Serious fans of Disney's classic attraction The Haunted Mansion aught to take a pilgrimage to San Jose, California, to visit the Winchester Mystery House. Not only did Sara Winchester's home directly inspire the attraction, but Walt Disney also walked away from it convinced that Disneyland didn't need a decrepit mansion. It could look beautiful and well cared for, just like Winchester, and be just as haunted and eerie on the inside. And now Winchester welcomes guests to take a different kind of tour, but first a little background information.
Arguably the most famous haunted house in the United States, the mansion was commissioned by Sara Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Sara Winchester believed her family was haunted by the spirits of those who died at the hands of their rifles and after losing her husband and child, moved to San Jose. Legend tells of a medium instructing her to continuously build her home, with guidance from spirits, as a retreat for the lost souls. And so she built her home nonstop from 1884 to 1922 when Sara Winchester passed away.
On a typical day, guests are welcome at the Winchester Mystery House to take a tour during daylight that last anywhere from an hour to 2-hours, depending on how in depth you want to go. And prior to this Halloween season, it was on very rare occasions that average looky loos would be able to go inside at night... when the spirits are most active. For Winchester Mystery House is reportedly very haunted, not just by the spirits that were invited there by Sara Winchester, but also by many of the construction workers and servants who passed away while working there... and perhaps by Winchester herself.
For just 10 nights this October, Winchester Mystery House is inviting guests to come on a very different kind of tour, one in which the only reliable source of light is a candle. Checking in on a Friday night, we were given time to explore the expansive grounds. You are able to walk a full circle around the mansion's sprawling grounds and gardens, check out the Historic Firearms Museum, dine at the cafe and shop in the gift shop while waiting for your tour to begin.
There is no age restriction for the experience, although I would advise families with kids under 10 to visit during daylight. This modified experience adds some extra, staged chills, and the guide's makeup and demeanor portray a deceased spirit with resentment for the living. And with that, your tour begins not unlike entering Disney's The Haunted Mansion.
Starting in the foyer with our group, we were instructed that photos and videos are not allowed inside. The walking tour involves stairs and during this nighttime version, you get to explore three of the four floors. Traversing tiny, irregularly sized stairs in the dark was a fun challenge and on our way, we quickly passed the infamous stairway to nowhere. Many of the staircases branch off in different directions and you can see how it may have inspired the stair room at Walt Disney World's version of the attraction.
Another stop of particular interest to Disney fans will be not one, but two seance rooms. The original room has 1 entrance, but 3 exits. One exit is straight down through a door that opens onto a window to the kitchen below. The other exits have no handles on the other side and can only be opened from within the room. "This chamber has no windows and no doors" kept repeating through my head inside. And while it was a moderately cool night inside and outside the house, this particular room was boiling hot.
The guide explained that at some point, Winchester decided to move her seances to a different room. Because of the intentionally creepy factor of this candlelight tour, she was grim with a legend of a bad spirit that had scared Winchester away from this part of the house. We eventually made it to the other seance room and in my head, I kept thinking of Madame Leota.
Winchester also has ballrooms and another tale involved chandeliers mysteriously swinging in multiple rooms. I could picture Disney's ghosts drunkenly swinging in it as the guide shared the story. Many of the rooms are ornately decorated in Victorian splendor, but the next might have unfinished walls and no furniture, a result of the constant construction and abrupt stop.
I treasured my visit to Winchester Mystery House and the opportunity to see it at night. I am eager to go back for a daylight tour, not only to see it in more detail but also to experience it without the effects. With a fake ghost encounter forced on the tour, plus pre-recorded sound effects, it almost took away from the mystique and allure of the place. But if you ever have the rare opportunity to visit at night, I recommend it as an add-on to the daytime experience.
Candlelight Tours will be offered this season on October 21st, 22nd, and 28th-31st. For more information and to buy tickets in advance, visit wmhonline.com.