Silicon Valley is already pretty creepy, with its Google Glass-clad techies, hovering private drones, and the ghosts of dead startups. But in San Jose, the hub of Silicon Valley, there's a place that the State of California actually deemed haunted: The Winchester Mystery House.
I'd been exploring the Bay Area's design and architecture for years, but had never made it to the epicenter of NorCal haunting. Inspired by the new show Deadbeat, though, now streaming on Hulu, I decided to try being a ghost hunter myself, armed with sage, for the mansion. Unlike the show's protagonist, I didn't expect to finish any of the spirits' unfinished business, but I figured I might at least see a spook in the process. The Winchester Mystery House, on first glance, is a strange paradox among the sprawl of malls and highways surrounding it — on first glance, the house looks like your run of the mill Victorian estate, but, once inside, it becomes very clear that all is not what it seems.
Who Built the Winchester Mystery House?
Sarah Winchester, wife of rifle tycoon William Wirt Winchester, was widowed after her husband died of tuberculosis in 1881 and this tragedy, coupled with her daughter's death years earlier, left Mrs. Winchester reeling with anxiety. She sought spiritual relief from a Boston psychic, who informed her that her anxiety was the result of haunting by people and animals killed by the Winchester rifle, seeking revenge on her and her loved ones. So how does one dispel an army of spirits that include the specters of hunted bears? The psychic suggested Mrs. Winchester move West, and build a grand mansion under the spirits' guidance on one condition — but on one condition: that construction never cease.
The never-ending renovation of the grand estate began, and Mrs. Winchester and her ghostly architects were even more ambitious than the tech entrepreneurs that now haunt these parts: construction on the house began in 1884 and went on for 24 hours a day for 38 years — until 1922. The tour guide Ash Namdar told me that due to the obsessive remodeling, there were 500-600 rooms in the house at one point; now only 160 remain.
Everywhere you look, there are layers of unfinished construction and receding plaster walls. None of this struck me as too creepy — even the doors that opened into walls didn't seem so much remnants of a supernatural pact as the result of a haphazard architect. But then we stumbled upon the infamous "Door to Nowhere," and I began to feel chills.
It's a small door on the second floor of the house that opens up to a fifteen-foot drop to the front yard, and Namdar told me that there are several doors like this one throughout the house, and he led me to an even stranger design feature: a staircase that ends abruptly at a low ceiling. Mrs. Winchester used these architectural oddities to confuse the ghosts she believed were following her,by diverting their path and trapping them in decoy rooms, or leading them through these treacherous doorways.
Communing with the Spirits
The most important room in the house is called "The Seance Room." Here, Mrs. Winchester would hold nightly conferences with "good spirits" who advised her on the paranormal blueprints for the estate. The room reveals another pervasive design feature in the house: the use of the number 13. There are 13 hooks in the room said to hold the 13 robes she'd wear to talk to different spirits about the construction, there are 13 steps on many of the stairways, 13 drain holes in the bathroom sinks, and 13 gas jets in the chandelier — to name just a few appearances of the auspicious digits.
Modern Day Ghost Encounters
Most reports of supernatural encounters came from the section of the house where Mrs. Winchester got trapped during the 1906 earthquake. Visitors recount ghosts tapping their shoulders or pulling their hair, and the occasional sighting of a swaying chandelier. Lindsay Huffman, a spokesperson for the mansion, told me she was accompanying a medium in the basement of the mansion when they noticed a man in work overalls pushing a wheelbarrow. Several other tourists had described this man, often mistaking him for an actor playing a groundskeeper.
Jim Thiele, a seasoned tour guide with a deep reverence for Mrs. Winchester and an unwavering respect for her estate is the only tour guide who has had a recorded dance with supernatural phenomena. When he was giving a tour one day, light orbs circled around him rhythmically. Thiele told me, "an orb flew around me...it went around, up over my shoulder in the back, like it had a mind of its own. Not a dust particle carried by a breeze or something like that — it seemed to have intelligence." One of Thiele's colleagues caught the incident on tape, and you can watch it here.Deadbeat
Whether you believe in spirits or not, there is no denying that something supernatural going on at The Winchester Mystery House. For more ghostly happenings watch Deadbeat, now streaming on Hulu.
Kristina Loring is an independent radio producer, writer, and digital strategist living in San Francisco. She loves exploring the hidden design in cities and riding a bicycle away from tech epicenters toward the sea.
[Images courtesy of The Winchester Mystery House]