Winchester Mystery House: take a tour of this rich pad


It’s tough to be absolutely terrified of something when you have to go through a gift shop first.

Surrounded by mugs, tees, bottle openers, and God only knows what else, a sense of creeping fear is in limited supply. Until you see the Ouija boards. Creeping fear comes then, but it’s just a tickle. At least it’s there, breathing on the back of your neck like a breathless hound from the depths of Hell. And you see the board’s hefty price tag. Heavy fear comes into your stomach, like a three-egg omelet dripping with cheddar cheese and chorizo an hour after you ate it.

There’s a lot that can be said about the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. The mansion is reminiscent of Hearst Castle (found just a few hours south). The mystery house is beautiful, oddly built, tight-quartered, sunshine deficient, and obnoxious with old world luxury. There are thirteen hooks in the closets, windows with thirteen panels, thirteen bathrooms, and so on. That number sends creeping tendrils of mathematical grief up my spine.

There’s the staircase that leads into a wall and a door that, should you walk through it, will drop you to the cold earth a floor below. The creeping horror grabs your shoulder with invisible skeleton fingers. The ghosts of all those killed by Winchester’s rifles shuffle zombie-like through the claustrophobic halls; they fill dark shadows with smoky semi-human forms, and wait for the call of Sarah Winchester from her now empty séance room.

It could be they’re rehearsing for the movie slated to be made there starring Helen Mirren. Out next year. It’s on IMDB even.

You follow the tour guide into the next room, listening with dumbfounded anticipation as she recites a well-rehearsed litany of stories – from earthquakes to hired help –  and you realize you could have been considered just as odd as Sarah if you had a home like hers, only there’s a difference. A creeping epiphany gnashes its teeth in your face.

She was rich and you are not. Helen Mirren will never play you.

Had Mrs. Winchester taken her quirky building habits and applied them to a tiny home, or an RV (or even an old VW bus), chances are no one would care. But she took a farm house and kept adding on, and adding on, ad nauseam. For us, putting a bed against a door or hanging a map sideways takes out our budget. That’s as “Winchester” as we can get. But was Sarah really crazy?

The folks at Winchester Mystery House do a great job of leaving that up to us. They tell you what people tell them, share the stories of what some believe were her battles with ghosts (and a few employees have stories to tell as well), while they also share more mundane brain fodder (the great quake and how it damaged her pad, for example). Could it be she was simply one hell of a Freemason or a nutty Bacon fan? There’s a lot that proves this could be the case. Or was she down with the demons?

I got a mug with a creeping skull on it from the gift shop. That means the place is ghosting it up. The undead creep up the walls, leaving snail slime behind, and they make sure that logo makes sense. If their putrid hands weren’t foggy I’d high five them.

A road trip gauged on karate chopping

How the drive from Monterey to Cottonwood and back again might go for you

There was a beat up pickup truck, larger than average, with a flatbed area surrounded by wooden fencing made of paint chips and splinters. The bed was full of sheep. They were pressed against the wood, but not making a sound. Had I not looked up while pumping gas, I wouldn’t have seen them at all. Not even a smell preceded their arrival. And they had no idea how old that wooden fence looked. I probably could have karate chopped it to pieces without trying hard.

Tehachapi also hosted the scrawny woman with the mousy brown hair and burgundy corduroy pants. She approached our table during a short food break to give us a religious book, then asked if my son and I wanted to pray with her. Probably could have karate chopped her pretty easily. She didn’t order anything.

Barstow, driven through on the way to Arizona and slept in on the way back from Arizona, held terrors to chill the very soul. From expensive gas stations and herky-jerky stop lights, to the denizens on their bicycles who hang out in a few of the motel’s parking lots wearing very little (it was past 100 degrees at 11 p.m.) with their tattoos and desperation on view for the road weary to witness. What they did wear looked like it had been new back when Cindy Crawford still made movies. My sleepy, caffeine-fueled karate chops would have confused them at first, but then they would have kicked my ass and stole my stuff.

How can you Bruce Lee a heatwave? Mentally it’s possible. Especially from inside a car. With an air conditioner turned so on it’s like love. But that heat kills everything. My dreams of a life without becoming a crabby curmudgeon left a stain on Route 66 when it melted there years ago. But mentally, I totally kicked that 109 degree temp’s ass.

In Paso Robles, there’s always a guy who only has enough money for a soda and sits in the restaurant adorned in torn clothes he probably got from the bicycle-riding crowd in Barstow, because it was always too hot there for them to need it. That guy sits in a booth and sizes up the customers when they walk in. He makes uncomfortable eye contact. He karate chopped with his eyes and I karate chopped back. I could be him after all. I could make those who see me uncomfortable. But I don’t.

And now my eye lids are karate chopping my cheeks. And my cheeks keep karate chopping them open again. And I miss the quiet sheep.