Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Explore the Winchester Mystery House at Home


One of my favorite memories of San Jose, aside from living between two of its oldest cemeteries, was having the Winchester Mystery House a few blocks from our house. The immediate area is now home to two major malls (sorry, one is an open-air, upscale, urban center called Satan's Row, I think). It's difficult to imagine this as the orchard-filled, rural area Sarah Winchester retired to for isolation and quiet – and spiritual mysticism. 

"The Spirit House" as it's sometimes called is a stunning marvel of Victorian architecture and madness complete with a maze of over 500 rooms (160 rooms remain), 2000 doors (some with a steep drop), and10,000 windows (some with intricate web designs) sprawling across six acres.

I've been there for many tours and Halloween events, but the flashlight tour in 2008 left me a gasp. I was alone in the Grand Ballroom and witnessed a door open in front of me. I didn't think anything of it and  thought a docent would appear but they did not. I called one over and she immediately called a supervisor. The door should have been locked since there was an accounting paperwork in that closet. And during a tour of the basement I clearly saw a construction worker among the duct work and again didn't think much about it. Later the docent told us, the ghost of a man in worker overalls is seen there frequently.

The pandemic shuttered the house for the first time since 1923 when it was opened to the public, a year after Sarah's death. It's struggling like so many other organizations during this chaotic time. Lucky for us, they have created an Immersive 360º Tour for $8.99 (a fraction of the cost of an in-person tour). You get a subscription to the house and get to visit this virtual tour as often as you like. 

One of my favorite elements is a 3D model of the floor plan which they call "The Dollhouse." You get a bird's eye view of the entire house's interior and you can zoom into rooms for a closer look or click through a virtual walk-through. It's a stunning and unprecedented look at the house. 


Two books I recommend about the Winchester Mystery House are the souvenir book available only at the gift shop (or their online shop) which features 40 pages of photos and the special highlights covered on the tour. The book is a little dated, presumably produced before the organization fully leaned into the ghostly lore. If they put together a book today with stunning photography embracing this darker side, it would be a best seller (please note the gorgeous photo included at the top).

If you wanted to learn more about Mrs. Winchester, who was a compelling, pioneering woman ahead of her time, read the book Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune by Mary Jo Ignoffo. This biography is a deep dive into the Winchester family, Sarah's upbringing, the subsequent heartbreaking story, and the eventual move to the West Coast to create the mansion. Please note that fans of the ghostly business will not be pleased with this book. 

The author opens the book with the "haunted mansion" lore then quickly dismisses any further exploration of Mrs. Winchester's proclivities to spiritualism which was rampant at the time. There's a clear bias to distance the work from such "fanciful notions" and in doing so, the author willfully ignores much of Mrs. Winchester's widely reported interests from her later years. 

It's a shame. The house itself is full of beautifully bizarre architecture and structural details that communicate to people like me who love the paranormal that something unusual was definitely afoot on the property. We may never know the details of what Mrs. Winchester actually believed (until that lost secret diary is found buried in one of the walls) but I believe that she believed in something extraordinary. There in lies the mystery of the Winchester House.