Poughkeepsie’s Witchcraft District wouldn’t exist without Joe Mendillo. Known as Joe Netherworld by his peers, Mendillo was a multifaceted individual and an influential figure to fellow witches. Among many titles, he was a witch, a tarot reader, and a Satanist with a background in sculpting and stage prop design. In 1999, he purchased and renovated an 1870 Gothic house on the corner of South Clinton and Church streets in the city. Over time, Mendillo’s residence gained fame as the “Halloween House” and the “House of Netherworld” due to his elaborate decorations, drawing like-minded folks to settle in nearby historic homes. He coined the term “Witchcraft District” to describe not just the cluster of Victorian houses but also the collective mindset of the community that chose to call them home.
Mendillo died in January 2020, and his house fell into the hands of his friend, Matthew Camp. Roughly a year later, on January 21, 2021, an individual approached the house with two gas cans and set the front porch ablaze. While Camp and his roommate managed to escape unharmed, the house succumbed to the flames, and it was eventually demolished. It was a tragic blow to the community. Camp, an openly gay adult entertainer, criticized the New York Times for not considering the arson a hate crime. And in response to the attack, the district is currently offering a reward of $6,666 for any information about the identity of the arsonist.
“There's a part of me that feels that I can accept Joe’s passing,” says Falon Eduard Blutig, a close friend of Mendillo’s. “People die every day. It’s natural. It’s never a good experience, but we accept that as a part of life. But when the house was taken, and the arsonist is still out there—you know how I must feel about them. They made an attack on Joe, they made an attack on the house, and it was attempted murder on Matthew Camp. I’m not going to stop sending out my wishes for that person to be caught and convicted.”
The Church of Satan
Like many members of the district, Mendillo was a member of the Church of Satan. Peter H. Gilmore, the current High Priest of the church, lives just a block away from Mendillo’s former home. The church was founded in 1966 by Anton Szandor LaVey, who embraced Satan as a symbol of pride, liberty, and individualism. Members do not believe that Satan literally exists; instead of worshiping an external deity, Satanists adopt the symbolism and mythology of Satan in order to worship themselves.
“Satanism, for me, is a powerful life philosophy that encourages me to pursue the best version of myself, as well as my greatest happiness,” says reverend A. W. Storm Anderson. “I’m the god of my own world. So if it is to be, it is up to me.” Because they worship themselves, his partner, priestess Renèe M. Anderson, describes their beliefs as “Itheist.”
The Witchcraft District and its Satanist members were recently featured in Realm of Satan, an experimental film directed by Scott Cummings in collaboration with the Church of Satan. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, blends fiction and nonfiction to create a group portrait of the church’s members. With little dialogue, it captures both the extraordinary and everyday aspects of their lives, juxtaposing scenes of bondage, ritualistic chanting, and magic tricks with mundane activities like washing cars, watering plants, and hanging laundry.
“What I love about them is that they’re very proud of their outsider status,” says Cummings. "They’re very happy to stand against the tide. Some Satanists keep it pretty close to the vest, but other people are like Joe; their house is right on the corner. They do what they want to do and exist against the tide of polite society.”
Members of the district can be seen throughout the film, and they congregate in its finale. The film includes footage of Mendillo and the news reports about the arson, as well as one moment in which Blutig places down a sign offering the $6,666 reward. Mendillo passed away during the project’s COVID-induced hiatus, and Cummings felt it was necessary to include him. “As I got more and more into the Hudson Valley, I realized that his passing, and the arson of the house, was a really immediate story for them,” says Cummings.
Reflecting on the district itself, Cummings notes that, “There’s such a diversity of beliefs and people in the Witchcraft District. Some people take the occult side of things very seriously, and some people have more fun with it. Joe was a pretty esoteric guy. He was really into occult history, did tarot readings, and had a kind of traditional witchiness. And you can contrast that with Peter, the head of the church, who is more logical about it.”
Generally, church members are happy with how they’ve been represented. “People were actually upset at the movie because it didn’t teach them about Satanism,” says district member Isis Vermouth, who appears in the film. “But I think that the movie itself captures what we're all about, and that’s living our own fantasies and enjoying ourselves.”
A Close Community
Since 2020, the Andersons have run the Witchcraft District Bazaar in Poughkeepsie. The bazaar offers witchcraft supplies such as healing crystals, statues, occult items, books, and jewelry. The back of the bazaar is dedicated to Art on You, where Storm offers magically charged artwork and sigil tattoos.
There are numerous misconceptions associated with running a witchcraft store and identifying as a witch. “It’s not evil,” says Renèe. “Everyone thinks it’s evil, but it’s really about a deep love of nature, and manifesting for the best life you could possibly have. There are so many people that come to the store and peer inside but are too scared to come in.” Storm adds, “They’re afraid of the superstitions they learned at a young age. That’s not what all of this is about. I like the movies. We were just talking about The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, but neither of them are true. They’re just fun.”
The Andersons recently achieved one of their major goals in moving to the area: purchasing a 1891 Victorian home. It’s a goal that many in the community, following Mendillo’s lead, strive for. Vermouth—a drag queen, organizer, and actress who purchased and renovated a 1910 house in the district—notes that, “Most of us moved to the Witchcraft District because all of the beautiful houses were in disarray. We wanted to preserve them, so we’d move into the houses for little money, fix them up, and then usually stick to doing short sales within the community. Our main mission is to save the houses so that families can live in them, instead of them being demolished or sectioned off into rooms for slumlords.”
Vermouth also highlights the district’s annual Witch’s Ball as a key event for the community, which has taken place every Friday the 13th for the past 12 years. “I’m pretty much the party planner,” says Vermouth. “We rent out a ballroom, a theater, or a nightclub, depending on what we’ve decided to do, and throw a big party. The last one we did was in conjunction with Moon Serpent & Bone, so we had over 60 vendors with all kinds of witchy crafts. But besides my parties, which are more public fun things to do, everybody pretty much does their own thing in secret.”
Nikki Hung, who considers herself a recent addition to the district, describes it as informal and loose. “There’s no set structure to it,” says Hung. “We’re not as well established as New Orleans, or Salem, or some of the older towns with larger witch communities. It’s not a tourist attraction like some of the more metaphysical locations in the city are. We do try to meet informally at least once a month to support other businesses in the area, and we also go and support the bazaar, which has become a bit of a hangout for many of us.”
Hung is the gallery director for Womenswork.Art, just down the street from the House of Netherworld. She also runs a small business called HouseCrypt, which offers altar decor items for witches made from secondhand furniture. While Hung is a member of the district, she’s not a member of the Church of Satan. In fact, she’s a solitary witch. “I don’t have a coven or a group that I work with,” says Hung. “So this is the closest thing that I have as far as a community for that aspect of my life.”
Reflecting on how others perceive the district, Hung notes, “I want people to know that we’re just plain old boring people like anyone else. We have families, pay taxes, live and die. We just happen to do magical stuff in between all of that.”