Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, CA
Coming off a wildly successful Halloween season that was full of sold out tours and record setting crowds and publicity, what does one of the most haunted places in America do for an encore this year? Well, if it’s the Winchester Mystery House, it aims for bigger, grander, bolder, and scarier. And indeed, the famous San Jose home of Sarah Winchester has done just that with this year’s Hallowe’en Candlelight Tour! Crafting a new story to thrill guests, this year’s autumn nighttime special event at the Llanada Villa re-tailors the tour experience to feature a darker, more haunting, more frightful tone, with more special effects and harder scares than ever seen before.
The 2018 iteration is entitled “The 13th Door” (no relation—or shocks—to Fullerton’s The 17th Door), and it follows along the uncovering of 13 mysterious doors previously not revealed to the public:
Known as the “Asher Collection,” Sarah Winchester once hired Mr. Dane Asher to procure these unusual doors from all around with one single thread connecting them all – they have to assist in communicating with the dead. With 13 newly discovered doors, it has been found that each has their own mystical, spiritual power, and if everything aligns correctly, guests may be able to experience what’s on the other side…
They have been placed throughout the house in hopes that—with the help of contact from the mystical energy of the house—their secrets can be unlocked. But are those secrets benign or threatening? Guests must brave a longer, more expanded and winding trek through this labyrinth of a mansion to truly find out!
The more ambitious scope of this year’s event begins before guests event step foot inside Sarah Winchester’s legendary oddity of a house. In the courtyard area, guests can take in the ambiance, enjoy a snack or beverage, or partake in the “Sarah’s Attic” shooting gallery attraction, decorated with whimsical jack-o-lanterns and Halloween theming.
But a new attraction has set up as well, as Winchester has partnered with Mystic Midway to bring a spooky and delightful nighttime carnival to the masses. There are fair games, photo ops, a contortionist (at least on the night of our visit), and eerie and interesting characters roaming about.
Admittedly (to me, at least), the idea of landing a circus atmosphere at Winchester doesn’t quite jive with the weightier and more haunting mythology of the house that fans and previous visitors know or have heard. But Halloween is a celebration of the autumn season and a fun embrace of the supernatural and the macabre, and the Mystic Midway provides that innocent and charming sense of enjoyment. In this case, suspend the belief of the Winchester lore. The Mystic Midway has been invited by present day Winchester Mystery House and is unreleated to the storyline of the actual Hallowe’en Candlelight Tour. It is present as a bonus to hold guests’ time as they wait for their turn into the house for the actual main attraction. And it’s an adorable attraction that should put smiles on guests who wander over to see what is buzzing. Especially if they run into Mr. Nobody!
Of course, guests visiting the Winchester Mystery House this Halloween season are looking for more than just fun. They’re looking for thrills and chills, and they get that with this year’s Hallowe’en Candlelight Tour. Similar to that of previous years, the show is an approximately hour-long guided walk by the light of a candle through various rooms of this sprawling estate. Groups of about two dozen are led from space to space by a tour guide who intones tidbits about the history of the house, as well as these newly-discovered mysterious doors from the “Asher Collection” that appear to have mystical connections to energies on the other side.
Last year’s Candlelight Tour was what is termed a “soft scare” haunt. There were startle moments, but they were typically shielded or indirect, or caused by practical or sound effects rather than personal encounters. But the popularity of the 2017 event—nearly every night was sold out—has prompted the Winchester team to expand the intensity this year, and as a result, actual “hard scares” from actors and props will be found.
There are similarities to last year’s event, both in setting and in scares. Certain iconic scenes and rooms reappear this year. For example: Sarah’s shadow, resting in a wheelchair; electrical gadgets arranged in the ballroom; a visit to Sarah’s bedroom and a close encounter with a ghostly force. But they have been reconfigured to produce different or staggered effects or different progressions to keep this year’s story fresh.
The narrative itself walks the line between history and legend, mixing documented stories with a little bit of creative fiction. While that may turn off Winchester purists who believe that the spiritual history of the house should be sufficient to impart the right excitement and ambiance of a Halloween event, it’s actually a pretty effective strategy. Even if guests catch onto the sensationalized aspects of the story, there are just enough startles and creeps grounded in long-recognized tales and recollections that they will question exactly what is simply an effect of the show and what might be a prankish specter having a little bit of fun.
The more intense additions this year are pretty enjoyable. Certain parts of the house have received sets built into select spaces, but not physically tied into the historic building structure. Instead, like a haunted attraction maze, there are self-bracing walls and clamped-in elements that avoid permanent alteration to the very historically sensitive Llanada Villa. But this means that the ghouls lurking in these areas can be more visceral and confrontational, ratcheting up the screams. There’s a clear upgrade from last year’s scares, which more typically produced solitary gasps or cries rather than prolonged shrieks. Clearly, Winchester is not content to simply be a static experience.
The resulting experience is exceptionally fun and positively riveting—although, once again, the mood set by the tour guide does play a major part of impacting the guest experience. Some of the Winchester guides impart a theatrical, dramatic flair that really sweeps guests into the blurred mythology and intrigue. But others approach their spiels and narrations more casually, as though they were the normal daytime tours, and those cases do detract from the environment and sentiment intended to be relayed.
Ultimately, though, Winchester has once again produced a successful and fantastic haunted attraction that is a Northern California must-see for any and all haunt fans. Peter Overstreet, Walter Magnuson, and the Winchester team have really raised the house’s standing as an autumn destination. This much is evidenced by the Candlelight Tours’ extension from 20 nights last year to 26 this year (and much more than the handful that the Candlelight Tours began with in 2016)! The event is top notch and incredibly fun, and wonderful for some spooks and terrors for Halloween!
Winchester Mystery House’s Hallowe’en Candlelight Tours resume this Wednesday, October 24, and continue every night for the rest of the run through Halloween, October 31st. Tickets can be purchased online at the Winchester Mystery House web site, where additional details about the tour can also be found.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.