Today its first impression screams tacky tourist trap. Enter through the gift shop, get your picture taken with replica Winchester rifles (um, no thanks), get a computerized fortune told by a machine with an animatronic witch whose eyes light up. An intercom system in the courtyard announces when your tour is leaving (every 20 minutes, for the low, low price of $30-something a head). The house is full of other murmuring voices as various groups wind their way through it. Our guide was a theatrical teenager who projected her spiel at merciless volume, complete with dramatic gestures.
But for all that, it was genuinely creepy.
It was a cumulative creepiness, one that sneaks up on you without you even noticing. At first the details are just eccentric (spiderweb motifs in the stained glass) or laughable mistakes (the most expensive window in the house never gets direct sunlight) or understandable, if uncomfortable, accommodations (the claustrophobically narrow stairways with the bizarrely shallow steps were apparently easier on Mrs. Winchester’s arthritic joints).
But there’s only so many times you can say WTF before it starts to wear on you. The room with five fireplaces. The room with three ways in and only one way out. The staircase that ends at the ceiling. The door that opens onto lath and plaster. The stairs that go down seven steps and then, three feet later, go up eleven more, so that you end up only three feet higher than you started. The windows in the floor. The windows into other rooms. The cupboards that open onto hallways.
You’re constantly coming across features you’ve seen before from another angle, or windows you’ve been on the other side of, or glimpses of rooms you were just in a few minutes ago. But it’s always a surprise, because you’ve lost all sense of where you are in relation to anyplace you’ve been. And while natural light penetrates surprisingly far into the house, given all the plunging window wells and connected spaces, a lot of it is dark, lamplit, and the opulent details quickly become oppressive.
I’d never given much thought to the logical, intuitive layout of a house. You find your way around a house so easily that its common sense is invisible. But by the end of an hour, its absence was becoming actively unpleasant. The effect reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, whose walls just don’t meet at the right angle somehow, whose every room is subtly offensive to the senses.
And then there’s the earthquake-damaged section. I recall this coming in the middle of the tour, although I could be misremembering. During the 1906 quake, fireplaces collapsed and the walls shifted, making a door impossible to open, and Mrs. Winchester was trapped in a single room until the servants came to pry it open. She ordered the whole section of the house boarded up, and it was never repaired. I’m thinking PTSD is probably a better explanation for that than the “curse” our guide said she may have feared to call down by finishing her renovations, but either way, that part of the house is crumbling: the plaster is cracked, coming down in chunks, the ceiling a patchy mess.
I’ve had nightmares about an opulent house that dissolves into something less and less houselike – and more and more horrible – the further in you go. Peak creepiness in the whole tour was the moment I turned to look down a dark, roped-off corridor up there and a cold draft sighed down towards me, smelling powerfully of old wood and decaying paper.
You can look up the story about the “curse” on the house. I don’t care for it. It’s one of those sort of flat, shiny, moral stories that ties up every mystery and doesn’t leave any interesting questions hanging. But the house has a spookiness that endures; it defies the attempt at an explanation.