Editorial: “Halloween House” burning foretells danger for the occult community

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As The Wild Hunt reported in this week’s Pagan Community Notes, last week we saw the burning of the famous “Halloween House” in Poughkeepsie, New York, the former home of the late Joe “Netherworld” Mendillo. At the time of the fire, ten people were staying at the house, including one child; the fire sent them out into January night, where they had to rely on assistance from the local chapter of the American Red Cross. The house itself, though still standing, appears from photographs to be thoroughly torched; according to Mendillo’s associate, Magus Peter H. Gilmore of the Church of Satan, the house likely cannot be restored, due to the amount of damage.

The house received its name thanks to Mendillo’s elaborate collection of decorations, which drew admirers from around the region. Among these decorations were a hearse and a sign for the “Devil’s Garage,” and sometimes fog machines, cauldrons full of dry ice, and animatronic witches. (Less overtly spooky were the house’s gardens, which included a koi pond with a bridge designed by Mendillo himself.) Despite its magnificently gothic reputation, I find it hard to fully imagine what the house must have looked like before the fire. The photographs of the burned-out shell of the Halloween House make it seem more haunted than ever.

The burned shell of the Halloween House, with safety fencing out front [City of Poughkeepsie Historic District & Landmarks Preservation Commission]

That the fire was arson is in little doubt. Security cameras spotted a man approaching the house with two cans of gasoline, which local authorities claim were then spread onto the porch and lit ablaze. The arsonist’s motives are open to speculation – he is, as yet, unidentified, and we can’t know why he committed the crime for certain unless he is found and tried – but it is hard to imagine religion wasn’t at the heart of it.

Mendillo, like Gilmore, was a prominent member of the Church of Satan, and its members often met at the Halloween House, both before and after his passing last year. Mendillo made no secret of his affiliations and even attracted several other Satanists, Witches, and like-minded people to move into the Hudson Valley, forming what Mendillo called the “Witchcraft District.”

According to Gilmore, he also performed the first legal Satanic same-sex wedding in New York. “Sadly, there are some “people of faith” who are intolerant, and typically ignorant, of other belief systems, but Joe did not focus on bigoted people,” Gilmore writes. “Instead, he chose to be a vibrant part of Poughkeepsie, and was warmly greeted by many when he was out and about.”

The house was no longer used for ritual purposes or connected to occult practice but the current owner was nevertheless targeted. “It’s 2021, so pick any topic and you’ll find all kinds of internet hatred about it,” the 36-year-old actor, model and adult performer said. “I am a very open and public gay man, and open about my career as an OnlyFans content creator — along with the political climate, and the perception of the house as ‘haunted’ or ‘witchy’ — it could go in any direction to receive hate.”

I am not the investigator of the case, but it seems unlikely that this gem of the Haunted Hudson Valley, previously owned by a prominent Satanist and now owned by a gay man, would have been the target of arson for anything other than bigotry. And that should be worrying for anyone within spitting distance of Satanists, which, yes, includes every single American Pagan.

As our editor-in-chief, Manny Tejeda-Moreno, mentioned in his forecast for 2021, we are already in the midst of a new Satanic Panic. The QAnon conspiracy theory holds that a ring of political and cultural elites engages in “Satanic rites of pedophilia,” and much of the language QAnon adherents use specifically invokes the imagery of the Christian Devil. This is not the first time we have seen this kind of moral panic, not even the first time in my life, and we have seen how devastating its consequences can be.

The burned dormer of the Halloween House [City of Poughkeepsie Historic District & Landmarks Preservation Commission]

It’s true that the Church of Satan does not actually worship Satan except as a metaphor – ask them and they will happily tell you that their religion is atheistic and, more than anything, a dedication to libertarian ideals of self-fulfillment and individualism. The Church of Satan is a different organization from the Satanic Temple, which has frequently drawn media attention in recent years for actions like installing a statue of Baphomet outside the Oklahoma state capitol. Neither of these organizations has anything at all to do with the lurid fantasies of QAnon and its associated conspiracy theorists. But unfortunately, that doesn’t matter to the conspiracy theorists, who likely do not know and would not care about the difference between one branch of Satanism and another and would happily attack either if they get the opportunity. These extremists also are not going to care about the distinction between Satanists and Witches, or Satanists and ceremonial magicians, or Satanists and occultists of any stripe. We all look exactly as infernal to their eyes.

Following this week’s inauguration of Joe Biden, in which there was thankfully no repeat of the violence that occurred on January 6th, many commentators have, sometimes gleefully, reported on the “meltdowns” within the QAnon sphere. QAnon supporters have believed in innumerable variations of a story in which Donald Trump would bring down the imagined Satanic cabal in dramatic fashion as the hallmark of his term in office; when this clearly did not happen prior to the transition of power to the new president, some QAnon adherents expressed feelings of betrayal, despair, or bewilderment.

“Today’s inauguration makes no sense to the Christian patriots,” one widely-followed QAnon voice said, according to CNN, “and we thought ‘the plan’ was the way we would take this country back.”

When Ron Watkins, who many suspect was the main voice behind “Q,” the faceless prophet of the movement, told supporters to stand down, it may have seemed like the sun had set on QAnon. My gut tells me otherwise.

I suspect that QAnon is going to fade away as a widespread cultural delusion, but the group that remains devoted to its hallucination of horrific Satanic abuses is going to be more violent and more extreme, not less. And while we have seen some connections between extremist segments of the Pagan community and QAnon, as long as we are easily used as objects for their fantasies, we will be in danger. When we are looking at ourselves, it is easy to see all the fractured lines dividing one portion of Paganism from another; but when our enemies look at us from without, I guarantee that we all could play the part of an evil Satanic cultist for them.

Now, does any of this directly reflect on what happened at Halloween House last week? Again, I have no way to know what was in the arsonist’s mind. But this crime certainly reflects a mood in the United States that I do not see going away soon – a mood of “Christian patriots” taking action to stop “Satanists” at any cost. If we ignore these undercurrents, it will be at our peril.