“This house will poison you.” The tour guide warned. Between the toxic red wood and the original lead paint, he meant it literally. The Winchester Mystery House was built by Winchester Rifle Company heiress Sarah Winchester who, as legend puts it, was directed to never stop building by the spirits of people killed by the guns that made her family so wealthy.
It’s a solid ghost story made more interesting by the fact that the layout of the home is so strange and unusual. Cabinets open to reveal solid walls. Stairways end abruptly into ceilings. Doors open into 10 foot drops (or more!). And those are only a few of the oddities within the walls of the sprawling Victorian mansion.
I believed the legend. I believed it because I lived it for years. In high school and into my Freshman year of college, I was plagued by a reoccurring nightmare where I was running from something chasing me through a bizarre mansion. As I ran through decadent rooms, I’d encounter stairways to nowhere, doors that opened into thin air, windows in the floors, walls that sparkled like embers and floors that shifted. I remember several of the rooms, but the dream always ended in the same place – a blood-soaked room full of candles with a pentacle drawn on the floor and a single light fixture in the center of the ceiling with a dim red light.
At least twice a week I’d wake up crying and sweating, but I had no idea this house in my nightmare was real! Then one night Freshman year of college, I had the TV on as background noise while writing a paper and I heard a creepy voice describing the house from my nightmare. The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. That moment triggered two things: 1) I never had the nightmare again and 2) I knew I had to visit the house someday.
So with my trip to E3 taking me to California, I booked a little side trip to San Jose to finally explore the mansion.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I booked my Mansion and Explore More tours. Was I Sarah Winchester in a past life? Would I feel weird? Would I get sick? Would I end up possessed? I tempered my expectations by reading Captive of the Labyrinth on the plane so I could better understand the facts of Sarah Winchester’s life.
The night before my visit, I pulled a card in my hotel room while thinking of Sarah Winchester’s life. It was the Six of Wands.
This card is all about harnessing your talents and embracing success to make yourself known, which is exactly what Sarah Winchester did in building this house. Really, in building her life after the tragic deaths of her baby and husband.
On Sunday, I arrived at the site super early. The grounds are free to explore and they have a little cafe and gift shop. I didn’t get any ominous feelings walking through the gardens. Then again, I’d never seen the house from the outside before…
All around the sun-soaked grounds, fruit trees stretched their limbs, heavy with pears and apricots. There were even almond trees shading a quiet patio on the north side of the house. The aroma of flowers was overwhelming, but seemed to delight the hummingbirds darting above my head. I didn’t feel anything ominous or dark (despite the massive headache I ended up with all day). In fact, the energy was buzzing with creativity and curiosity.
I sat down in one of the stone rotundas by the front door and pulled more cards. Again I got the Six of Wands. Clearly, the card is Sarah herself.
Next I pulled a card to ask the spirits what I should expect once I entered the house. They gave me the Moon. It was an invitation to the truth. They wanted to set the rumors straight and remind me that I shouldn’t believe everything I hear. Things aren’t always what they seem.
Finally, the guide called my tour number and my group was ushered into the carriage port to begin. Inside the house, I felt comfortable, confused, but safe and curious. We wandered up steps and through narrow hallways. The guide pointed out a set of stairs that led into the ceiling, just like I dreamed. There was a window built into a floor in one room, which I also recognized. And, of course, the well-known door to nowhere (which is visible from outside as well).
We were several rooms in (there are 160 total) before my surroundings got SUPER familiar. The guide took us into a tight cube of a room with doors on every wall (one of which led to a steep drop if opened). In the center of the room was the light fixture from the end room of my nightmare – the one I’d seen covered in blood and filled with candles. The fixture and covering were almost exactly as I knew them to be, but in my version, the light was red and here it was blue. The guide described this as the seance room where Sarah communed with the spirits on what to build next.
A few rooms later, we were in the room with shifting floors. In my dream, the floor was covered in somewhat spongy, moveable panels. As it turns out, in the actual Winchester Mansion there’s a conservatory where Sarah Winchester kept her plants inside a sunny room. The floor panels ARE movable so staff could take them up to water the plants. AND they’re slightly soft, unlike a normal floor. Excess water from the plants would be absorbed and redirected to plants outside in an ingenious irrigation system.
On my second tour, a guide took a smaller group of us through closed off, damaged or unfinished rooms of the house. It was here I saw the “burning ember walls” from my dream. In one of Sarah Winchester’s bedrooms – dubbed the Crystal Bedroom – the walls glittered as the light hit them. As I moved around, the walls sparkled spectacularly. Crushed mica, our guide said, embedded in the wallpaper. It was absolutely stunning.
There were other rooms I knew – the ballroom, Sarah’s main bedroom – but those three were the most prominent. It was so bizarre to see the house in real life after seeing it so vividly in my dreams for so long. I still don’t know why I dreamed of this place or if there’s any real connection there, but I’m glad I go to see it and end this crazy story.