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Winchester Mystery House.
Quirky on the outside, but the real strangeness is within.

Winchester Mystery House

Field review by the editors.

San Jose, California

The Winchester Mystery House is an answer looking for a question. It was built under the direction of eccentric millionaire Sarah Winchester, and her purpose was... who knows? That's the mystery.

Sarah Winchester spent most of her life as a widow, dressed in black.
Sarah Winchester spent most of her life as a widow, dressed in black.

A funhouse ahead of its time, Winchester Mystery House has doors that open onto walls, stairs that go nowhere, windows that appear in ceilings, rooms that lack floors. Sarah Winchester never explained why she wanted these structural peculiarities, but accounts after her death fed the legend that she built her crazy home out of fear -- fear of the vengeful spirits of the people killed by her late husband's Winchester rifles.

Spirit-plagued Sarah's question might have been: "If I can't get rid of ghosts, can I at least drive them nuts?" Her answer might have been to live in a house so confusing that the dead, befuddled, left her alone.

For over 35 years Sarah was a recluse, paying millions of dollars to expand her former simple farmhouse into a 160-room labyrinthine mansion. The public wanted to see it, and on June 30, 1923, only nine months after Sarah died in the house, it opened as a tourist attraction.

The Grand Ballroom: plenty of space for the dead to dance.
The Grand Ballroom: plenty of floor space for the dead to dance.

"New tour guides still get lost. I still get lost," said Tim O'Day, marketing director for the House. "Mrs. Winchester didn't work from blueprints, she didn't keep a diary. She was a very intelligent lady, but her house doesn't make any sense."

Winchester rifles,
Winchester rifles, "The Gun That Won the West" by killing the losers.

The "Hall of Fires," for example, includes multiple fireplaces (The house has 47 fireplaces but only 17 chimneys). Sarah would shut herself in the Hall and light all the hearths, slowly roasting herself.

The "Grand Ballroom" features a hinged wall; behind it is a wooden door, then a steel door, then a safe, then a safe inside the safe. After Sarah's death the safe was opened. Inside was some hair and the funeral notices of Sarah's husband and daughter, dead for decades.

"Every door hinge in the house is different," said Tim -- and the house has 2,000 doors.

As an attraction, the Winchester Mystery House must satisfy visitors with interests ranging from home remodeling to history to hauntings. "It is kind of tough," said Tim. "The House is many things to many people." One solution is to segment the audience. For example, the Friday the 13th Flashlight Tour focuses on the paranormal and takes ghost fans around the property after dark. The Explore More Tour leads super-curious visitors through previously unopened parts of the house -- such as the front door, which Sarah refused to open to anyone.

Door to Nowhere.
Door to Nowhere. If you stepped outside, you'd fall 20 feet to the garden below.

"Teddy Roosevelt was in the Bay Area," said Tim. "He was an admirer of Winchester firearms and he wanted to pay his respects to Mrs. Winchester. So he knocks on the front door, and was told to go around to the back; no one is allowed to use the front door. And he said, 'Dammit, I'm the President of the United States! I'm not using the back door!' And he walked off in a huff and never got to see the house."

All of Sarah Winchester's furniture -- including her death bed -- was sold off after her demise, but visitors to the house still wanted mementos. "People would come in and literally rip off pieces of wallpaper as souvenirs," said Tim. "But they'd always return the wallpaper, or any artifact that was taken, usually with a note saying, 'Ever since I took this I've had horrible luck. Please take this back.'" This cursed back-channel supply has helped in the House's restoration, which has been as perpetual as its original construction. The Winchester Mystery House claims to hold the record as the world's longest continuous home improvement project: begun in 1886, with no end in sight.

Modern studies of the house's origins haven't substantiated any "If you build it, they won't come"-motivation for Sarah, but since her death that's been an essential marketing drumbeat (and hook for Hollywood adaptations). Ghosts are everywhere in the Winchester Mystery House, said Tim, with disembodied footsteps, voices, and breathing; mysterious images on photographs; and things falling out of place constantly.

"Every employee has a story," Tim said. "But it isn't malevolent or evil. Whatever's here is quite happy." With 24,000 square feet of creaky doors and eerie staircases, the spirits, even if confused, apparently feel right at home.

Winchester Mystery House

525 S. Winchester Blvd, San Jose, CA
I-280 to San Jose. Take Winchester Blvd exit. At stoplight, turn left. At next stoplight (Winchester Blvd), turn left. Drive two stoplights. The Winchester Mystery House will be on the left.
Open daily at 9 AM (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
$20 to $50, depending on the tour.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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