Frederick T. Joseph, a marketing CEO, former national surrogate for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and respected commenter on race in America, launched an impassioned Twitter thread on Monday night after finding himself at an Airbnb that he claimed was full of “seemingly satanic items and stuff for witchcraft rituals.” Joseph said that he and his family members were forced to flee the house after finding “imagery, candles, books, etc for rituals and what looked like devil worship.” Both the host of the Airbnb property in question and the Church of Satan have weighed in to dispute his description of the house and its contents.
In a video call with Motherboard, the host was able to take us on a walkthrough of the house and show convincingly that many of the alleged markers of “Satanic” activity are art books and kitschy objects. Joseph also claimed the house’s basement had “ritualistic markings” on the floor, which, from our viewing, is flatly untrue. They looked like paint smudges.
“They [the items] are not Satanic,” the host, whose name is Alex, told Motherboard on a video call from the house. “They’re kitsch. None of it is occult. You can get this stuff at a bodega.”
Joseph is the CEO of a marketing and storytelling agency called We Have Stories and an occasional political columnist and commentator; he’s the author of a forthcoming book called The Black Friend, on his personal experiences with racism and allyship. He tweeted that he arrived at the house with his fiancé, 8-year-old brother, and a cousin, only to find objects he considered disturbing. These included, according to photos, a religious candle that reads “Rompe Hechizo” (“Hex breaker” in Spanish), two photos of topless people, and a naughty wind-up toy of an upright dog having sex with a woman. There was also poster of a (clothed) couple wearing rubber masks and the words “SEX MILITANT” overlaid over them. Joseph also was particularly incensed by a small Baphomet statue on a bookshelf behind a taxidermied pheasant in a plastic bag.
“As we walked through the two rooms we found a bunch of imagery, candles, books, etc for rituals and what looked like devil worship,” Joseph wrote. “My brother was terrified, as were we. We called @Airbnb and told them we couldn’t stay there and explained the situation.”
Joseph also tweeted that he’d gone to check out an “animal skull” hanging on the outside of the house, adding, “When I walked I went to the basement and found more animal skulls and ritualistic floor markings and then I went up to the rooms to find much more.” He didn’t provide photos of what he called “ritualistic floor markings.”
Joseph also claimed that Airbnb had refused him a refund, writing, “We were told that we couldn’t receive a refund and they spoke to the owner who said there were just a few small art pieces that they could come remove. This was a lie, it was the whole damn house not a few things. A BAPHOMET HIDDEN BEHIND A DEAD BIRD IN A BAG.”
Baphomet is a horned, winged goat deity, sometimes depicted with breasts, that has been associated with the esoteric, occult and mystical traditions since the Middle Ages. (The Knights Templar, an exceedingly Christian organization, were accused of worshipping Baphomet by King Philip IV of France, and forced to confess to such worship under torture.) The statue in Alex’s house appears to be a teeny tiny one covered in suede or felt, which would be an impractical and unlikely thing to use as a centerpiece for any Satanic ritual.
The Church of Satan, one of two prominent global Satanic organizations based in the United States, responded to Joseph on Twitter, writing, “The photos in this thread depict thrift store curiosities & hot topic kitsch, not evidence of satanic rituals. Sounds like you have an over active imagination and can’t tell the difference between supernatural horror movies and reality.” (Joseph did not respond.) The Satanic Temple—a group distinct from, and which has long feuded with, the Church of Satan—has a Baphomet statue at its headquarters, and garnered a great deal of news coverage for trying to place Baphomet statutes alongside Christian monuments at state capitol buildings across the country, to make a point about religious plurality in America.
Joseph indicated at the end of his thread that his family felt unsafe in the house, writing, “There was also a bridge from the woods behind the house to the back patio. Needless to say, we left because we are Black and not dealing with something that was: 1. advertised completely different 2. Looks like a scene from Hereditary 3. Made the entire family feel unsafe.”
Joseph didn’t respond to an email from Motherboard requesting comment.
In a statement, Airbnb told us, “Frederick was fully refunded this morning, and we apologize for the delay in providing support. Our policy prohibits sexually explicit images within our listings, and we are currently working with the host to help ensure he is in compliance.” (Alex was able to show us that he provided the refund, not Airbnb.)
Motherboard successfully reached Alex, the owner of the Airbnb property in question. He requested that we keep his last name private, to prevent him from being harassed, but gave permission to disclose that the house is in Mountain Dale, New York, an area of the Catskills popular with vacationers. He offered to allow someone at Vice News to stay a night at the house to see it for themselves, which was not possible. Instead, he got on a FaceTime call on Wednesday morning to offer both a guided tour and a spirited defense. (He also showed us documentation that he issued a refund to Joseph himself, on September 8, in the amount of $983.77.)
Alex told Motherboard he works in the film and photography industry, but started offering his house on Airbnb earlier this year, as work started to slow down. He and his housemate vacate the house and stay with friends when they have guests, and Joseph was their 13th or 14th booking this year. All proceeded uneventfully, he said, until now.
Alex was at dinner with friends the night Joseph and his family arrived at the house, he told Motherboard, when he got a call from an Airbnb representative. As Alex recalls it, the Airbnb rep told him, “He wants to leave, he wants a full refund, and he says you’re holding rituals in the house.”
Alex says he responded, “I’m not giving a refund for that, that’s crazy,” then messaged Joseph to say, as he remembers it, “I heard you’re offended by some things in the house. I’m happy to remove them. I want my guests to be comfortable.”
Joseph didn’t reply, Alex said. When he realized his guest was a writer, he assumed he had a Twitter. Alex went to the site and was shocked to find tweets with pictures of his home, baseless accusations of Satanism, and what he viewed as a growing, and possibly dangerous, hysteria in the replies.
“The thread became an echo chamber,” he said. “A lot of people saying crazy stuff, that I should be called out, asking my address. I’m a private person. I don’t post to my social media or what I’m doing with my friends, so to be thrust into this wild Twittersphere of misinformation and a story conceived completely out of context and taking wild liberties with his imagination about what this house is— the first little while, I was pretty shocked and upset.”
His main concern, he said, was that someone would take it upon themselves to come to his house: “I was like, what if people find me? What if people start turning up at my house? What if this is against their religious sensibilities and they want to do something about it?
Alex was especially alarmed by a few of the replies, like one from Cindy Chu, an actor, who opined that a tub on Alex’s porch looked like it was for “bloodletting outside and washing away evidence.”
In a tour of the house, Alex showed that the “hexbreaker” candle sits on a woodstove, next to some matches and a crystal. Much of the art, like the topless photos, is tucked on low bookshelves, not immediately visible. Nearby the offending Baphomet statue is, of all things, a light with an image of Jesus painted on it, and nearby, by the bed, a white candle that reads GUARDIAN ANGEL, in English, along with a prayer.
“Here’s some Alice in Wonderland art,” Alex said, panning across the living room. He displayed a stack of art books, and then, on the windowsill, a tiny handful of delicate bones he said the housemates had either found in the woods or been gifted. “There’s a little nest here on the windowsill I found and some animal bones, a mushroom, there’s feathers we found - there’s a lot of hawks around here. Here’s a mushroom and a Jewish memorial candle. You get the picture. It’s pretty eclectic and esoteric. Any individual item taken out of the context, you can build whatever narrative you want out of that.” (The “Sex Militant” poster, for instance, which is a promotional poster, as it happens, for the work of an artist named Jex Blackmore, who is an activist and non-theistic Satanist who does not literally worship Satan.)
On the refrigerator, he showed Motherboard a pink dolphin magnet and one of a Nativity scene from Jerusalem; nearby is a wall of children’s drawings, from where they let guests’ children scribble on the walls, he said. He displayed what he thought was probably a jet engine, drawn by a small guest. “It’s a very good jet engine,” he offered.
From the porch, he displayed the bathtub—which is clearly connected to plumbing lines and has candles next to it, obviously intended for bathing—and, below it, a little board laid across the river as a makeshift bridge. He gestured at a firepit in the yard below him.
“Someone on Twitter was saying this was a ritualistic firepit,” he said dryly. “There’s logs and a grill for meat. We also have a veggie garden nearby. Guests are allowed to pick tomatoes.”
Downstairs, in the supposedly offending, “ritualistic” basement, he showed us a washer and dryer, a stack of boxes, a mess of clothes and other household objects, an animal skull with long horns, draped in an American flag, and, in the corner, what he suspects was the cause of Joseph’s alarm.
“There’s a speaker stand for a DJ setup,” Alex said, showing us an object with a triangular base that was, clearly, a speaker stand. “I think maybe he looked at it and thought it was an altar.”
While the imagery, and the presence of a bridge across the water, may certainly have made Joseph and his family feel unsafe, the images he specifically posted on Twitter do not appear to be particularly menacing. All these elements, even the sexualized ones, seem relatively par for the course for a kitschy cabin in the woods. (Per Airbnb rules, “pervasive” sexual imagery isn’t allowed; that is, sexual images that are in plain sight; erotic or suggestive art is permitted; those lines are clearly a judgment call in many cases.)
For his part, Alex acknowledges that the windup toy of the dog having sex with a woman is “in bad taste”; it was in his roomate’s room, and, had he known it was there, he said, “I would have moved it.” And had Joseph complained about the sexual imagery in the house, to him or to AirBnb, Alex said, his response would have been immediate and apologetic. “If he’d just said, ‘This doesn't look like advertised, there’s nudity,’ I would’ve said, ‘I’m so sorry, I’ll buy you dinner in town, I’ll help you find another place to stay, I’ll give you some fuel money.”
Having candles, dead birds, and risque imagery in your house also does not mean that you are going to ritually sacrifice your Airbnb guests, or put them in position to suffer harm. (As I write this, I am sitting arm's length from a skunk skull, a taxidermied bird, a rat preserved in formaldehyde, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a cute little plaster owl, none of which indicate that I intend to ritually slaughter anyone who enters my home.)
The broader question, of course, is whether having naughty art or religious imagery that a guest finds objectionable is a matter for offense, alarm, or a refund. Airbnb would likely not refund a guest who was offended by crosses, Stars of David or prayer mats, leaving open the question of whether “Satanic” art, or anything a guest broadly considers to be “Satanic,” ought to be treated differently. (Joseph also reported that the Baphomet statue was “hidden,” which would seem to suggest the host didn’t leave it out in plain view to offend the eyesight of any easily scandalized renters.)
“I’m agnostic,” Alex said. “But if I was a pagan and someone came to my house and did this, it would be super offensive. Are they [Airbnb] cherry picking which theologies they find acceptable? Should a person have to disclose their religion? If you’re a religious person are you expected to remove the religious iconography from your house? Because that is flatout discrimination.”
That gets at the larger point here, which is that Airbnb is, at least nominally a place for normal everyday people to rent out their homes, not a hotel service, despite the fact that it’s become a haven for investors, shell companies, and the odd scam. Some people’s ordinary taste is Satanic kitsch, and there's no obvious reason why such people would have to remove anything that might conceivably be offensive to anyone spending money to spend time in their house and among their stuff. (Including your Baphomet statue prominently in your listing photos, though, might self-select out anyone who would be frightened or offended to share a living space with such an item.)
Before we spoke to Alex, Motherboard was also able to locate and review the listing where Joseph and his family stayed. The host described the house as “bright and cozy with a bit of a Scandinavian vibe to it.” The offending artwork isn’t clearly visible in any of the photos we were able to view; as the tour of the house showed, it is actually somewhat difficult to find at all.
A look at previous reviews of the house where Joseph stayed shows that other guests described the house as “cozy,” “a home away from home,” and that several enjoyed hearing the nearby creek rushing by; one guest also reported that there’s a nearby pub, suggesting the listing isn’t quite as remote as it felt to Joseph. The listing notes it has "very fast internet :)." None of the previous guests self-reported any Satanic experiences, positive or negative.
In the end, Alex said that he was never able to speak to anyone besides “low level representatives” on an Airbnb hotline, and one chat conversation online where he was able to send some supporting documentation.
“They actually said to me, ‘We haven’t experienced anything like this so we don’t know what to do,’” he told Motherboard. “They said my case has been elevated to a different team,” and that someone would call him soon. “Nobody called me,” he said. He got an email warning that “sexual nudity” is not allowed in Airbnb listings, and then another, where he was told he’d received a “strike” against his account, which would be deactivated if he got another.
Alex told us that he returned to the house around midnight, after first double-checking to make sure that his unhappy guests had departed: “The last thing I wanted was to have him think we were turning up to intimidate him.” He then passed an anxious and mostly sleepless night.
“I went to bed at like two o’clock and woke up at 6 a.m.,” he said. “ I stupidly checked twitter and things had exploded even more. It was a day of watching Twitter explode while being on hold at Airbnb. But no one had called me back.”
The experience, Alex said, “wasn’t frightening,” not exactly. “It was unsettling. Unsettling and weird and surreal and unnecessary.”