She was the widow of William Winchester and 50% owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company–creator of the “Gun That Won the West.” After a Boston medium convinced her to move to California, Sarah Winchester in 1884 broke ground on what is now the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose.
What started as a run-of-the-mill mansion for the incredibly rich, spirits arrived of the who had been killed by her company’s gun, the Winchester Rifle. To soothe these spirits, Sarah built rooms for each visiting spirit. The constant arrival of spirits and Sarah’s non-stop architectural visions turned the Winchester house into an endless maze of stairways and doorways in this 160-room mansion.
In 2018, the movie Winchester finally brought the legend and lore of Sarah’s eccentric home to the big screen. While the film was generally panned by critics (Film Threat Review), the Winchester Mystery House is open to the public and Film Threat had the ominous privilege to tour the infamous home.
“…the widow of William Winchester and 50% owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company…”
Located just an hour south of San Francisco, the Winchester offers several tours for visitors. The basic “Mansion Tour” ranges from $20 to $39 depending on the season. This basic tour takes you through much of the home including some of the most infamous features like the Door to Nowhere, the switchback staircase recreated in the film and many false doorways and passageways leading to several ornate rooms designed by Sarah herself. It ends at a display of the costumes from the Winchester movie and a free poster (while supplies last). Just a warning: no photos or video are allowed on the tours.
If you’re feeling a little stingy, you can explore the main grounds, gardens, and chilling gift shop for free. Beware, though, at times you may get an unexplained urge to take a selfie or ask a complete stranger to unlock your phone for the obligatory family shot. To further elevate the creepiness factor, every Friday the 13th the Winchester House offers Flashlight Tours at night and a creepier Candlelight Tour on Halloween.
“…the ‘Explore More’ tour takes you to parts of the mansion never open to the public…”
The basic Mansion tour is fun and interesting, especially if you have that random person cracking jokes constantly. But for the history buff or just the curious, the “Explore More” tour takes you to parts of the mansion never open to the public. A tour so dangerous, a hard hat is required. This tour serves as an “add-on” to the basic Mansion tour. The number of guests is much smaller, and your guide is ready to answer every silly question you have. The cost of both tours is $20 to $45 for a total length of 2 hours and 15 minutes. It takes you to many of the unfinished rooms that were never finished upon her death and to the basement where Sarah installed a modern (for that time) forced heating furnace and coal storage unit.
If you saw Winchester with Dame Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester, you’ll find The Spierig Brothers did a fine job using the actual Winchester house as the foundation of its story. The actual house appears twice in the movie. One exterior shot and the other an upward shot of a maid dusting a second-floor door that leads to an immediate drop to the first-floor kitchen.
The Winchester Mystery House is a fascinating home to visit and be sure to take both tours. Just do it. At a minimum, you’re walking through California history for crying out loud. I walked away thinking about what happens when you have way too much money and an active (or haunted) imagination and a great appreciation for the importance of California housing codes.
Winchester Mystery House located at 525 S. Winchester Blvd. San Jose, CA. Open every day (except Christmas) from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Film Threat Facts
- When William Winchester passed away Sarah inherited $20 million to build the home and $1,000 daily to maintain it.
- Visitors 6-foot tall and higher will be hunched over for a good portion of the tour thanks to a diminutive Sarah Winchester.
- Mansion features were scaled larger in the movie, Winchester. Again, Sarah Winchester was a small person.
- The switchback staircase goes 100 feet and ascends only 9 feet.
- The number 13 is pervasive throughout the mansion including a rejiggered chandelier with 13 instead of its standard 12 lights.
- The Crystal Bedroom was transferred from the “Mansion Tour” to the “Explore More” tour because of mischevious specters…I mean tourists.
- The basement is the perfect end to the “Explore More” tour, particularly during the summer.
- Skeptic/magician Harry Houdini stay at the mansion to debunk its spirit lore. While not convinced, he did call the house a “mystery.”
- The mansion towers seen in early photos were destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and never repaired.