The Very Metal History Of The Real Hellfire Club
With the release of a new season of Netflix’s spooky-scary tentpole Stranger Things, it’s time once again for the internet to gather around its virtual watercooler to discuss details. One of the most discussed bits this time around is just how fully, clearly, grown-ass adults the actors that are still supposed to be playing young children are. Once a certain amount of facial hair comes in, you simply have to retire the bowl cut as a hairstyle option. Maybe it’s a statement on Will Byers’ arrested childlike state due to his extended trauma in the form of continually being the centerpiece of various cosmic horrors’ plans. Maybe they just think it looks funny now. Either way it’s unsettling.
Another detail that you’ve likely spotted in social media screenshots, whether you’ve watched the season or not is the “Hellfire Club”, the name of the Dungeons & Dragons club at Hawkins High. Now, it’s entirely possible that the Duffer Brothers came up with the name “Hellfire Club” wholecloth, as it’s not exactly far out of the realm of traditional D&D and metalhead nomenclature. But the broader term of the hellfire club actually does have historical precedent, and precedent that is as spooky as any.
It’s been used as a larger umbrella term for a series of clubs that were attended by those members of high society who wished to have clubs and gatherings where the goings-on might be a little less public. They were known for mocking religion, drinking heavily, and just engaging in general debauchery. Some of these were rumored to engage in devil worship, but it seems more likely that it was more to the service of thumbing their nose at religion than actually hoping to get facetime with Beelzebub himself.
There is, however, one specific landmark site near Dublin, Ireland. Found on the summit of Montpelier Hill is what remains of a structure that’s known as the Hell Fire Club. This one, unlike the clubs that were more of a version of an old-school Las Vegas than a genuine black magic gathering, does have a history that’s steeped in the supernatural. Local tales abound and the site pops up on lists of the most haunted/supernatural places in the world with some regularity.
The construction of the Hell Fire Club began as the construction of any deeply spooky building should: with the desecration of a burial ground. When the lodge was constructed as a hunting lodge for a man named William Connolly in 1725, a ceremonial cairn was destroyed in order to make room. Not only was the cairn destroyed, but some of the stones from the cairn were actually used to construct the lodge itself. This seems unwise. If you’re going to deface some sort of memorial, at least hedge your bets by not actively taunting any pissed-off ghosts. Just put the stones from the cairn in a separate bin that says “HAUNTED - DO NOT USE.”
Almost as soon as the lodge was completed, a storm ripped the roof off, which was all the indication needed by the public that a bunch of ghosts were, indeed, pissed off. It’s only after William Connolly dies, however, that the lodge truly starts to build a nefarious history. After his death, the 1st Earl of Rosse Richard Parsons and actor and painter James Worsdale founded the Irish Hell Fire Club, which would settle on this lodge as its meeting place.
These members, like the other hellfire clubs, were known for generalized debauchery and “immoral behavior” but the Irish Hell Fire Club had more specific accusations of devil worship. The president of the club was said to be called the “King Of Hell” and dress like the devil. A set place at the table was always reserved for the Devil himself in hope that he might grace them with his presence. There are also pervasive tales of black masses held there that included the sacrifice of black cats.
The black cat also served as the mascot of the club and shows up in local legend. According to the story, a visitor decides to investigate the club by taking a trip there at night, to see exactly what goes on there. When he’s found dead in the morning, the farmer whose house he was staying at and a priest decide to go up to the Hell Fire Club, thinking they might be involved. When they enter the lodge, though, they’re greeted with a banquet laid out and a massive black cat the size of a panther. Having holy water on him, as priests do, the priest attempts to exorcise the cat which rips itself apart in the process.
Another story follows a similar pattern of warning non-members against trying to witness the goings-on within the Hell Fire Club walls. This one relates a farmer hiking up Montpelier Hill out of curiosity. The club-members, perhaps feeling particularly drunk, charitable, or both, allow him inside to join that night’s party. The man was found the next day quivering in fear and, as legend has it, never spoke again. Which truly puts him in contention for the worst hangover of all time.
The most famous story of all, though, involves two classically cool things: the Devil, and card games. As this story goes, members of the Hell Fire Club were up to their usual immoral behavior, and were engaging in some good old-fashioned gambling. A traveler came by and asked to join the card game, which they acquiesced to. A couple rounds were had until another player, probably soused on strong ale, dropped one of his cards. Bending over to pick it up, he noticed the travelers’ feet, or rather, lack thereof. Where the traveler’s feet should have been were a pair of cloven hooves. His cover blown, the Devil, as he is wont to do, disappeared in a poof of flame.
Whether these are genuine supernatural experiences, or stories that were cooked up for fun and intrigue by a group of men already known for loving to get drunk as all hell and mess with people, I leave to you. One thing is for absolute sure, however: the still-standing remains of the Hell Fire Club would be an incredibly badass place to play D&D.
Top Image: Netflix/Public Domain