Sunday, July 19, 2009
My Latest Favorite Scary Place: Winchester Mystery House
Earlier this month I was in California and had the most amazing chance to indulge in one of my childhood wishes: to visit the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. I expect it isn't a surprise to anyone who knows me (or who has read my fiction) that I adore scary stuff--scary books, films, haunted places. I'm not sure, but I think I first read about Sarah Winchester's spooky manse in a Weekly Reader or some kids' magazine, and it's been on my list of places to visit ever since.
After a fabulous Sunday pancake breakfast in San Francisco (Millbrae, actually) with two of my favorite writer-chicks, Kelli Stanley and Sophie Littlefield, I headed to the Mystery House alone. Delightfully and deliciously alone. (Of course, when I got there it was as crowded as any small theme park is on a beautiful afternoon.)
Brief background: Sarah Winchester's husband left her an enormous fortune when he died in 1881. (They had also lost a daughter in 1866) Tradition says that Sarah Winchester, devastated by grief, began to consult psychics. A medium ostensibly told her that the spirits of all those killed by Winchester firearms were angry, and that the only way to appease them was to continuously build onto her house until she died--or that she wouldn't die until the house was finished. Versions of the story differ. So she renovated a San Jose area farmhouse, adding onto it 24 hours a day until she died in 1922. There are plenty of weird details in the house--a staircase that leads to a ceiling, doorways that open into the air, windows within rooms that look onto other rooms, etc.
I was excited, but I confess that I wasn't thinking about ghosts. It would be tough to there because the place is run very much like a theme park, with a gift shop, snack stands, tidy restrooms and outdoor loudspeakers announcing tour times. Mostly I was thinking about how bizarre it all was.
So, five minutes into the tour, I started to feel queasy and a little dizzy. It was at that moment I started to think about the haunting rumors. But I'm a sensible sort and really didn't want to leave the tour. I'm convinced that I started feeling awful because there isn't a single rational room or hallway in the entire mansion. Several floors are uneven, and many of the hallways are narrow and meandering. Ceiling heights seem to change subtly given the large number of stairways. The whole thing is damned unsettling.
As we walked from room to room, I lost all sense of the building being an actual house. I can't imagine being one of Sarah Winchester's servants. They surely spent all of their time in a befuddled state.
The museum has none of Sarah Winchester's original furniture. The guide for the house tour said it took something like eight moving trucks working for weeks to empty it. She was a Victorian. You can imagine the clutter.
We saw the room where she died, her bathroom, her office. Expensive but not glamorous. People's personalities are reflected in their belongings, don't you think?
Here's a site posted by a former tour guide that replicates the tour almost exactly. No pictures, though. You'll have to go to the main site or Google the house for images.
I've sprinkled some pictures throughout the post. Given that I took them with my phone camera, they came out okay.
In the end, I'm skeptical about the house actually being a playground/panacea for restless spirits. Walking through that house is like walking through the inside of a crazy person's head. I shudder to think what a stroll through my own brain would be like.
I took a second, behind-the-scenes tour. And the only time I felt truly creeped out in the house (aside from a very tense moment in an earthquake-damaged alcove in a bedroom) was in the basement. Oddly enough, the basement was the most rational part of the entire place. It was all exposed brick and concrete floors on a floating foundation. It was broom-clean and well-lighted.
I felt most uncomfortable--suffocated, even--in the area where they used to pile the coal, standing in the middle of where the stuff would have been stored. Here's the pic. I've dreamed about a similar place--perhaps that's why it was distressing.
The other thing was more unsettling. As I was trying to take a picture of the ancient boiler, my phone took a picture without me touching the button. It's blurred because I didn't realize it had gone off.
I thought it was a little weird. It's possible to take a picture with a side button, but you have to work pretty hard to set it up that way. The OK button that I always press to take a picture is in the center of the phonepad and not all that easy to use. I proceeded to take the pics I meant to take.
I let it go, but then it happened again on the other side of the boiler. This pic was blurred, too, because I hadn't even begun to set the shot and the camera was in motion.
I spent the final few minutes of the tour trying to duplicate the accidental shots, plus an additional 1/2 hour once I got back to my hotel. I've juggled my phone six hundred different ways and still can't do it.
Not saying my phone or the Winchester Mystery House is haunted--just that sometimes things happen that we don't have an answer for.
P.S. While the spirits aren't such good architects when it comes to interiors, they definitely make up for their shortcomings when they design gardens. To die for....