Welcome to The Eerie Update, a new column with a penchant for the paranormal, cryptozoology, and all things weird. If you believe that the world is a mysterious place which moves in mysterious ways, then you’re in the right spot.
Let’s begin with the story of the Winchester Mystery House (I was so obsessed with this creepy tale that I based one of my senior projects on it). In 1862, a woman named Sarah Lockwood Pardee married a dude named William Wirt Winchester. He was heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which made a deadly rifle known as “The Gun that Won the West.” Tragedy struck the couple when their baby daughter died of a mysterious illness. 15 years later, William also passed away from tuberculosis.
After his passing, Sarah inherited $20,000,000 with an income of $1,000 per day, which in 2015, is the equivalent of roughly $25,000 a day. Imagine being the recipient of all that unlimited cashola?! In 2015, state-of-the-art technology plus buttloads of money could mean all sorts of things: You could hire someone to build a pink U.F.O.-shaped waterbed; sit atop a mountain of cheeseburgers while Nicki Minaj serenades you; fill a pool with thousands of blow-up pizzas. But back in Sarah’s day, the ways a millionaire might spend her time and money were a little less expansive.
Legend has it that Sarah decided to seek spiritual guidance. She visited a psychic medium who had some jarring news: She would always be haunted by the ghosts of those who were killed by Winchester guns. The medium also implied that the untimely deaths of Sarah’s daughter and husband were part of this curse, and she could be next, and this is when things got REALLY WEIRD. Apparently, the medium instructed Sarah to head west to California and build a house for the spirits, so that she would be protected from harm. There was a catch, however: Construction on the house was NEVER TO STOP, otherwise, she would join her family in death.
Sarah said goodbye to Connecticut and found a farmhouse in San Jose, California, which would eventually become the Winchester Mystery House. For almost 40 years, she followed the psychic’s advice and continued adding to the house. This resulted in an architectural enigma which grew to seven stories high, made up of elaborate hallways, doors that lead to nowhere, and staircases that lead to the ceiling. It’s estimated that Sarah built something like 500 or 600 rooms, which were repeatedly torn down and built again. Only 160 rooms remain today. In 1906, an earthquake damaged the house and it now has just four of its seven floors.
Particularly odd features of the house include regular-sized doors right next to smaller ones—the latter designed for the rather small mistress of the house to enter through. The Switchback Staircase has seven flights with 44 steps, each step just two inches high, again, due to Sarah’s small stature. Another staircase forces you to descend, and then climb up another flight. A puzzling cabinet opens to reveal an entryway to another 30 rooms. These, and the aforementioned staircases leading to nowhere and doors that open on to brick walls, were odd architectural features designed to confuse bad spirits. Sarah also slept in a different bedroom each night—another method to trick angry ghosts and prevent them from harming her.
In addition to bad spirits, there were also good ones. Since spirits supposedly hate mirrors because they vanish if they look at their reflection, Sarah rarely kept them in the house; she wanted to get on the good side of the friendly ghosts. But what if Sarah wanted to pluck a brow or check if there was spinach in her teeth? Apparently, she and her servants only used hand mirrors, and sporadically. Sarah was also fascinated with the number 13. While the number is seen in some traditions as “bad luck,” it had some sort of unknown significance to her. A chandelier which originally had only 12 gas jets was modified to include a 13th. There are 13 bathrooms, with 13 windows in the 13th one, and 13 steps leading to it. There are also 13 hooks in the Séance Room, which is rumored to have held the various robes Sarah used to communicate with the great beyond.
Unlike modern-day heiresses, Sarah Winchester was not a social butterfly. She was elusive to those beyond her home and was allegedly only ever seen shrouded by a veil when among her workers. SO GOTH! The house was really the only insight into her personality. For instance, the Grand Ballroom contains two stained glass windows, each inscribed with quotations from Shakespearean plays. The first reads, “Wide unclasp the table of their thoughts,” and the second, “These same thoughts people this little world.” What did these particular quotes mean to the mysterious Sarah?
Sarah, her servants, and her construction workers spent so much of their lives dedicated to this peculiar house that it’s easy to suspect there’s some paranormal activity occurring there today. After Sarah’s death in 1922, there have been many reported ghost sightings in the house. A caretaker heard what sounded like someone breathing in an empty room and footsteps in the bedroom where Sarah passed away. A friend of his came over on New Year’s Eve and took photos which, when developed, revealed strange lights and a figure of a man in overalls. One woman who visited the house in 1955 claimed to have temporarily lost her eyesight after touring the rooms. On Halloween 1975, a well-respected medium named Jeanne Borgen conducted a séance in Sarah’s former bedroom. During the gathering, another psychic began speaking in an older woman’s voice. A reporter in attendance suddenly grew a beard—a sign of a paranormal occurrence called transfiguration, which allows a spirit to materialize using the body of a living person. Jeanne instantly appeared to have grey hair and deep wrinkles (like an old lady, ahem!) then fell unconscious. When she awoke, she exclaimed, “She was an overpowering woman!” Sarah, is thatchu comin’ thru?
Nowadays, the Winchester House is open for the public to explore. Every Friday the 13th at 1 PM they hold flashlight tours and ring a large bell 13 times in Sarah’s honor. I’ve been to the Winchester House twice, and one of my visits was during a Friday the 13th tour. The house itself—a physical manifestation of Sarah Winchester’s paranormal paranoia—is truly a magnificent, jaw-dropping structure in person. While I didn’t actually see any ghostly apparitions, navigating the twists and turns of this maze-like mansion definitely left me more than a little spooked. Or maybe the chills going up my spine were just the after effects of Sarah Winchester hanging out nearby, keeping a close eye on her visitors. ♦