As nighttime falls, the 24,000-square-foot mansion gets even creepier. Photo courtesy of Winchester Mystery House, LLC

With more than 450 spirit sightings reported since 2007, saying that the Winchester Mystery HouseTM in San Jose, California, is haunted may be an understatement. Many of the visitors to the house claim to have seen the ghost of Sarah Winchester, who owned the house in the late 1800s. Her story, even before her house became notorious for its ghosts, is essentially a ghost story.  

Mrs. Winchester married into the wealth created by the Winchester Rifle, the most commonly used gun during the Civil War. When her husband suddenly died of tuberculosis in 1881, Mrs. Winchester attributed his death and the previous death of their infant daughter to the wrath of the spirits killed by the rifle. To avoid being the spirits’ next victim, Mrs. Winchester sought advice from a psychic spiritualist, who confirmed that her family was cursed by the vengeful spirits. 

Prompted by her visit with the psychic, Mrs. Winchester vowed to build a house that was never to be finished. Some say that she decided to build it to appease the spirits by giving them a place to live; others suggest that the constant expansion of the home was designed to confuse the restless victims of the Winchester Rifle. Either way, Sarah Winchester spent the $20 million that she inherited after her husband’s death (worth about $350 million in today’s dollars) to ensure that the eight-room farmhouse that she had bought in San Jose, California, was continuously under construction. 

This luxurious ballroom is one of the 160 rooms of the mansion, many of which have been the sites of hauntings. Photo courtesy of Winchester Mystery House, LLC

For the next 38 years, the carpenters worked around the clock, adding new rooms, false doors, twisting hallways, and secret passageways to the house. There was no building plan for the construction—just the desire to evade the anger of the spirits. This lack of planning led to some interesting architecture: doors open into walls, stairs lead to the ceiling, and windows face walls. The hammers finally stopped after Mrs. Winchester’s death in 1922, leaving the 160-room, 24,000-square-foot mansion unfinished to this day.

Despite all of Mrs. Winchester’s earnest attempts to ward off ghosts, the unusual nature of the house seems to attract unusual and inexplicable events. Visitors recount hearing organ music in the room where Mrs. Winchester died. Others report seeing orbs of light around the house or meeting the ghost of the home’s head carpenter. And of course, scores of visitors claim they have glimpsed Mrs. Winchester herself.

Although it’s often overshadowed by the better-known tourist attractions in the San Francisco Bay Area, if you’re looking to bump into some ghosts, the Winchester mansion is a good place to visit. You won’t be disappointed, especially if you attend one of the home’s special flashlight tours held every Friday 13th and Halloween. Tours take a little more than an hour and go through 110 of the mansion’s 160 rooms, giving visitors lots of chances to see the ghosts that have made the house famous.

Caroline Ure