How urban mythology (and a savvy theme park worker) transformed a stodgy old shut-in’s lair into San Jose’s long-running tourist attraction.
As All Hollows’ Eve approaches, a horde of skeletons and ghouls have infested the jumbled jungle of a mansion called the Winchester Mystery House. The chillingly titled Unhinged, this year’s haunted house at Winchester, takes a historical San Jose establishment from the early 1900s, then utilizes it as the backdrop for a modern, immersive horror experience this October.
After our recent visit, we couldn’t help but imagine that the first (and famed) owner, Sarah Winchester, would be quite startled to find a host of actors in macabre makeup and monstrous masks capering about her residence’s hallways. She’d probably be disconcerted to discover a vengeful bride crawling about on her floorboards and a possessed girl clinging to her wallpaper like some kind of demented spider.
It’s all a lot of fun, but locals with even a little love of history might wonder how a house from a bygone era inspired such a haunted legacy. Come to think of it, how exactly did Silicon Valley wind up with one of America’s most famously spooky residences, inspiring Hollywood films and attracting a steady stream of tourists year-round? And how well do you know Sarah’s story really? Because the facts you think you know might just be part of a manufactured façade.
Take a step with us back in history, so we can uncover how a fascinating string of factors (some only indirectly tied to Sarah) mystified her story and her home into urban legend— and catapulted her private sphere into a lucrative business. You’ll discover how neighbors and newspapers played a hand in setting the stage for savvy entrepreneurs (namely a roller coaster designer who saw lucrative tourist opportunities). So don your deerstalker hat and ready your brain for some detective work because we’re about to separate the historical from the hysterical.
A History Mystery
Most locals can recite the tale like a timeworn campfire story: firearms heiress and recluse widow, Sarah Winchester, incessantly built onto her home for fear that, if she ceased, the souls slaughtered by her husband’s Winchester rifles would finally catch up to her.
She hosted evening seances to develop her building plans and she slept in a different room each night (to throw off the scent of hunting spirits)… But what if we were to tell you the known facts about Sarah and her residence are a lot less “dark and stormy night”?
Forget the facts you think you know. Recent findings from several credible sources suggest Superstitious Sarah might very well be a misrepresentation. Certainly, she added onto her eight-room farmhouse until it morphed into a 160-room hodgepodge of a mansion. But her motivations remain ambiguous and about as straightforward as navigating through the building’s confusing web of hallways.
As a private soul and a sufferer of severe rheumatoid arthritis, Sarah lived a recluse life and kept her reasons to herself. “[Sarah] didn’t leave behind any diaries or letters revealing her beliefs,” observes Karen Stollznow, a part of the investigative team at Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. “Books about the house and owner all provide second-hand information; one popular book was written by the grandson of a former gardener.”
It wouldn’t be the last time someone would market Sarah’s cryptic life.
Even with a skeptical eye, the hype around the house is understandable. Sarah was the sole architect of her home. And the mayhem of the architectural layout — the lurching labyrinthine corridors, the network of secret passageways — certainly seems to reflect a tortured mind.
There are a number of unsettling little oddities. Hallways turn a corner and abruptly dead-end. The most expensive of the building’s 10,000 windows, a stained-glass masterpiece, overlooks a wall where the sun can’t possibly shine. A staircase rises and rises until it abruptly ends in the ceiling.
It gets weirder. The heiress obsessed over the number 13, embedding it everywhere from modified chandeliers with 13 lights, drains with 13 holes, and banisters with 13 railings. And the mansion holds 2,000 doors. Some reveal solid walls. One on the second floor opens to air — and a stomach-sickening 15-foot drop to the garden below.
Such haphazard construction understandably fuels the imagination. But there are a few perfectly unexciting alternative reasons behind these bizarre features. Sarah’s constant building? Perhaps a reflection of her architectural ardor, a passion inherited from her woodworker father. Impractical doors and a staircase into the ceiling? Possibly the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake (which dragged down three of the mansion’s former seven stories). Her repetition of the number 13? Everyone’s got a favorite number.
But how about tales of her superstitious streak? They could be rumors. The severe economic hardship and unemployment of 1894 meant resentments ran high against the upper-class. Throwing exorbitant amounts of cash at her pet project wouldn’t exactly have gained her favor with the neighbors, points out Colin Dickey, writer of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. “She appeared to those around her as a gaudy reminder of the haves versus the have-nots,” he explains. “She was the 1 percent, and the city resented her for it. And so it punished her through gossip and myth.”
Also, factor in that as a woman and a shut-in, Sarah made an easy target. In 1895, both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Daily News hypothesized in articles that the heiress feared her home’s completion also meant her death. “Sarah was a very private person and felt she owed no explanation to anyone so she never came forward to set the record straight,” explains Scott H. Brown, historian and admin behind The Winchester Truth (a thorough resource dedicated to demystifying every last detail of the property and its proprietress). “Her silence added fuel to the fire and the stories continued on unchecked, getting wilder and more elaborate.”
The Hype Rises
Even in the wake of these sensational news features, the heiress had not yet reached the extreme reputation and hype she receives today. “Of the dozens of articles we found about the heiress in California newspaper archives, none written during her lifetime mention her desperately hiding from ghosts,” shares Katie Down of the Houston Chronicle.
After Sarah passed away, the property came into the ownership of John H. Brown, a roller coaster designer and theme park worker. He realized the lucrative possibility of the place and embraced the novelty of local suspicions. Five months after Sarah’s death, Brown tacked “Mystery” onto the house’s title, and opened the private sphere as a public tourist attraction. In under two years, newspapers were heralding seances and psychics.
In the years since Brown took the reins of the house (and really—Sarah’s legacy), 12 million guests have visited this local introvert’s sanctum.
Entering into the Realm of Pure Fiction (and the House Today)
Without the eerie story, the Winchester House is another Queen Anne style Victorian, albeit an architecturally magnificent one. But with it, the mansion has served as inspiration for paranormal junkies and horror genre authorities, influenced aspects of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, and served as the location for last year’s paranormal horror film Winchester. Of course, there’s also the Unhinged horror experience.
However, unlike proprietor John H. Brown, these creators let us know we’re entering into the realm of imagination. When speaking of the storylines in Unhinged, Walter Magnuson (general manager at Winchester Mystery House and previous Senior Manager at Disneyland Resort) makes sure to confirm, “Some pieces are tied to legends and stories. And some pieces are purely theatrical and done for the event and don’t have a basis on fact.”
We leave you with one final consideration: it’s not totally impossible that Sarah believed ghosts infested her passageways. She could have. It’s just not the only interpretation. On the other hand, weird, unbelievable things happen every day. So why shouldn’t it be true of this fabulously madcap mansion?
Check out Winchester’s Unhinged until November 2nd for your fear fix… or join the more relaxing daytime tour of the house anytime of the year. Find more details here.
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