What would you do if ghosts told you to never stop adding on to your house? What if your life depended on following their orders?
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Sarah Pardee Winchester faced those very questions. The result of her fear has captured skeptics, believers, and tourists alike in the enigmatic presence that has become the Winchester Mystery House.
The labyrinthine halls — filled with staircases merging into the roof, rooms leading nowhere, doors opening to big drops and rooms that only Sarah had the keys to — were said to ward off the spirits that haunted her.
What was Sarah’s obsession with ghosts? Why did she continuously add on to her house until she died? And just how haunted is the house nowadays?
The Origin of the Mystery
Sarah’s husband, William Wirt Winchester, was the original manufacturer of the Winchester rifle. Together, they had a daughter, Annie, who caught the mysterious child disease marasmus, and tragically lost her life.
Shortly after, Mr. Winchester suffered a case of tuberculosis that claimed his life as well.
Unable to handle her grief, Sarah Winchester sought spiritual help from a Boston medium. There, she believed her husband communicated with her a warning:
If she wasn’t careful, she was next.
According to the medium, William believed that the spirits of those who had lost their lives during the Civil War and various others who had fallen at the hand of a Winchester rifle sought revenge against their family.
To save herself, William instructed Sarah to pack up from her home in New Haven, Connecticut and migrate west. She believed William told her she would know when she had found the right property.
From there, her sole focus became making the spirits happy so she could keep her life.
The Birth of the Mystery House
With a $20,000,000 fortune and an income of $1,000 per day, Sarah began construction on an unfinished farmhouse she purchased in Santa Clara Valley, just outside of San Jose, California. Legend has it that the spirits demanded she continued construction of this house for the remainder of her life. Should she ever stop building, she’d die.
Sarah immediately hired construction workers to build the house around the clock. 24 hours a day, seven days a week, construction never halted for 38 years. Having bought the house in 1884, by 1900, she had already transformed the eight-room house into a seven story mansion.
The end result was 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms and 6 kitchens spread out over seven floors and placed on 161 acres of land.
The House’s Intrigue
The question of whether ghosts exist or not is at the forefront of debates around this house. According to legend, Sarah entered the Seance Room on a nightly basis to communicate with the spirits. She’d ring the bell in the bell tower at midnight to summon the spirits, then again at 2 a.m. to dismiss them. Allegedly, the purpose of these seances were for the spirits to tell Sarah what they wanted her to build next.
To confuse and ward off the spirits, Sarah had a number of odd things added to the house: doorways that opened into solid walls, chimneys that were blocked at the top, and a noticeable lack of mirrors to name a few. The spirits reportedly feared their own reflection, and were naturally afraid of traps. Because of this, Sarah included the strange additions to confuse them.
The 1906 earthquake that erupted between Oregon and Los Angeles destroyed much of the house. Sarah believed the spirits used the earthquake to tell her that portions of the house were too close to completion.
The Haunting Impact Left Behind
Despite any debates around the truth of the spirits’ involvement, the Winchester Mystery House has become a historical landmark in the United States. Mediums, employees, and visitors alike have all described random events of potential spirits still in the house, and people from all over the world come to see the haunted maze for themselves.
With or without any involvement from spirits, there is no mistaking the enchanting appeal of one of San Jose’s top attractions.
Our Experience Touring the Winchester Mystery House
As part of our 50-state roadtrip, myself and Josh, joined by my cousin Kendra, decided to check out the house for ourselves. All opinions are my own.
I’ve had the fortune of experiencing this house on more than one occasion. In fact, this was my third time exploring the mile-long tour.
Where some repeat tours get old and boring, the Winchester Mystery House is the exact opposite. Each visit opens up new doors to things you may have missed before (there are 2,000, after all.)
Our tour guide, Jamie Foster, provided the most memorable experience I’ve had at the house.
Her enthusiasm, inner light, and welcoming nature provided a fun, mysterious, and creepy experience.
Even though the mansion is breathtakingly large, it was also designed for a woman who only stood at 4’10”. As a man who stands just under 6’6”, I spent a solid portion of the tour crouched down to avoid hitting my head. Even doing that, I still managed to smack my head on the smallest, yet longest staircase in the building: 44 steps, 7 turns, and over 100 feet of travel to only rise 9 feet to the next room.
This Goofy Staircase is one of the many oddities layered in the house. Sarah’s obsession with the number 13 is partially seen in the 13th bathroom, which included the only shower in the house. The bathroom also consists of 13 windows, and access to it comes after a room with 13 panels on the right-hand side, and 13 steps down into the bathroom itself.
With purposeful confusion as the foundation of the house, it doesn’t take long before you’re thankful for the tour guide. One could easily lose themselves in the murky hallways (some with windows facing walls and lacking sunlight.)
Even behind the maze-like structure, you can see Sarah’s thought process on how it was all connected. The legend may say the maze was constructed to repeal the spirits, but if they truly guided the blueprint, perhaps the “doors and windows to nowhere” help them move around on a different plane of existence.
Or, perhaps Sarah just had no idea what she was doing.
Ghosts in the Mystery House
With all of the legends and mystery floating around the house, a burning question resonates:
So, what’s the deal with these ghosts?
There will always be skeptics who don’t believe in supernatural entities, but there will also be those who do. Outside of the ghosts who guided Sarah’s building of the house, present-day ghost stories reveal the remaining spirits as gentle, maybe even welcoming.
As seen above with Jamie and Mariah recounting their own haunted experiences, the ghosts aren’t hostile at all. Quite the opposite, since the ghosts have never harmed anyone (that we know of.) Their presence may be enough to send chills down the spine, but the interactions sometimes even leave skeptics believing there’s more than what meets the eye.
Tour Options and Pricing
If you’re lucky enough to have a chance to experience this tour on a Friday the 13th, don’t miss out on the flashlight tour. Of all the times I’ve visited, that’s the one tour I wish I could time correctly.
Other than that, daily tours include a general Mansion Tour, a Grand Estate Tour (that also includes the basement), or a video tour offered to those who have a harder time walking long distances. The flashlight tours sell out the fastest, so check your calendars for the next Friday the 13th and book well ahead of time!
Flashlight Tour: $49.95
Grand Estate Tour: $34-$44
Mansion Tour: $26-$36
Video Tour: $22
Purchase tickets here.