us about the Halloween party that you and Stephen attended at the ‘horror house.’
RK: That was the best party I have ever been to. The costumes were hilarious, the guests were interesting and having a great time, and I felt happy that the house and its occupants had been able to cast off the sadness from the murders. Stephen and I had recently completed the “Weight Watchers” program and were looking our best, and I even had a minor celebrity tell me that I looked like Linda Ronstadt. I know, big deal, but remember, I was only 26 and a shy girl from Long Island!
AF: You’ve been one of the few to actually step (or crouch) down into the ‘red room.’ Explain what the room is, and what your reactions was the first time you saw it.
RK: I was amazed to find that the “room” was in fact not a room at all. It was merely a small space behind a shelf under the basement staircase that would allow access to the pipes in a plumbing emergency. The cinder block walls and the cement floor had been painted with red paint, but it was peeling off from the humidity. We picked up a couple of “samples” of the paint chips as souvenirs but I have no idea what we eventually did with them. I got no strange feelings while squatting there with Stephen to pose for snapshots.
AF: You have taken several photos inside the ‘horror house’. Has anything ‘strange’ ever happened to you or to any of the photos you have taken?
RK: No, nothing strange happened with any of the Amityville photos. I did, however, once take a photo in Poe Cottage in the Bronx of a ghostly figure sitting in Edgar Allen Poe’s old rocking chair. I thought I was only taking a picture of the empty chair, so imagine my surprise when the photo was developed and appeared to show a faint image of Poe sitting in the chair! -You have been invited to the house on numerous occasions, ever way into the 80’s. Did it seem at all possible that the house may have been ‘haunted?’ Anything is possible, but I never experienced anything out of the ordinary there, other than the strange tourists who pass by and harass the owners.
AF: What are your thoughts about Butch DeFeo and the killings?
RK: It was a tragic story, and I feel bad that the surviving family members had to suffer further from the sensational stories being told about their loved ones. It is one of the reasons why Stephen and I felt so strongly about exposing the hoax. As for Butch DeFeo, I was fascinated by Ric Osuna’s book on the subject. I doubt that the whole story of the murders will ever be known by anyone but Butch himself. -Do you believe the latest version he has told of the slayings? Which version? He has told so many that I have no reason to believe that he would reveal the whole truth now.
AF: Have any of the owners of the house ever thanked you for trying to expose a hoax?
RK: I believe that the Cromartys may have thanked us once, back in the 70’s. They were the only owners we ever dealt with. What meant more to Stephen and I was when we were thanked by the father and brother of the late Louisa DeFeo, for respecting the memory of the slain family.
AF: What is the biggest flaw in the whole Amityville story?
RK: That’s a tough question because there are many, but maybe the biggest flaw would be the fact that every family to live there after the Lutzes experienced no paranormal phenomena. If the house and the grounds are such an evil location, then why has the house been able to be used as a normal home for so many years?
AF: After almost thirty years of books, movies, and documentaries have come and gone. Are your thoughts towards this case still the same?
RK: Yes, I have not changed my mind over the years. What amazes me is that the story continues to be such a legend all these years later.
AF: What is it about the Amityville case that makes it live on?
RK: Many things: the way it started as a horrific murder case, the continual media attention it received, the nostalgia of people like yourself who became fascinated while they were small children, the fascination with all things gothic or otherworldly. These are just guesses on my part. I am frankly amazed that it does live on, and that some people seem to have embraced it almost like a religion. The “fans” are scarier to me than the actual case.
AF: Stephen spent a major part of his life working on “The Amityville Horror Conspiracy”. He tragically died just weeks before the book’s release. From knowing him, and his work, tell us how proud he was to have finally accomplished what he did?
RK: He couldn’t have been prouder. He considered “The Amityville Horror Conspiracy” his major life’s work. It took us 10 years to get it published. I have made next to nothing, financially, on the book because of distributors that went bankrupt, but I don’t care because we never did it for the money. Stephen and I just wanted to tell the public our story of what really went down.
AF: If you could tell the public one thing, what would that be?
RK: Just read the transcript of William Weber’s interview with Joel Martin that we included in our book, and you will see how obvious it is that Lutz and Weber constructed the story with the motives of making money and getting a new trial for DeFeo on a “devil made me do it” defense. Judge Jack Weinstein made it official when he called it a hoax during the court case between Weber and the Lutzes in the late 70’s. Unfortunately, the average person had no access to that information and so could continue to believe the hype put out there by the Lutzes and the media.