The Legend behind the ‘Haunted’ Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House

Would you dare visit Winchester Mystery House, the ‘house that ghosts built’ and inspiration for the horror film ‘Winchester’?

Northern Californians know San Jose isn’t just a city in Silicon Valley. It’s home to one of the most active houses in the United States for paranormal experiences: The Winchester Mystery House. There’s a great deal of folklore surrounding this unique Victorian mansion, built by eccentric recluse Sarah Winchester between 1884 and 1922, where an unsettling eeriness surrounds you upon visiting. It may be because it’s haunted, or it may be simply your imagination getting the better of you once you know the house’s disturbing history. Calling this California historical landmark a maze is far too simplistic. The Winchester Mystery House is an unexplainable conundrum that perplexes visitors and historians alike, while invoking anxiety and fear in those who believe it exists in order to house spirits.

With Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, audiences around the world will venture into the “house that ghosts built” on February 2. To discover, though, why the mere mention of this architectural oddity gives people (like me) chills, you’ve got to dive into its legendary history.

A Karmic Curse

Sarah was the wife of William Wirt Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which manufactured Winchester rifles (modeled after the Civil War–used Henry repeating rifle). The Winchester rifle Model 1873 is known as “The Gun That Won the West.” It and its predecessors were responsible for many deaths, for which, according to legend, the Winchester family would pay dearly.

Winchester Mystery House

Hand-tinted ambrotype of Sarah Winchester taken in 1865 by the Taber Photographic Company of San Francisco.

When Sarah gave birth to a daughter in Connecticut in 1866, the infant died weeks later. For years, Sarah battled depression and nearly went mad. In 1881, William died from pulmonary tuberculosis. Curious why such tragedies had befallen her family, Sarah consulted a medium. During the session, William appeared from beyond the grave and told his wife the family was cursed because of its role in gun-related deaths. The spirits of the dead were seeking vengeance. To appease them, William told Sarah, she must move West and build them a home.

There was a catch, though: She could never stop building the house. Keep building and live; stop, and die.

Staircases to Nowhere

In 1884 Sarah purchased an eight-room home on a 162-acre lot in California. She hired 20 local carpenters, and building began. For 38 years, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, construction took place. At one time, the house stood seven stories tall, with towers and peaks.

Winchester Mystery House

Photo by Barry King / WireImage via Getty Images

There wasn’t a plan in place for the construction of the Winchester Mystery House, which is estimated to have 160 rooms (no one knows the exact count). Sarah would reportedly meet at midnight with spirits in her séance room, which had one entrance and three exits, and the next morning present hand-drawn sketches to the crew. Other stories state that she did not care what was constructed as long as she could hear the hammers. That could explain why rooms were built and then demolished, or changed inexplicably. What was happening in Sarah’s mind, whether fueled by madness or actual visitors from beyond, will never be known.

Everything in the Winchester Mystery House was built with the finest materials — Sarah was heir to the Winchester fortune, having inherited $20 million and an allowance of $1,000 a day. But she wasn’t an entertainer. Outsiders didn’t see the upside-down stair-posts, 47 fireplaces, rooms within rooms, three elevators, 17 chimneys (the spirits liked to appear and disappear in them), six kitchens, two basements, 10,000 windowpanes and 467 doorways. Nor did they enjoy the stained-glass windows with spiderwebs and etched-in quotes from Shakespeare. The methods employed to disorient evil spirits may not have been visitor-friendly.

Winchester Mystery House

Spiderweb stained-glass windows in the Winchester Mystery House. Photo by Naotake Murayama via Flickr

There are conflicting accounts regarding whether the spirits were amiable, evil or both. Considering the house’s construction, confusing bad spirits seems to have been on the agenda. The house has staircases and doorways that lead to nowhere, ending at the ceiling or opening into a wall. There are zigzag-patterned staircases, trap doors, double-back hallways, skylights built on top of one another, glass-doored bathrooms, and doors that open to steep drops to the lawn or kitchen below. And the number 13 is everywhere. There are 13 panes of glass in nearly every window and 13 panels on the walls, 13 sections in the wood flooring, 13 stairs in each staircase but one, rooms with 13 windows and 13 bathrooms, plus a sink with 13 drain holes. In the séance room are 13 coat hooks for 13 various-colored robes Sarah wore.

Winchester Mystery House

A staircase that ends at the ceiling. Photo by Jere Keys via Flickr

Winchester Mystery House

A door that opens to a steep drop outside. Photo by Madro via Flickr

Winchester Mystery House

A quote etched in a stained-glass window at the Winchester Mystery House. Photo by Jere Keys via Flickr

Legend holds that all of this was done to keep Sarah safe from spirits that wished her harm. She also slept in a different bedroom every night to keep them away.

The more you look into the oddities of Sarah’s construction marvel, the more you can accept that perhaps there was something else living with her, guiding the chaos. It’s when you consider that she may have suffered from mental illness, overtaken by grief, that the psychological horror of the Winchester story really makes your skin crawl. The sound of hammers all day could drive a person mad, but imagine if the sound of silence is what terrified you? It’s beyond comprehension.

The noise did stop in 1922 when, after communing with the spirits, 83-year-old Sarah went to sleep and never woke up. Her will, signed 13 times, allowed the property to be sold.

The spirits? They never left.

Hauntings at the Winchester Mystery House

If you find yourself in the Winchester Mystery House after dark, don’t go to the third floor. Tour guides avoid it because the corridors come alive at night, with footsteps heard in the empty hallway and names whispered over still air. You may also want to avoid the séance room, since multiple people have felt a presence there. The good news is, according to tour manager Janan Boehme, “It’s a good energy… I think it’s friendly.”

If you’re really looking to encounter a ghost, then head to the ballroom. On multiple occasions couples have told staff how much they enjoyed the reenactors present in that room. The thing is, reenactors don’t exist. The dark-haired, mustachioed man dressed in old-fashioned coveralls and a straw hat, carrying a toolbox and working on the fireplace? He was there over 100 years ago. Same goes for the wheelbarrow-pushing man in the basement. Having his picture on display in the house isn’t enough; he’s still there.

Winchester Mystery House

The Winchester Mystery House workers.

Even Sarah has made appearances. She’s a noticeable ghost because of her small stature. Then there are the lights that flicker, doorknobs that turn on their own, smoky shadows and floating orbs of light, and a story of a lightbulb that wouldn’t go out, which could really give someone a fright.

Trying to solve the mystery of the Winchester House could encapsulate a lifetime — or more, if your spirit wants to stick around in one of its rooms. Maybe one day Sarah will speak up about why she created a disorienting labyrinth, instead of just sighing in the hall when people are touring a bedroom she wants to relax in. Until then, it will remain a perplexing, uneasy and downright creepy place to visit — or to think of. end


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