Hollywood Gothique was unable to travel to San Jose last Halloween for the debut of Winchester Mystery House Fright Nights; however, our dark doppelganger, the Haunt Mistress from Haunted Bay, recommended it highly, so we marked our calendar for October 2012, knowing that this year, we would make the trip no matter what. Was Fright Nights worth the lengthy trek through darkness and distance? Let's just say that the ratio of scares to travel time is equal to or higher than that of many Halloween events in Los Angeles.
Winchester Mystery House Flashlight Tour
The first thing you need to know about Fright Nights is that most of it does not take place inside the Winchester Mystery House, which is a protected California historical landmark. Fortunately, you can still explore the house - by flashlight.
Essentially, this is a night-time version of traditional daylight tour, enhanced slightly for the Halloween season. Instead of a live guide, you are given a playback device, which recounts the history of the house and its owner, Sarah Winchester, along with tales of supernatural manifestations reported to have been observed on the premises. The lights are out as you make your way through the rambling structure. The air is filled with the distant screams of those enduring the Fright Nights walk-through on the surrounding grounds.
A few ghosts (actors in period costume, looking like veiled widows) lurk in the shadows - sometimes at a distance, sometimes close enough to touch you. Our favorite was outside a window, glimpsed first as a gesturing hand, seemingly that of someone else taking the tour, luring unsuspecting tourist to peer through for a closer look - at what turned out to be the ghastly face of an undead apparition.
Sadly, the spookiness of the flashlight tour was somewhat mitigated for us by the crowds. The multitude of flashlights erased the darkness almost completely; we never had a sense of being in an environment conducive to paranormal activity. In truth, we found the Winchester Mystery House's paranormal reputation to be something of an exaggeration. Up close, the house actually appears rather warm and inviting. Yes, all the quirks we had heard about were on view - the doors that open on walls instead of halls, the stairway that leads to nowhere - but these anomalies struck us as more eccentric than ectoplasmic in nature.
Nevertheless, the structure is fascinating, as is the legend behind it. As the tale goes, Sarah Winchester was informed by a medium that she would be haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle, but the sound of hammering would keep the ghosts at bay. Therefore, Winchester was continuously building and expanding the house; many of the architectural oddities were allegedly intended to confuse the restless spirits. (Other odd features were practical in nature: Winchester was an arthritic woman, less than five feet tall, which would explain the lengthy staircase with two-inch risers.) Since Winchester's death, there have supposedly been numerous reports of ghosts.
How much of the legend is true? We tend toward skepticism in this regard, especially after our guide (yes, we got special treatment - a live tour guide instead of the playback devices) told us that Harry Houdini became a believer after visiting the Winchester Mystery House. There does seem to be an old newspaper article recounting a visit by the famous escape artist to the house, but to our knowledge Houdini remained a skeptic to his dying day, devoting the latter portion of his life to debunking mediums and seances.
But why let reality get in the way of a good story? The Flashlight Tour is the perfect prologue for the Fright Nights walk-through. In fact, the tour lays out the back story for Fright Nights in a way that the haunt itself never clarifies. When visiting the Winchester Mystery House for Halloween, you definitely should overcome your impulse to head straight for the scary stuff first. Start with the flashlight tour; then go to Fright Nights.
(One suggestion for next year: Winchester Mystery House should take a cue from cemetery and historical tours, such as the Strathearn Park Ghost Tour and the Voices of Pioneer Cemetery Flashlight Tour - which cast actors as characters who return from the grave to tell their stories to the living. Replace the cumbersome audio devices with more actors in period costume, and give them dialogue. This would especially enhance the seance room and the various spots where ghosts are alleged to have been sighted.)
This is the highlight of Halloween horror at Winchester Mystery House. Although there is some attempt to theme the thrills to match the legends regarding Sarah Winchester and her home, Fright Nights is more than happy to throw in plenty of tricks-and-treats of various shapes and sizes, designed to scare you silly regardless of whether they conform to the Mystery House's haunted history.
In length and scope, Fright Nights approximates s condensed version of Halloween Horror Nights' Terror Tram Tour on the Universal Studios back lot - a lengthy walk through a series of different environments, benefiting from the expansive feel that comes from an outdoor setting. Of course, there is nothing as spectacular as Universal's plane crash scene; on the other hand, Fright Night is more compact, with the scares erupting at more frequent intervals.
In comparison to stand-alone Halloween haunts, Fright Nights is in the tradition of Delusion: Presented by Haunted Play, the Blumhouse of Horrors, and to some extent the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, in that it offer an extended trip through a real location. Although the delineation of the back story is vague at best, lacking the drama of Delusion, Fright Nights surpasses the competition in terms of using its setting to outstanding effect. The grounds surrounding the Winchester Mystery House, including a real pet cemetery and several out-buildings, have been enhanced with numerous tricks-and-treats, creating such a Halloween smorgasbord of horror that you will need to go through several times to sample every dreadful delicacy: a man of the cloth warns you that you are doomed for entering the grounds; a statue comes alive; ghost cowboys lurk menacingly; a chained victim calls you out for a coward when you leave without helping her.
There is an impressive variety of environments, offering tones that range from subtle to shocking. On the softer side, the spirit of Halloween is evoked with a multitude of intricately carved Jack-O'Lanterns arranged atop a maze of hay bales, but hidden within the maze are more gruesome horrors, in the form of mangled bodies, and the sound of distant chainsaws reminds you that the dangers lurking within Fright Nights are tangible as well as spiritual.
Some of the gags are familiar, but used in interesting ways. There is a "Claustrophobia Tunnel" (tightly packed airbags through which you must pass), but this one is set up inside a barn topped with demonic eyes, suggesting that you are passing literally through the mouth of Hell. We spotted a couple of bits borrowed from the Sinister Pointe Haunted Attraction: a "collapsing" bridge and an "invisible" slide (actually clear plexiglass, which cannot be seen in the dark, creating the illusion of an empty corridor until a monster slides down from above).
With so much to appreciate - the decor of Fright Nights is enough to dazzle the eye, even without any scares - it is hard to single out anything for special praise, but we particularly enjoyed the pumpkin-headed scarecrows amidst gently wafting snowflakes. The setting deliberately evokes Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, capturing a startling beauty that lingers like a mental postcard long after leaving the haunt.
More than anyplace else you will visit for Halloween, the Winchester Mystery House truly suggests a haunted house. In fact, when you arrive, be sure to avoid the mistake of walking directly from the parking lot to the ticket booth. Instead, head around to the sidewalk on the main boulevard, until you come to a gap in the shrubbery that affords a full view of the facade. Seeing the ghostly colors and flashing lights dancing around the front of the building, you will feel beyond doubt that you have found the archetypal haunted mansion of your dreams - the "Mount Everest of Haunted Houses."*
We do not want to oversell the event. Winchester Mystery House is not the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt or Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood; however, in a one-to-one comparison - that is, maze-to-maze - Fright Nights bests just about anything at either of those Halloween theme park attractions. The two tours last about thirty-to-forty minutes apiece, depending on how long you want to linger over architectural oddities in the Flashlight Tour and how fast you feel you must flee the vengeful spirits in Fright Nights. Afterward, you can grab some snacks or head into Skully's Saloon for spirits of a different sort; there is also a sizable souvenir store. In short, there is no reason to rush off; you can easily fill a complete evening with your trip to Winchester Mystery House.
Hollywood Gothique occasionally makes the distinction between horror and history during the Halloween season: the former appears at the numerous haunted houses around town in October; the later arrives via various cemetery and museum events (such as the Heritage Square Halloween and Mourning Tours). Unlike any Halloween events in Los Angeles, the Winchester Mystery House provides the best of both worlds, making it must-see destination for anyone lucky enough to be within reach of San Jose.
One final grace note worth: the Winchester Mystery House not only provides an opportunity to be haunted; it also allows you, in some small sense, to be the haunter. Those flashing lights and moving shadows you see in the upper windows as you approach - you may take them for lighting effects and/or actors lurking within, but at least some of them are visitors taking the Flashlight Tour. So grab your complimentary flashlight, head to a window, pause menacingly, and stare outside while swinging your beam back and forth like a spectral lantern. With a little bit of luck, someone may mistake you for a ghost.
The Winchester Mystery House is located at 525 S. Winchester Blvd, San Jose, CA 95128. Fright Nights' remaining dates are on October 25-31 and November 2-3. Tickets range from $30 to $50; parking is free. Call (408) 247-2101 for more information, or visit their website.
- *This is the term the psychic investigator in 1974's THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE uses to describe the Belasco House. It seems appropriate here.