The neighborhood surrounding San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House isn’t particularly scary, unless you’re frightened by the bustling upscale shopping mall and movie theater complex across the street. But the former home of firearm heiress Sarah Winchester is so bizarre that once you are inside, distractions disappear like the elusive apparitions so many have claimed to see in the house.
Winchester started building her custom mansion along what is now South Winchester Boulevard in 1884 — and thanks to her immense wealth and questionable mental stability, continued construction right up until her death in 1922. By some accounts, the home was designed by Winchester to appease the ghosts of all the people killed by Winchester rifles.
Winchester was notorious for allowing mediums and spirit guides to help her design her home, which has more than 160 rooms. Some staircases lead directly into solid walls, while others end at open two-story drops. Many rooms remain unfinished, just the way Winchester left them when she died. Spider webs proliferate throughout the home, as both natural and design elements. The number 13, a favorite of Winchester’s, pops up repeatedly.
When Winchester began construction, the surrounding area was the rural Santa Clara Valley. Today, the Santana Row shopping center, high-rise office complexes, movie theaters and a Brazilian steakhouse are among its neighbors. Interstate 280 runs directly alongside the mansion, and its din can be heard throughout the 4.5-acre property.
But modern intrusions don’t stop at the Winchester Mystery House property line. The home now operates as a bustling business, catering to tourists and ghost hunters, rather than history buffs. It’s become an iconic tourist trap — offering tours, Halloween-themed haunted houses, a cafe and, of course, a large gift shop that offers everything from Winchester Mystery House hoodies to what the shop describes as “fine jewelry.”
For those looking for an extra frisson of fright, there’s a “Flashlight Tour” of the house each Friday the 13th. The popular tour provides one of the few opportunities to tour the structure after dark, along with the similar “Candlelight Tours” that take place during the Halloween season of September 14 through October 31.
Ticketholders for the apres-sunset tours are asked to arrive 30 minutes early, presumably to give them time to shop the Winchester Mystery House casual apparel collection and buy a pulled-pork quesadilla from the Winchester Mystery House Cafe. A loud and flashy carnival-style rifle game called “Sarah’s Attic Shooting Game” is also available just adjacent to the courtyard, adding the sound of repeated fake gunshots to the ambiance. And this is all before a tourist has set foot inside the mansion.
Tour groups of about 30 people are asked to pose for a photo, which they may purchase following their visit. As each after-dark guest steps over the building’s threshold, they are handed a tiny Winchester Mystery House-branded flashlight. It’s about the size of a pocket lighter, although it provides a pretty impressive light, which comes in very handy once the glow of big city San Jose fades away.
Uniformed docents are stationed throughout the mansion to answer questions and to provide spooky details, but for the most part, Friday the 13th tours are self-guided after a 10-minute introduction. (All other tours are guided throughout.) Once guests are turned loose inside the mansion, they have no choice but to turn on those flashlights and follow their noses. It’s dark inside — really dark. And while there’s a pretty clear flow of guest traffic to follow from the front foyer, up the stairs and through the curious rooms of Winchester’s home, it’s not difficult to take a wrong turn. As a tour group, left to its own devices, fans out, visitors can quickly find themselves alone, in a very dark room in a very big mansion.
The docents are welcome sights when they appear, both for the cheerful historical context they provide and for their sheer presence in the gloaming. Even visitors who don’t believe in ghosts and aren’t spooked by any of Winchester’s antics will likely be on edge, just as they would be in any nearly pitch-black, incredibly odd estate.
The tours, which take about 45 minutes, meander through such curiosities as Winchester’s dedicated Seance Room and the bedroom where she reportedly died. On Friday the 13th, a day said to be particularly busy for the undead of the Mystery House, paranormal investigators are on hand to monitor ghostly activity. Winchester’s bedroom and basement are of particular interest to those wishing to see, hear, smell or feel something spooky.
Back downstairs, having toured old-fashioned kitchens and dusty parlors, guests can opt to don hardhats for a stroll through the (rather boring and brightly lit) basement or head back into the courtyard. A real treat is an after-dark visit to the garden located at the front of the mansion. Benches and sculptures are placed amid manicured walking paths and, somehow, the bustle of San Jose stays hidden.
The only real lights one can see, other than a few subtle garden lanterns, are flashlight beams flickering through the windows of the home. Constantly moving, the beams of light jerk from side to side, seeking out another ghost for another guest on another Winchester Mystery House tour — before visitors exit through the gift shop.
- Winchester Mystery House
- 525 S. Winchester Blvd.
- San Jose
- 2019’s Halloween-themed tour is “Unhinged.”
- Tickets: $19 – $49