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Written by Sean M. Sanford

Living an hour drive from one of the most fabled haunted houses in the country, the only mystery for me was why the hell I’d never been there. The Winchester Mystery House of San Jose has been perplexing and terrifying visitors since 1922, nine months after the death of Sarah Winchester, widowed heir to the rifle baron of the same name.

You see, Sarah had experienced a rash of tragedy in losing her infant daughter to illness, then losing her husband a few years later to TB. She then made an effort to leave her woes behind in Connecticut and come out west, where she bought a farmhouse and began renovation. However, as her Winchester-in law had invented the repeater firearm, the countless folks made ghostly by her family rifle soon followed. Renovation to her home would remain a constant for the rest of her life, as rumor alleged it that the constant noise of re-construction, coupled with a shitload of nonsensical corridors, would keep the spirits at bay, roaming the halls without MapQuest.

Despite Sarah’s death rebuking a fortune teller’s claim that she would assume immortality, her very name became the foundation of legend…

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It was after Harry Houdini’s visit in 1924, when he confirmed the home’s reputation as a hub for countless souls, that the mansion grew mythical in the public eye. This lead to generations of curious ghost searchers coming far and wide to San Jose to see if they could catch a glimpse of the phenomenon. The mansion achieved the coveted Helen-Mirren-movie-status, and gave new meaning to the term close-up shot.

When I was given the opportunity to experience the haunted theatrics of Winchester Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse I had zero hesitation to pull the trigger. My wife Candice and I got in touch with some dear friends who live in San Jose, and before long we’d assumed a troop of ghost hunters. Four brave souls willing to devour the labyrinthine byways of a trouble soul’s innards.

We pulled up to the house and I could scarcely believe it. There it was, the legendary abode, once a Rubik’sian structure alone on the west coast frontier, now a diamond of nostalgia settled within strip malls and perpetual development. Its plethora of windows glinted down at us in the early evening shadows like eyes, beady and sneering. There it was, a cask of wonders, heartache and turmoil, all spinning amongst its cast, Purgatorily askance, with a crew of mimics dressed up to embody lost souls.

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They let us in early so we could get a lay of the land outside the home. They’d set up a carnival of the macabre; Lady Fortuna, a Tarot card reader who told misfortunes; a freakshow mistress who mousetrapped her lip and tried to staple a balloon to her face (she was apparently out of face staples, maybe they don’t carry those at Office Max); a duo of musicians who serenaded expired souls to a folklorian rhythm; the one and only Madame Nightshade herself, who ushered an assistant from beyond the grave to pull a handkerchief from her mouth; and a cast of characters who wandered, lost and ready to supply frightful enjoyment as the dusk expired. We went to the Spookeasy for some spirits as we roamed the scene, all of us getting creepily excited to enter the foreboding mansion that towered above us, beckoning with a greedy grin.

Finally, they opened the doors and our tour began. We lined up to explore the halls adorned with the quixotic expansion that had once been home to the troubled Winchester widow, den to countless unfortunates who had been products of the success of a tool for murder. A carnival barker welcomed us and told us we couldn’t take any photos inside because ghosts are often camera shy, so our journeys would remain in the mind’s eye alone. Then! Off we trundled.

The dark halls still held a grip of vibes as we maneuvered through, having to dip beneath some of the low-ceiling corridors that zigzagged to and fro, pockmarked with staircases that lead only to a wall or ceiling, a floor that had encased a window, steps that were short and wide, as they had been built to accommodate Sarah’s arthritic bones, allowing us to move from one of the home’s 160+ rooms to the next, many of which housing a decorated plethora of ghoulish offerings.

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We came across bodies lying on crematorium tables, covered with white sheets, who would spring up as we passed; rats scurrying through exposed pipes; a chef who spoke of preparing bloody body parts for dinner; an ax-wielding eccentric who swayed proud beneath his wall of human heads; spiders leaping from the corners; and a constant alert, knowing that the walls were alive in their expiration and hungry to make us scream. And scream I did. More than once. Yes, I joined the chorus of friends and strangers, in front and behind, throughout the halls of the tortured homescape. Perhaps it was a glimpse to what Sarah Winchester had heard all her life wandering those same halls. I felt as scared in the breadths between attractions, if not more, from the house’s energy and vibes alone.

Yes, that crib houses a vibe. And I could feel it big time, almost as a physical resonance. Even thinking about it now I can sense the spiraling energy, confused souls who still resonated in the walls of that house, releasing their energy and still chasing Sarah, heiress to the triggered source of their misery.

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It was all very spooky and very fun for all. Except for maybe the toddler behind us who would punctuate his crying with startled screams. Everyone else had a blast though. It was mostly the brand of fear that goes from scary to fun, to suspenseful to perplexing to appreciative. Yes, appreciative. That was something I felt a lot of during my exploration. The entire cast of characters involved in Unhinged were very memorable. They all had a deep passion for their craft and enjoyment in their eyes. They donned their respectful roles and played them to the core, creating moving art pieces of gore and doom.

One thing I wished had accompanied the experience was a little bit of the mansion’s history. I felt like the curator of Unhinged assumed we already knew all the details of the storied house and were strictly there for the horror stylings. I’m sure that was the case for many, but still, Unhinged didn’t do much to theme many of the attractions specifically after the true history of the house. And if they did, they didn’t make that at all clear. I feel like I need to go back and take a regular tour to get the digs on the home’s true horror. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed my Winchester experience and have a deep respect and appreciation for the craft and imagination that they employed. It was the perfect way to welcome Halloween season. And as for visiting the house in general, I definitely aim to be a repeater.

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Sean M. Sanford
Sean M. Sanford
Staff Reviewer
Sean M. Sanford was born and raised in the Sierra foothills of California on a haunted ranch that was constantly trying to remind him how wonderful it is being scared shitless. He later moved to San Francisco where he currently resides in an apartment that may or may not be cursed. With so many horrific dimensions to his life, Sanford has been known to revel since birth in scary movies, novels, comic books, and tales told by friends and loved ones. He writes fiction for the skateboarding magazine Lowcard, through which he has a collection of stories and photos called A Manbaby’s Requiem. He also wrote fiction for the online periodical Defiant Scribe. He writes book reviews for Night Worms, and Horror Oasis, and has written horror movie articles for the website, The Infinite Eleven. He has an Instagram account all about books, called @skaters_who_read. He and his wife Candice have started a homemade incense company called Effin Relax, and he’s been known to burn said fragrances during the scariest of movies to help calm his nerves. He looks forward to being the most freaky and creative spirit once he’s left this mortal coil.
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