A look inside Poughkeepsie's Witchcraft District
Friends of Joe Mendillo reflect on his legacy and the enduring mystique of the neighborhood he founded
For Times Union Hudson Valley, October 7, 2021.
Joe Mendillo, known to friends as Joe Netherworld, was a charismatic creative, collector, showman, and Satanist (more on that below), who coined the term “The Witchcraft District” for a stretch of Victorian homes in Poughkeepsie that he, his friends, and other eccentrics lived in.
At the heart of the district was Mendillo’s home, a rundown 1870 Carpenter Gothic house on the corner of South Clinton and Church streets that he purchased in 2000. He saw potential and chose to preserve some of its history, including smoke stains in the living room from a fire in which the previous tenant perished.
It became known as the Halloween House year-round, a reflection of Mendillo’s spooky decor inside and out. This past January, fire revisited the home when a masked arsonist set it ablaze, an act that infused even more mystery and media attention around Mendillo, who passed away in 2020.
A prominent member of the Witchcraft District community, Mendillo helped his neighbors with renovation projects, offered online tarot card readings, and threw many events at his home. His membership in the Church of Satan added to his mystique, though the group’s beliefs are less about devil worship and more about atheism, says Peter H. Gilmore, the head of the Church of Satan.
A trailblazer for a community of fellow eccentrics, Mendillo inspired many of his friends in New York City and elsewhere to move to Poughkeepsie, and become a part of the Witchcraft District, a concept that took off following a “Beetlejuice”-themed wedding of Mendillo’s friend, Isis Vermouth, in 2013.
The neighborhood’s boundaries are fluid. Vermouth described the district as a state of mind that can be applied to any area with spooky houses and an artistic, playful sensibility.
Amorphous in concept, Poughkeepsie’s Witchcraft District became more tangible when Falon Eduard Blutig, a close friend of Mendillo's, created the logo for the district, which many of Mendillo’s friends have placed on their homes and around town.
In his earlier years, Mendillo was a stage prop designer who excelled at highly visual storytelling, a skill that was apparent in his home. Every inch was decorated, or as Mendillo liked to call it, “draculated,” with a gothic sensibility. Many remember Mendillo as a combination of Vincent Price and Martha Stewart.
Mendillo was an avid gardener who frequented Adams Fairacre Farms a few times a week to pick out his favorite plants. His garden not only included vibrant and edible plants but also spellbook material such as belladonna, toad lilies, monkshood, devil’s weed, and all the ingredients to make “Witches Flying Oil.”
Those who walked by the house when he was alive could hear bizarre screeching sounds — peacocks in his backyard.
Inside Mendillo’s house were collections of all kinds of oddities: old witchcraft and original Edgar Allan Poe books, damaged taxidermy, mannequins, Ouija Boards, old poison bottles, a haunted self-playing jukebox, and a spinning chandelier in the living room to name a few.
The short film “America’s Favorite Satanist,” made by students at nearby Vassar College in 2010 when Mendillo was still alive, explores his life and how the community viewed him.
“Everyone should find what is unique and special to them and expand on it, live it fully as if there is no other chance cause there is no other chance,” Mendillo said in the film. “Everyone’s reality is abnormal for someone else.”
Mendillo passed away on January 27, 2020 at Helen Hayes Hospital from complications following a stroke. The Witchcraft District community held a Zoom memorial during quarantine led by Blutig, Mendillo’s family, and Matthew Camp, who went on to buy the Halloween House after Mendillo’s death to continue his legacy.
However, at 6 a.m. on Jan. 14, 2021, the Halloween House went up in flames after an arsonist set fire to each doorway. Camp and his friend Six barely escaped the fire and lost everything, including the shoes on their feet. The arsonist has still not been found and on Sept. 9, the house was bulldozed.
The property is still in Camp’s name. He and the community intend to turn it into a park and eventually erect a statue of cult filmmaker and former Poughkeepsie resident Ed Wood, an important figure for Mendillo.
Now that the Halloween House is gone, what remains are the recollections of his friends who still reside in the neighborhood that Mendillo helped create.
The Witchcraft District Community
Falon Eduard Blutig
Falon Eduard Blutig met Mendillo in 1997 in New York City. Mendillo hired Blutig as a model for Mendillo’s gimmicky greeting cards, similar to the kind one would find at Spencer’s, “like the big lady with a birthday cake and cleavage spilling out over the candles,” said Blutig.
Blutig moved to Poughkeepsie 11 years ago with her roommate Kathleen after seeing what Mendillo had done to his place.
“Joe made matching rings for me and a dear friend with a ruby I wear every day, that is very special to me. I still have the photo from the greeting card photoshoots but I think the biggest thing for me are the memories. You can’t burn those.”
Blutig saved some artifacts from the house before it burned, including the Halloween countdown clock that Mendillo put out every year.
Sarah Weyant is a burlesque dancer — her stage name is “Sarah Sinistre” — and animal sanctuary owner. She moved to Poughkeepsie with her husband in 2002, into a house built in 1895, and in 2007 they met Mendillo, who used to buy eggs from their backyard chickens. After Mendillo passed, Weyant took it upon herself to rescue Mendillo’s peacocks and deliver them safely to an animal rescue.
“We were so saddened to lose Joe because he formed a community. We met so many people that we wouldn’t have met if it was not for Joe. We had met Joe through being neighbors but he had brought people together through the queer community, the witchy and occult community, and the Church of Satan community. His house was a sanctuary.”
Isis Vermouth is a drag queen, organizer, and actress who met Mendillo in 2001 at a bar in Kingston. Inspired by Mendillo, Vermouth moved to Poughkeepsie about 10 years ago, bought a house built in 1910 in the Witchcraft District and fixed it up with their husband. Together, Vermouth and Mendillo planned events, pulled stunts on Halloween, and celebrated Christmas together.
“Every year for Christmas, Joe called it the Winter Frolic, he would hire my drag queen grandma, Miss Pattie Lee, and she would come sing Christmas carols to all of us witches. It was funny to see a whole bunch of goth witches hanging out in this demented ballroom with a spinning crystal chandelier and this older drag queen singing all the Christmas carols.”
Vermouth and others are planning their annual Halloween Ball in the theme of Ed Wood’s film, “Plan Nine from Outerspace” on Saturday, October 30 at Revel 32. Part of the proceeds from the ball will go toward a memorial Mendillo had envisioned for the 1950s filmmaker, detailed in another Vassar student film, “WoodLand.”
Lauren Maria Espisito
Lauren Maria Espisito, a mother, tarot card reader and herbalist, met Joe in high school in Eastchester. She moved to Poughkeepsie before Mendillo. They did everything together.
“He was my husband. He was my brother. He was my shopping partner. He was my creative person. I’m going to miss him for the rest of my life. There’s a hole that I just can’t fill. He cut my hair for like 20 something years. I haven’t had my hair cut since he passed and I’m freaked out about it because he cut my hair the way I liked it.”
Julia Drahos grew up in Sleepy Hollow and generations of her family worked at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which inspired her interest in life after death. She now works in funeral homes and lives in a house built in the 1860s, just outside of the center of Poughkeepsie. Her home is known as Miss Fanny’s Victorian Party House where she hosts ghost hunts, medium readings, and paranormal parties.
She met Mendillo 16 years ago. Within the past few years she had been participating in his “omnivoyant” online platform which consisted of live interactive shows with mediums, physics, and tarot card readings.
“My decorating style is similar to his. It was always fun to look at everything, and take it all in. I absolutely loved going to his house because you knew there would be all sorts of different people. You could be yourself, everyone could be themselves. That’s what I miss about going there and being around him. He just knew who he was and didn’t care about what other people thought. If I had a brother, I would picture him.”
Storm Anderson and Renee Caputa Anderson
Storm Anderson and Renee Caputa Anderson owned a very successful tattoo shop in Salt Lake City, Utah, and were looking for a place to move after their kids had grown. They decided to visit Poughkeepsie after connecting with Mendillo online. Following their second visit in 2018, they were won over and began planning their cross-country move, predominantly because of the Witchcraft District community.
The Andersons officially moved to Poughkeepsie in 2020. They have been preparing to open their shop, the Witchcraft District Bazaar, on October 16th. Renee will run the shop and sell incense, candles, sage bundles, spirit boards, bones, and other occult items, and Storm will offer custom tattoos, said to carry magical healing powers. They also plan to teach herbalism workshops.
Camp gave them a tour of Mendillo’s “Halloween House” a few weeks before it burned down. “Matthew opened the door to us like we were family,” said Storm. “He toured us around the entire house, shared Joe’s collection, showed us what he was doing and talked about plans he wanted to do in collaborating with other artists. He seemed so happy. For us, we were seeing it all really for the first time; we didn’t get to see it a second time.”