Why Do People Visit the Winchester Mystery House?
As you wander the sidewalk in south San Jose gazing in the windows of the modern shops, you might suddenly spy the Winchester Mystery House.
People line up at a ticket booth outside a huge Victorian home and wander the manicured garden. Why are these people so interested in this massive estate?
Let’s find out!
What is the Winchester Mystery House?
The Winchester Mystery House is the product of over 35 years of construction on what began as an 8-room farmhouse. It’s located in southwest San Jose, California, and was once owned by Sarah Winchester – heiress to the Winchester Firearms fortune.
But this isn’t why people are paying to get inside. Rather, it’s what Sarah did with the house and why that draws people from all over the world.
According to its website, “The Winchester Mystery House has 160 rooms including 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, 10,000 window panes, 2,000 doors, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, three elevators, two basements, and just one shower.”
The question is, “What possessed Sarah Winchester to create such an immense home?”
Let’s go back a bit.
In 1862, Sarah Pardee married William Winchester, who was the only son of Oliver Winchester. Oliver, at the time, owned the famous Winchester Repeating Firearms Company and had amassed quite a fortune.
Sarah and William had a daughter, Annie, who died of a wasting disease at only five and a half weeks old in 1866. They never had any other children.
In 1880, Oliver passed away, leaving his fortune to William. Then, just a few months later, in 1881, William died of tuberculosis. Sarah inherited an estimated $20 million, plus 50% of the company’s stock. But you can imagine her grief. She’d lost one child, then in quick succession, her father-in-law and her husband. She had no children or nearby relatives to support her or to grieve with.
In 1885, Sarah moved to California and purchased an unfinished 8-room farmhouse the following year. She named it Llanada Villa and immediately started construction. But, locals soon realized it wasn’t just her intention to complete the farmhouse.
Haunting and Construction of the Winchester Mystery House
The story goes that Sarah, being severely depressed, went to a medium while she was still back East. This person is rumored to have channeled William, who told Sarah she was being haunted by those who had died at the hands of a Winchester gun. The only way for Sarah to appease the spirits was to move to the West and continuously build a home for them.
So Sarah built and added not just rooms but stairways going nowhere, empty bedrooms, non-working bathrooms, and more. All of this to appease and confuse the spirits.
Out of 13 bathrooms (a favorite number of hers), only one worked. She slept in a different room every night, sometimes using secret passages to ditch the spirits. Doors open to solid walls, hallways might dead-end, and windows look into another room.
Many mysterious things have happened at the mansion over the decades. For example, the contractors who worked on it talked about Sarah holding regular seances with local mediums. She was reportedly attempting to reach ‘good spirits’ for advice on dealing with the spirits she was building the house for. The results of these communications were evidenced in the odd additions to the house.
Sarah never gave interviews, had no journals, and none of her remaining family was willing to speak about her – all deepening the mystery surrounding her unique home.
Creating the Winchester Mystery House
Sarah passed away in 1922, and John and Mayme Brown leased Llanda Villa in April 1923, eventually purchasing it. They intended to create an amusement park, but there was so much interest in the house that they decided to open it to the public. Mayme was their very first tour guide.
In 1924, the famous magician, Harry Houdini, wanted to debunk the house’s paranormal stories. He visited on a Halloween night and reportedly left with more questions than answers. He referred to it as “The Mystery House,” and the name stuck.
Many years later, in 1970, the Brown family started a massive restoration and refurnished several rooms. (Most of the furnishings had been sold after Sarah died.) They opened a gift shop then too. Over time, John and Mayme’s descendants added a Winchester gun display, a shooting gallery, and an axe-throwing alley.
Fun Facts: Walt Disney’s Inspiration for The Haunted Mansion found at Disney theme parks was the Winchester Mystery House. In addition, MythBusters and GhostAdventures filmed episodes there.
Pro Tip: Do you enjoy a good spook? We uncovered a scary site you have to see. Read more about: Why Do Thrill Seekers Visit Spider Gates Cemetery?
The Winchester Mystery House offers plenty of entertainment to last an entire day. On the other hand, you can keep things short if you don’t have a lot of time.
Their two main tours are just over an hour each. The Mansion Tour takes you to 110 of the rooms and iconic areas. The Explore More Tour lets you experience the estate’s creepier areas, including the basement.
They also have many seasonal tours, such as the After Dark and Lost in the House tours. Many of these are near Halloween. In addition, they’ve recently added an escape room, Houdini’s Spirited Escape, plus a guided Sarah Winchester Garden Tour.
Family-friendly tours include the Mansion Tour, the garden tour, and the seasonal Jack O’Lantern Trail. They also offer an ADA tour, which includes a movie and access to the grounds.
Curious, but can’t get there anytime soon? For $9, you can purchase their virtual Immersive 360° Tour. It lets you wander through all the floors on your own and see rooms you might not normally see in the live tours.
Keep in Mind: The Winchester Mystery House highly recommends you make tour reservations ahead of time.
Other Things to Do
Besides the guided tours, you can wander the Winchester Mystery House’s grounds and gardens on your own or grab a bite at the cafe between tours. If you love architectural photography, this place is a gold mine!
There’s also a movie to watch. No, not there. At your home, where you can have popcorn and protect yourself with a blanket. The movie, aptly named Winchester, was released in 2018. It focused on – and enlarged – the paranormal stories surrounding Sarah, who was played by Helen Mirren.
The movie was filmed partially at the Winchester Mystery House. In fact, some of the costumes are currently on display there.
What Else To Do in San Jose
San Jose offers everything you’d want to see and do in a larger city. Foodies will love the numerous restaurants, wineries, and breweries. San Jose has at least eight popular museums, such as the San Jose Museum of Art and The Tech Interactive – a hands-on science and technology experience for the whole family.
The city offers excellent outdoor adventures as well. For example, you can go hiking at Castle Rock State Park or enjoy a walk through the Japanese Friendship Garden. There are numerous trails just outside of San Jose as well.
Where to Camp in San Jose
There really isn’t anywhere to park your RV overnight in San Jose. However, there are a few RV parks on the outskirts, such as Saratoga Springs Campground. Campendium reviewers give this RV park five stars, and it’s just 22 minutes from the Winchester Mystery House. It offers partial hookups with 30-Amp electrical service.
The city discourages people from street camping, “The San Jose Municipal Code prohibits living and/or sleeping in trailers and motor homes on City streets.” So, find a spot outside of the city if you’re considering boondocking.
Pro Tip: When in a pinch to find a camping spot or a free camping option, boondocking can be a great solution but Is Boondocking a Safe Camping Option?
Why Do People Visit the Winchester Mystery House?
The spooky stories and occult history surrounding the Winchester Mystery House certainly draw crowds year after year. The mansion is also an architectural wonder in its accomplishments and quirkiness. And, in fact, it’s a registered state and historic landmark, so history buffs and gun aficionados enjoy it as well.
Have you been to the Winchester Mystery House? Do you think it’s still haunted?
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