In the middle of California’s Silicon Valley sits one of the most haunted places in the country, the Winchester Mystery House. From 1884 until Sarah Winchester’s death in 1922, construction continued on the house 24 hours a day. There was no architect and the construction of the building followed Sarah’s whims, often influenced by her zealous belief in the undead and evil spirits. As a result, there are doorways to nowhere, stairs to nowhere, and windows in the floor.
For the third year in a row, Winchester is offering candlelight tours for Halloween. Unlike the daytime tours, which provide an in-depth history of the property, the nighttime tours blend fact and fiction in a way that sometimes makes it impossible to tell one from the other.
This year, however, The Winchester Mystery House is taking you through a unique perspective of that haunted history with The 13 Doors.
Video-Get a Preview of the 13 Doors Tour at Winchester Mystery House
There are, of course, Halloween events to be found throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, most notably, Halloween Haunt at California’s Great America and Fright Fest at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. Whereas these follow the same formula you’d find in bigger haunt events like Knott’s Scary Farm or Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, were guests are pushed through (mostly) elaborately decorated mazes like cattle, Winchester’s tour more closely resembles Merlin’s Dungeon attractions, such as the one on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, where you’re guided through a series of scenarios and sets in small groups by a series of historical characters. Winchester is different though. Instead of walking through constructed sets, you’re walking through the actual historic haunt.
You begin your tour by climbing the switchback stairs. Believed to have been constructed when Sarah Winchester was suffering from arthritis, the low rising stairs snake back and forth to bring you to the second floor. And for Halloween, this is all done in the dark. For most of the tour, lighting is kept to a minimum and used to highlight the many projection, audio, and prop effects along the way. Be forewarned: this, combined with the odd interior angles of the house’s design and the snaking path of the tour, can easily result in a sense of vertigo.
For this third year of its candlelight tours, Winchester Mystery House is presenting, for the first time, the thirteen doors purchased by Sarah Winchester, all of which are said to be portals to the other side. The doors each have their own backstories, which range from a sordid tale of infidelity to the disastrous final voyage of a famous ship. As you progress through the home, you get the sense that something’s following you – not quite human, and not there to befriend you. As you progress on the tour, so much appears in the background that the way to catch everything is to take multiple tours – there are unannounced appearances from the mysterious man in the bowler hat who continuously shows up holding a candle, the blond woman in the window who suddenly disappears, and the strange apparition floating above the stairs – is it all due to the of the genius of the Candlelight Tour design team or are they really there?
The quality of detail and care that went into designing and implementing the tour is phenomenal, and is due to the leadership of Walter Magnuson, who joined the Winchester Mystery House as its General Manager in 2015, after a lengthy career at Disney, and Creative Director Peter Overstreet, whose credits include the Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco, along with their respective crews.
Instead of aiming to give you lots of scares, where people in masks pop out with chainsaws and sound queues, the 13 Doors takes you into a world that’s not only immersive, but completely real. Sure, there are some props here and there, and even an actor or two, but it’s not a typical Halloween event. It’s real, and and built out of the real terror of Sarah Winchester. The scares are real, and more atmospheric. When you leave a haunted event, it rarely sticks with you. With the 13 Doors, you’ll swear one of the Winchester Ghosts have followed you home.
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Video-See highlights of the full 13 Doors Tour at Winchester Mystery House
While we were able to take the entire Candlelight Tour of the Winchester Mystery House on opening night, we were far from experiencing the full thing. In October, the event will ramp up with the addition of more scenic elements, more theatrical and interactive scenes, and a Mystic Midway in the home’s courtyard. Whenever you go, be prepared to experience the home in darkness, because only your tour guide actually gets to hold a candle. And he or she is from the other side.
Halloween Candlelight Tours at the Winchester Mystery House will continue to run September: 21, 22, 28, 29 (Prices range from $16.00 to $42.95) and October: 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 (Prices range from $20.00 to $49.00).