Back in May, a strange story popped up onto the political blogs about a "haunted" funeral home in Cleveland that was listed on Airbnb to rent during the Republican National Convention. For $200 a night, the listing offered the conservatives, protestors, and media folks who were descending on the city the chance to sleep in a place where countless bodies were once embalmed and mourned over.
Intrigued by the listing, VICE dug deeper to learn that the funeral home was the historic House of Wills, which sits right on E. 55th in Cleveland. The building was constructed at the turn of the century by a German social club and bought in 1942 by J. Walter Wills, a legendary black businessman who founded Cleveland's NAACP and helped organize the city's first black business organization.
In 1907, Wills formed the J. W. Wills & Sons Co., which became the state's largest black-owned funeral business. Wills converted the 34-room manor on E. 55th into his second funeral-home business. It was to be a meeting space, a living space, and eventually an organizational headquarters for the civil rights movement. Many of the house's rooms were designed to reference the world's greatest cultures, from ancient Greece to ancient Egypt. The lavish woodwork and art deco detailing made it feel like the kind of place you'd imagine Jay Gatsby hanging out.
Wills died in 1971. The House of Wills remained a fully functioning funeral home until 2005, when Wills's descendants sold it. That's when the scrappers came in, ravaging the historic building for metal, destroying its ornate beauty and leaving it blighted and decrepit. In 2010, local Satanist Eric Freeman acquired the House of Wills through a title company for a paltry $13,000.
Freeman is Cleveland's most prominent Satanist, having earned a national name for himself making art and clothes for musicians like Marilyn Manson, Kerry King of Slayer, and Al Jourgensen of Ministry. In addition, he owns one of the largest private collections of artifacts related to the Church of Satan founder, Anton Lavey.
Freeman's been using the House of Wills as a center for local Satanists, a tourist attraction for ghost hunters, and a gallery for his collection of grotesque and blasphemous art. The extreme art inside the house includes an anatomically correct sculpture of Jesus of Nazareth fucking Mary Magdalene that is dissected long-ways to reveal their gory innards, and a seven-foot-tall sex torture device that features a girth-y wooden dick studded with sharp metal spikes.
Freeman recently moved into the building's living quarters to continue renovations and protect the property from vandals and scrappers. Beyond just being a warehouse for his morbid stuff, Freeman hopes he can revive it once again into a space that engages the local community in a way that is true to the vision of J. Walter Wills.
We wanted to find out more about the most peculiar Airbnb listing at the RNC, so we took a drive down to the House of Wills a couple days before the start of the convention. Fittingly, when we arrived, there was a long, gray hearse in the parking lot. Although Freeman actually opted not to rent out the place during the convention—despite a great deal of interest—he did give us a tour of the house, including his living quarters. He also shared his opinions on Trump, the convention, and the modern politics of Satanism.
VICE: Why list your place on Airbnb during the RNC?
Eric Freeman: It was actually my girlfriend's idea. She set it up. I wanted to see what kind of press and publicity something like this would draw from the national community. And it's drawn a lot. I have people stay here a lot for ghost tours and overnight investigations. But if I was smart, I definitely would have kept the listing up and made some money.
What made you not wanna go through with it?
It's just not prepared. It's not up to par from my perspective. There's no running water here. When I finally do rent it out, I want it to be right.
Who reached out to you about renting the place during the RNC that surprised you?
Al Jourgensen from Ministry and Perry Farrell from Jane's Addiction. There were lots of random people, too, from all over the country who just wanted to stay in an abandoned funeral home.
What about any political people?
I had the Communist Party hit me up to see if they could do a rally here and camp people out. But I decided not to do that. As for Cleveland, the people in this town are most interested in the ghost aspect of it. But I'm more interested in the historical aspect of it and the restoration.
What is it like to be a white guy who owns a very important piece of Cleveland's black history and is using it for Satanic stuff? Have locals been pissed off? And are you doing anything to preserve the black history of this space or uplift the community around it?
I'm planning on starting an outreach program for the homeless, the indigent, and juveniles, where we deconstruct and reconstruct some of the houses in the area. And as far as the community's response, they've been great. Every time I'm working on the house, people stop by and say hello.
The biggest obstacle has been the city. They keep raping me for money, but they should really be concerned with the history of this place. This building has been here since the 1800s and needs to be here long after I'm gone. You're never going to find another building like this, ever. And the fact that they were going to turn it into a parking lot is disgusting. I had to make sure I bought it, and now I want to do everything I can to save it.
So what is Cleveland's Satanic community like?
In my New Church of Satan group, I have many Cleveland followers. It is an interesting conglomeration of people who are looking for some kind of humanitarian outreach, but aren't willing to work with churches. They also believe in evolutionary betterment, where you do whatever needs to be done to get the most out of life and do whatever you need to do to evolve as a creature everyday.
How does the local Satanic community of Cleveland view the RNC?
We have a lot of people who support Trump, but I personally think it is all a scam. I think they've already decided who's going to be president. This is just a public display to make people think they have some sort of involvement, but in reality, this is just a reality TV show for the world.
What do you think of the RNC?
I think it is ridiculous. I think a lot of money is coming into Cleveland, but they spent a lot of money making the place look like Disneyland. My fear is that it will all fall down. Right now, it looks great for the city—it's getting a lot of press. But we'll see how positive it will turn out to be in the end. I don't see it really doing anything beneficial in the long term.
What do think about the recent political activities of Satanism?
Atheists for years have been trying to make a political impact. But due to the name or people slagging them off, they haven't succeeded. But once you introduce the word "Satan," people really start to pay attention.
Is the political stuff that people are doing now in the name of Satanism something that Lavey would be into?
No. He wouldn't be into it at all. Lavey was a very private and personal man. But we grew up in a different time period. I grew up studying Lavey as well as politics and punk rock and all these aspects of taking a fighting stance to do what's right. And that's what Satanism is really about. Remember, Lucifer fought against God for justice, even though he knew was going to lose.
If Lavey wouldn't be into the political stuff going on right now in Satanism, what does this new activity represent?
It's an evolution. Lavey didn't want followers in the first place. He wanted the knowledge to disseminate and be used to the best possible advantage. Satanism is really up to everyone and what they chose to do with it.
Would you say modern Satanists are left or right? How do they fit in the political spectrum as most people understand it?
The smart ones don't believe in any of it. The others are a duality of both sides, incredibly conservative and liberal. For us, there really isn't a party that suits both needs. Until there are four or five parties in an election, I can't believe any of it.
So is there a Satanic perspective on the hot button issues of the day?
Satanists are anti-stupid, period. We don't have time for frivolous things unless it is used in an entertaining or comedic way. But there are not concrete views—everyone uses Satanism in their own way. There are definitely pathways that run within the realm of Satanism, but the only particulars are anti-stupid and the power of the will.
See more photos by Pete Larson.