My Latest Favorite Scary Place: Winchester Mystery House

Earlier this month I was in California and had the most amazing chance to indulge in one of my childhood wishes: to visit the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. I expect it isn’t a surprise to anyone who knows me (or who has read my fiction) that I adore scary stuff–scary books, films, haunted places. I’m not sure, but I think I first read about Sarah Winchester’s spooky manse in a Weekly Reader or some kids’ magazine, and it’s been on my list of places to visit ever since.

After a fabulous Sunday pancake breakfast in San Francisco (Millbrae, actually) with two of my favorite writer-chicks, Kelli Stanley and Sophie Littlefield, I headed to the Mystery House alone. Delightfully and deliciously alone. (Of course, when I got there it was as crowded as any small theme park is on a beautiful afternoon.)

Brief background: Sarah Winchester’s husband left her an enormous fortune when he died in 1881. (They had also lost a daughter in 1866) Tradition says that Sarah Winchester, devastated by grief, began to consult psychics. A medium ostensibly told her that the spirits of all those killed by Winchester firearms were angry, and that the only way to appease them was to continuously build onto her house until she died–or that she wouldn’t die until the house was finished. Versions of the story differ. So she renovated a San Jose area farmhouse, adding onto it 24 hours a day until she died in 1922. There are plenty of weird details in the house–a staircase that leads to a ceiling, doorways that open into the air, windows within rooms that look onto other rooms, etc.

I was excited, but I confess that I wasn’t thinking about ghosts. It would be tough to there because the place is run very much like a theme park, with a gift shop, snack stands, tidy restrooms and outdoor loudspeakers announcing tour times. Mostly I was thinking about how bizarre it all was.

So, five minutes into the tour, I started to feel queasy and a little dizzy. It was at that moment I started to think about the haunting rumors. But I’m a sensible sort and really didn’t want to leave the tour. I’m convinced that I started feeling awful because there isn’t a single rational room or hallway in the entire mansion. Several floors are uneven, and many of the hallways are narrow and meandering. Ceiling heights seem to change subtly given the large number of stairways. The whole thing is damned unsettling.

As we walked from room to room, I lost all sense of the building being an actual house. I can’t imagine being one of Sarah Winchester’s servants. They surely spent all of their time in a befuddled state.

The museum has none of Sarah Winchester’s original furniture. The guide for the house tour said it took something like eight moving trucks working for weeks to empty it. She was a Victorian. You can imagine the clutter.

We saw the room where she died, her bathroom, her office. Expensive but not glamorous. People’s personalities are reflected in their belongings, don’t you think?

Here’s a site posted by a former tour guide that replicates the tour almost exactly. No pictures, though. You’ll have to go to the main site or Google the house for images.

I’ve sprinkled some pictures throughout the post. Given that I took them with my phone camera, they came out okay.

In the end, I’m skeptical about the house actually being a playground/panacea for restless spirits. Walking through that house is like walking through the inside of a crazy person’s head. I shudder to think what a stroll through my own brain would be like.

That said….

I took a second, behind-the-scenes tour. And the only time I felt truly creeped out in the house (aside from a very tense moment in an earthquake-damaged alcove in a bedroom) was in the basement. Oddly enough, the basement was the most rational part of the entire place. It was all exposed brick and concrete floors on a floating foundation. It was broom-clean and well-lighted.

I felt most uncomfortable–suffocated, even–in the area where they used to pile the coal, standing in the middle of where the stuff would have been stored. Here’s the pic. I’ve dreamed about a similar place–perhaps that’s why it was distressing.

The other thing was more unsettling. As I was trying to take a picture of the ancient boiler, my phone took a picture without me touching the button. It’s blurred because I didn’t realize it had gone off.

I thought it was a little weird. It’s possible to take a picture with a side button, but you have to work pretty hard to set it up that way. The OK button that I always press to take a picture is in the center of the phonepad and not all that easy to use. I proceeded to take the pics I meant to take.

I let it go, but then it happened again on the other side of the boiler. This pic was blurred, too, because I hadn’t even begun to set the shot and the camera was in motion.

I spent the final few minutes of the tour trying to duplicate the accidental shots, plus an additional 1/2 hour once I got back to my hotel. I’ve juggled my phone six hundred different ways and still can’t do it.

Not saying my phone or the Winchester Mystery House is haunted–just that sometimes things happen that we don’t have an answer for.

Love that.

P.S. While the spirits aren’t such good architects when it comes to interiors, they definitely make up for their shortcomings when they design gardens. To die for….

13 thoughts on “My Latest Favorite Scary Place: Winchester Mystery House”

  1. Amazing story, Laura. The restless soul, in my opinion, was the owner herself who became a living ghost, erecting more and more senseless rooms, rooms without purpose–a total reflection of her overwhelming grief. Wow! And wow about your phone!

    Jessica

  2. Hey beautiful,

    I was here years ago with my friend Shawn and thought it was so strange. We loved the story (I had never heard it when I went) and vowed to use it in writing somewhere. But so far, I haven’t. It was a totally strange fun day — thanks for reminding me of it! We didn’t get any pictures so it’s cool to see yours. Especially the haunted ones.

  3. Tia Nevitt says:

    Sounds so fun! I LOVE touring old houses! If you ever go to the Boston area, be sure to go to Concord and tour all the houses of the many writers who lived there.

  4. Jessica–I think you’re absolutely right. There was a real sense of sadness about the place. The gardens felt so free and pleasant in comparison. Thanks for being here!

    Michelle–This would be an amazing and difficult story to write. One of those things that’s just too weird to make up. No one would buy it, I think. xo

    Thanks, Tia! I was there for just a couple days last spring and saw Salem, which was cool. I’ll put Concord on my must-see list.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Great blog! It’s still so creepy to hear about your cell phone . . . .xxoo, Maggie

  6. AnswerGirl says:

    So jealous — it’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit! And the blurry “self-timer” photos sent chills down my spine.

  7. I am green with envy, what a fabulous house. Thanks for the great post.

  8. I wish you all could have been there with me. It would have been a great time!

    Maggie–Did you say you went with Sam? I will go again if you want to.

    Clair and Danielle–it’s so worth going to SFO for. Well, you might want to squeeze in a trip to that big bridge and a glass of wine or two to top it off. : )

  9. Gary says:

    Good Morning,
    Deborah Digges had completed about a third of a planned work on Sarah Winchester, a kind of historical fiction that, so far, had imaginatively followed Sarah Winchester until her decision to leave New Haven and head to California. She said she was “pulling out all the stops.” Anyone out there heard of this? Or knew Deborah?

  10. Clearly I should have stuck around after pancakes…wish I’d seen that! 🙂

  11. Interesting about the phone’s “accidental” shots. Winchester House is a very strange place, rather like its owner, from all accounts. I didn’t feel anything “haunted” about it when I was there, but it was weird in the sense of such a disjointed place – perhaps reflecting the late owner’s state of mind.

    Glad you enjoyed your visit to San Francisco!

  12. That’s eerie about your phone.

    I used to live in Northern California and often took guests to the Winchester Mystery House. Makes for an interesting outing, ghosts or not.

  13. Gary–That’s great information. I Googled Deborah Digges and was a little freaked out to know that she died last spring with the book unfinished. Wonder if anyone will finish it….http://president.tufts.edu/1231927203664/Pres-Page-pres2w_1239630674620.html

    Sophie–We would have had a great time. I confess that when I heard you say you were going shopping, I almost tagged along with you and your sweet daughter.Congrats on the fab reviews for Bad Day for Sorry!

    Tara–That’s exactly what I thought. An external manifestation of an unbalanced mind.

    Maureen–There are so many places to visit around there. You must have had guests clamoring for act as tour guide. So glad you stopped by the Handbasket!

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