STATUS: Open as a historic museum
The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California is regarded as one of America’s most haunted locations. It belonged to Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, who was the man behind the Winchester Rifle. For thirty-six years, the house was continuously worked on.
A psychic medium from Boston told Sarah Winchester some time shortly before 1886 that Winchester would have to leave her New Haven, Connecticut home and go west to California in order to “build a home for yourself and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon, too. You must never stop building the house. If you continue building, you will live forever. But if you stop, then you will die.”
As she was told, Winchester left for California. There, she purchased an unfinished eight-room farmhouse located in Santa Clara Valley in 1886. Numbers of construction workers were hired to continuously work on the house, which eventually reached seven floors high.
According to the June, 1937 version of Modern Mechanix, Sarah Winchester’s husband and baby daughter died suddenly, leaving her in shock in the light of the tragedy (neither died suddenly in reality – her daughter passed away in 1866, with Mr. Winchested following her 15 years later). Because of the event, she fell into a coma, and physicians worry for her life.
Once she recovered, she visited a psychic medium based on the suggestion of a friend. She and the medium conducted a séance; during the event, they communicated with Mr. Winchester, who told her: “Sarah dear, if our house had not been finished, I would still be with you. I urge you now to build a home, but never let it be finished, then you will live.”
A different version of the story states that she consulted the medium after the deaths of her daughter and husband. The psychic told her that Winchester needed to build a house and never stop building it, otherwise her family members’ spirits would come after her. Shortly after being told, she began working on her massive house, which was full of twists, turns, and dead ends so the spirits could never find her.
Yet another version says that she believed that continuously building a house would be her only chance to be normal. As long as it was never finished, not a single ghost could settle down into the abode. Many regions of the home have features to trap or confuse the spirits. Several of the doors are either small or lead to nowhere. A number of windows either have no view or look at another part of the house. Despite the massive size of the building, only two mirrors are within its walls, as Sarah believed ghosts were afraid of their own reflections.
The funding for the house came from her husband’s death, as she inherited more than $20.5 million. She collected nearly 50% of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company’s ownership, which earned her an income of about $1,000 a day (and it remained tax-free up until 1913). If this were in 2012, it would be the equivalent of nearly $30,000 a day.
Sarah Winchester died on September 5th, 1922, shortly after construction had stopped. In all, the mansion cost $5.5 million to build (if this had been paid in 1922, it would be the 2012 equivalent of $75 million). Now, the building is open as a tourist destination and is one of Northern California’s most popular museums.
In Popular Culture
The Evil Within, a survival-horror video game, was heavily influenced by the house.
- Earthquake Weather by Tim Powers is partially set inside the house.
- The song “Mrs. Winchester” by Dog Ears is based on the story of the house.
- In Babylon 5 episode “Rumors, Bargains, and Lies”, Londo Mollari mentions the Winchester mansion as an example of why he has a hard time understanding humans.
- In Swamp Thing Issue #45, Alan Moore writes a ghost story that features a house based on the Winchester mansion. In Moore’s story, the “Cambridge House” is haunted by cowboys, Native Americans, suicide victims, and a number of animals killed by the rifles.
- The novel Amber House was inspired by the Winchester Mystery House. The story’s protagonist, named Sarah Parsons, shares her first name with Mrs. Winchester/
- House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds was inspired by the house.
- For MythBusters episode “Smell of Fear”, the team visited the house to look around and later watch what they called “one of the scariest movies of all time”, which they never revealed the title of, in the ballroom where they had set up a television set. During the watching of the movie, they were going to gather sweat samples for testing. One team member, Kari Byron, revealed on the “Aftershow” that she had first visited the Winchester as a Brownie, and it had given her nightmares.
- Paranormal investigator Niall O’Sullivan visited the house with Derek Acorah, his mentor, in a segment filmed for BBC’s The One Show in September of 2012. During their visit, they saw several spirits. Due to the segment’s popularity, they plan to return to the mansion in early 2014, this time accompanied by One Show host Chris Evans.