Review: Winchester’s All Hallow’s Eve gets lost in the Mystery House

Lighting & visual effects fill the venerable tourist attraction with the spirit of Halloween, but this new production is no match for 2019’s Unhinged.

All Hallow’s Eve has big floorboards to fill. The Winchester Mystery House’s 2019 production, Unhinged, was probably the greatest Halloween haunted house we have ever experienced: more than just a maze, it was an elaborate, hour-long immersive experience that tied its paranormal encounters together with an overarching story that led to a satisfying conclusion. After a  year off because of the Covid-19 pandemic, can the Mystery House live up to its own high standards?

The answer, sadly, is no. All Hallow’s Eve follows in the footsteps of its predecessor – almost literally – but this time the twists and turns reveal few frights, despite an abundance of atmospheric lighting, creepy set decorations, and impressive special effects.

What’s missing? Read on to find out…if you dare!

All Hallow’s Eve Review: Overview

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As with Winchester’s 2019 production, All Hallow’s Eve is comprised of three elements:

  1. Lost in the House is the hour-long walking tour through the interior.
  2. The Jack O’Lantern Trail transforms the exterior grounds into a Halloween world.
  3. The Light Show uses digital mapping to project a story (including dialogue, music and sound effects) on the facade of the Mystery House.

Entrance to the tour is via timed ticketing. Before or after the tour, visitors may spend as much time as they wish on the grounds, which also feature games, such as ax-throwing and a shooting gallery. The entire package is enough to fill two or three hours depending on how long you want to linger outside.

The experience begins at the front ticket gate, which has been enhanced with seasonal decor. If you arrive for the earliest time slots, you can see the exterior of the Winchester Mystery House by dimming daylight, which reveals a structure that doesn’t seem particularly intimidating. But looks can be deceiving, right?

After that, your best bet is to arrange your arrival so that you can take the tour first and enjoy the exterior entertainment afterward, especially the light show, which will give you a chance to sit down and rest after walking up and down the dark, claustrophobic corridors of the house.


All Hallow’s Eve Review: Lost in the House

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Lost in the House is main event of All Hallow’s Eve. It is also the major source of disappointment. There are two main reasons for this.

The first is the story. Lost in the House takes visitors on a guided tour inside the Mystery House’s labyrinthine interior while a paranormal investigation is taking place, but there is little narrative built around the premise. There is some technical equipment lying about in a few rooms, and monitors show glimpses of the investigators, but they are never seen in person.

Apparently, this is supposed to generate intrigue: a monitor shows the investigators in the very next room, but when we get there they are nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately, this point doesn’t register with any impact, because there are so many dark rooms and hallways it seems rather more likely than not that we would not cross their path.

These leads to the second big problem: the almost complete lack of scare actors. The settings and ambience that served Unhinged so well are still effective at setting the mood, but they are untenanted by ghosts and apparitions. There are some mannequins and great visual effects (the room with the fireplace, rain-swept windows, and changing portrait is a memorable standout), but on our visit we saw one or two actors lurking in the shadows; otherwise, Lost in the House is largely a night-time tour with the guide pretending things have gone terribly wrong.*

The result is that almost every room feels like the first scene of a ghost story: the guide leads a group into a room, and something unexpected happens: an empty chair rocks; lights dim unexpectedly; invisible voices echo from the beyond. All these elements raise expectations, telling guests they have crossed the threshold from mundane reality into a haunted world where who knows what angry spirits are be lurking around the next corner, waiting to manifest in corporeal form. Unfortunately, they never do.

In short, Lost in the House is almost all set up with no payoff. Well, there is a tag that explains the absence of the investigators and the tour’s title. One problem with Lost in the House is that, because of the guide’s continued presence, we never feel lost in the house. Ironically, the sense of being off-course was achieved far better in Unhinged, which suggested that its tour guests had been subsumed into the house, merging with its haunted history.

So what gives? Why is the tour titled Lost in the House? It has something to do with a last-minute revelation regarding the paranormal investigators, explaining why we never see them in person: they – not you – are lost in the house. As a plot twist, this at least explains what has been going on, but it’s presented as a bit of a jest instead of a shock. Like the rest of Lost in the House, it is not really scary.


All Hallow’s Eve Review: Jack O’Lantern Trail & Light Show

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So much for what happens inside the Mystery House. What about the exterior activities?

The Jack O’Lantern Trail is billed almost as a separate attraction – a value-added element for those who take the tour or a safe alternative for families with children too timid to investigate the house’s interior. It consists of numerous of numerous lighted Jack O’Lanterns (supposedly hand-carved but mostly looking like plastic store-bought items), some arranged on haystacks, others mounted like scarecrow heads. They’re certainly nice, but the trail is short.

There is also a mini-corn maze with more Jack O’Lantern figures, a spooky cemetery scene, and some very nice Dia De Los Muertos decor, in addition to the shooting gallery and axe-throwing. Still, the setup seems dialed back from 2019, when there were more elaborate decorations (e.g., giant skeletons) and more activities (temporary booths set up with Halloween-themed versions of carnival activities like ring toss).

The highlight of the exterior portion of All Hallow’s Eve is the light show, which is a replay of the 2019 show but well worth seeing again. It’s easy to grasp why it was reprised: it shows the tale of an unfortunate man who gets separated from his tour and winds up spending the evening lost in the house (get it?). The only difference is that a new title has been added at the end, rebranding the show “All Hallow’s Eve.”

One other notable omission: no popup minibars this year. With no drink options (except a soda vending machine inside the gift shop) and no food options (the cafeteria closes at night), the exterior portion of All Hallow’s Eve is not conducive to relaxing and socializing for an extended length of time. You walk through the Jack O’Lantern trail, watch the light show, and then go home.


All Hallow’s Eve Review: Conclusion

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Overall, our impression of All Hallow’s Eve is that Winchester Mystery House was trying to deliver a Halloween extravaganza on a reduced budget. The light show is a replay. The exterior decorations and activities are nice but not as extensive as before. And the Lost in the House tour seems as if the atmospheric bits of Unhinged were ported over, and a new story was contrived to omit actors. Consequently, there is less interactivity, few genuine scares, and little sense of a dramatic arc leading to a satisfying conclusion.

On the other hand, we encountered one fellow-haunt seeker who absolutely loved Lost in the House, so perhaps our reaction is one of unmet expectations. Unhinged set the bar so high that it was nigh on impossible for any follow-up to clear the necessary height, at least in our opinion. Viewed on its own, however, All Hallow’s Eve is not without its spooky appeal. To us, Winchester Mystery House has never felt particularly haunted by daylight, but in the dark of night, decorated and lit like a set from an elaborate horror movie, it can induce a few raised hairs on the back of the neck. Simply being inside it under such circumstances is a special sort of Halloween trick-or-treat.

In the end, we would not recommend making a lengthy jaunt to see All Hallow’s Eve, but Halloween fans who live in San Jose or even the nearby Bay Area may find it worthwhile, especially if they have never visited Winchester Mystery House before. Our only warning to the curious is the inverse of what one would normally expect: if you plan to attend, beware the lack of ghosts.

Footnote:

  • The result is similar to the Exclusive Encounter attraction at Queen Mary Dark Harbor in 2014, which also played with the concept of a “haunted” tour turning out to be truly haunted. Exclusive Encounter was a major disappointment, but at least it had some characters haunting its hallways. A few years later, the Queen Mary used a similar template for the far more impressive Ghosts & Legends year-round tour.
All Hallow's Eve Ratings
  • 70%
    Lost in the House - 70%
  • 70%
    Jack O'Lantern Trail - 70%
  • 95%
    Light Show - 95%
78.3%

Bottom Line

All Hallow’s Eve is not without its seasonal delights, including an amazing light show and a supremely spooky tour inside Winchester Mystery House, but it fails to meet expectations raised by the attraction’s previous Halloween production, Unhinged.

Note: We gave the light show a 95% rating instead of 100% only because it’s a replay from 2019.

All Hallow’s Eve continues on select nights through October 31. The address of Winchester Mystery House is 525 S. Winchester Boulevard, San Jose, CA 95128. Learn more here: winchestermysteryhouse.com.

 

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.