Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, CA
Folks, today is a Halloween treat, and I promise that's no trick. As you may have discerned from yesterday's update, our Friday the 13th trip to Winchester Mystery House was not solely to witness a rare bell ringing and formally take part in the daytime house tours. While those were certainly quite fun, our motives stretched further into the macabre, and our most eagerly anticipated activity of the day was the nighttime Hallowe'en Candlelight Tour Winchester puts on during the Halloween season.
We wrote a bit about this last year, when we let our intern out of his basement level hovel and had him investigate what Winchester's autumn seasonal event was all about. But we didn't really go much into detail at the time, since we didn't actually make accommodations to book an official visit for him (he hasn't earned that company benefit yet). Fortunately, that formal trip absence was rectified with our visit this past Friday evening. What we experienced was a fantastic, wonderfully produced, engagingly creepy, impressively choreographed journey into the deeper and darker mythos surrounding Sarah Winchester and her sprawling, endless abode.
On paper, this one hour tour reads like an enhanced, more atmospheric, and more dramatic version of the daytime tours. Move from room to room, guided only by candlelight, and learn more about the history of the Winchester Mystery House and its occupants. But when the setting is one of the allegedly most haunted places in America, creaking around this old, organic mansion brings a natural aura of apprehension all by itself. Even though guests move in groups of a little over a dozen, the exploration is still laden with tension.
The premise is relatively simple and draws upon a more amped up and exaggerated (or perhaps truly revealed?) version of Winchester lore. Daytime visitors have always been told that while the estate may have its share of spirits, the apparitions have generally been the jovial type--albeit sometimes a bit mischievous. But those who attend the Hallowe'en Candlelight Tour learn that the guides suspect darker forces are afoot, and they're none too comfortable with the idea of sharing ghoulish space with a possible vengeful spectre.
In fact, there's a very strong possibility that the meddling phantom bears a connection to the notorious Adam Coons, the Boston medium who told Mrs. Winchester that she was haunted by the spirits of the victims of the Winchester rifles and told her she had to move west and forever build a house to confuse and escape the ghosts threatening to doom her. As guests move from space to space, the narrative reveals itself to have more and more sinister connections, and by the time the tour reaches it climax, guests will have unwittingly unleashed a wicked phantasm, dodged pervasively shadowy spooks, and witnessed a fateful supernatural showdown.
By all accounts, this year's event has refined and enhanced last year's debut chapter and improved upon overall theatrical presentation. And there are theatrics! This is not just ambiance-filled, nervous skittering across the rooms of a haunted house. There are live actors, startling special effects, moody lighting, and grisly creatures. And yet, the entire presentation imbues a sense of respect to the house itself, washing the guest experience with a veil of dramatic thrilling plausibility.
It's a Halloween event, so of course, the terrors aren't real, but could they be? The immersive stage that is the house itself certainly doesn't dissuade such a sentiment, and the environment is excellently chilling throughout the tour. Everything is smartly executed--brief moments of sudden shock accenting longer moments of suspense and anticipation. It all just comes together well. We were thoroughly impressed with how the sights and sounds and interactions turned out.
If there was one object of criticism, it's one that echoes our daytime tour opinions. The actual guide can play a remarkable difference in the quality of the tour. Now, let me assure readers that at no point do the tour guides degrade the experience, and Winchester's Hallowe'en Candlelight Tour is utterly entertaining even at its low point. But an excellent tour guide can take a soundly good experience and transform it into a richly amazing one. I personally had the chance to tag along with two different tours (once to experience as a guest; once to photo-document with permission from the house), and the comparisons were striking.
The tone and feel of the first tour was matter-of-fact. Here was the house. Here were the actual stories told. Here were the suspicions. Perfectly serviceable, nothing wrong with it. But it lacked the gravitas one might expect from a guided haunted house tour, and there was a certain emotional spark that felt missing.
In the second tour, the guide was presented as a spirit from the time of Sarah Winchester--a member of the household who had witnessed plenty. And this guide's commitment to character drew all of the guests in. From the very first moment of the tour, the guide seized control of the group, gripping it through the various scenes and happenings, placing them at the mercy of the ghouls all around. It was an absolute pleasure to behold.
Ultimately, the tour guide issue is a bit like the Jungle Cruise. An average skipper/guide will still provide the full and expected experience, but a dedicated skipper/guide will elevate the adventure to a new, riveting, mesmerizing height.
As you have and can see from these photos, the setting is quite spectacular throughout the house. The decorations which might look harmless or at most perturbing during the daytime transform into menacing and malevolently enchanting details by night. The lighting is exquisite, and the experience echoes with a phantom ethereality.
Winchester Mystery House's Hallowe'en Candlelight Tour runs through October 31st and has been very popular this season, with sellouts and extensions occurring regularly. It is a highlight of this Halloween season, and for Bay Area haunt fans (and even those from Southern California with a bit of a travel itch), it is a definite must-see. And if you're not able to go this year, make a mental note about this event for next year. I'm pretty darn confident you won't regret it!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.