Thursday, April 19, 2012
Winchester Mystery House
There's just something creepy about the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA. Maybe it was all those times my family drove from L.A. to San Jose to visit my uncle, and I'd see billboards touting "The Winchester House of Mystery --> 6 miles." I remember the signs had a large skull on them making them quite ominous to any child under ten.
I always wondered why we never stopped there. After all, my family was so into horror movies that we would spend every (every!) Friday or Saturday night at Studio Drive-In in Culver City to catch the latest B-Horror film. Dracula or Blackula... Yeah, quality didn't matter much to my folks. They were just looking for a fun, inexpensive way to relieve some work-week stress and, back in the late '60's and early 70's, drive-in theaters were just the ticket. But with so much focus on scary entertainment options, I was always curious why Dad never took that coveted off-ramp to the Winchester House. I just figured it was too frightening even for him, let alone my sister and I, so he'd always drive past it. Disappointed, I remember asking my cousins if they'd ever been and each one glared at me with that "deer in the headlights" expression squealing, "No way! It's too scary!" It wasn't until many years later that I learned about this wonderful, old house and just why it's so mysterious.
As the story goes, Sarah Winchester was the wife of William Wirt Winchester, magnate of the Winchester rifle company. Soon after Mr. Winchester and their young daughter died unexpectedly, Sarah went to a medium who told her that she had lost her loved ones because of a curse, resulting from all of the deaths caused by Winchester rifles. The medium also told her that the only way she would be able to appease the spirits (and not be their next target for death) was to continually build on to her home. And so she did, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 38 years. Sarah was a very superstitious woman, also believing that she could ward off evil spirits by using items in the quantity of 13 throughout the house. The Winchester House has windows with 13 panes and there are 13 bathrooms. The 13th bathroom has 13 windows. On your way to said bathroom 13, you'll pass 13 wall panels, followed by 13 stair steps. The greenhouse has 13 cupolas, there are 13 ceiling panels in some rooms, and the chandelier in the Ballroom held 13 candles. Sarah even made sure that her lovely Seance Room contained 13 robe hooks. The caretakers of the home now continue the tradition where every Friday the 13th a bell on the property is rung 13 times at 13:00 hours in tribute to Sarah.
The photo above was taken prior to 1906, when the big earthquake destroyed most of the house (photo courtesy of Winchester Mystery House). It was 7 stories high back then, but today it has only 4 stories and sits on 4.5 of the original 162 acres. Historians guess that between 500 and 600 rooms were built, but because of constant demolition and rebuilding (damn those spirits!) there are now only 160 rooms. Of course, each of those rooms has had its share of paranormal investigations. People claim to feel cold spots, see full-bodied apparitions of Sarah, they hear breathing, see doorknobs turn by themselves, hear the organ playing, and have seen balls of light.
After finding out this information there was only one thing for me to do: take the Halloween Flashlight Tour of the Winchester House. I drove my son (then 13) and my mother up to San Jose for the weekend. Our tour, of course, began at midnight and upon entry they gave each of us a souvenir flashlight with which to take the tour (I still have mine). I was disappointed that we had to stay with our tour guide - I would have loved to have roamed freely on my own - but I understand why they don't allow it: people would get lost. I mean really lost. Or worse yet, hurt. The interior is crazy-making! Open cabinet doors in the kitchen and find a wall, rather than shelving. Climb 40 steps to go up only nine feet. Open a door and if you're not looking you could fall from a sheer drop to the exterior of the house. There's even a glass pane right in the middle of the floor which you could easily fall through to the floor below. My favorite oddity: the staircase that leads straight up to the ceiling. So freaking creepy! Some say that she built the house this way to confuse the spirits, making it difficult for them to find her. Unfortunately for me, our tour was filled with frat boys so it wasn't as scary as I'd hoped, although I will say it was quite ghastly every time we'd follow them up a staircase and they would purposely fart in our faces. Yeah, that wasn't quite the kind of terror I had in mind.
Still, I say if you haven't been to the Winchester Mystery House you should do yourself a favor and see it for yourself. It's a beautiful Victorian-style home and it has been immaculately maintained. It's located at 525 S. Winchester Blvd. in San Jose, CA (phone 408.247.2000). It's also a California Historical Landmark. On my Scare-O-Meter, I give it "1 jump" for its creep factor and would recommend that you take the kiddies, too.