Review: An "Unhinged" Halloween at Winchester Mystery House

Wondering what "unhinged" secrets reside within the Winchester Mystery House? Then come along with us...if you dare!

After a six-year hiatus, the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose is once again presenting an elaborate Halloween haunt, and the results are formidable. Titled Unhinged, the three-part event includes a hair-raising excursion through the historical structure, a spectacular digital light show mapped to the building's facade, and additional entertainment on the surrounding grounds. The combination yields one of the best haunted house attractions of Halloween 2019, one that dwarfs all but the best Los Angeles Halloween Haunts.

Thrills begin before you enter the grounds. A crazy old man warns of the fate that befell his daughter when she ignored his admonition not to enter the house, and posters display faces of those lost within the corridors. Haunt-seekers with nerves of steel may decide to proceed anyway, but be forewarned: This house eats souls!

Unhinged Review: Winchester Mystery House Halloween Tour
Winchester Mystery House Halloween 2019 Review Unhinged
One of the Unhinged denizens of Winchester Mystery House

The star attraction of Unhinged is a guided night-time tour of the mansion's interior. For those who have never been, the Winchester Mystery House is not particularly mysterious; at least by daylight, it seems more eccentric than esoteric, with its odd architecture, doors that open on nothing, and stairs that lead nowhere. Even during the night-time flashlight tour we took in 2012, it did not seem particularly intimidating (dozens of people with flashlights can illuminate the rooms fairly brightly). Unhinged, however, transforms the location into the haunted house of our collective nightmares, casting a funereal pall with its sinister lighting and taking guests into dark, decrepit rooms not seen on regular tours. There's really not an environment among Los Angeles haunts that can compare except for the Queen Mary Dark Harbor.

Unhinged is somewhat misleadingly billed as an "immersive Halloween experience," which suggests something much milder than delivered - maybe a ghost hunt or a seance, with a few shadows and some rapping in the walls. In fact, Unhinged is a full-blown haunted house, loaded with live actors, special effects, spectral lighting, and eerie audio. The hour-long journey takes guests through a series of vignettes, where the ghosts of the past manifest to haunt the living in a variety of ways: some reenact their death, oblivious of observers; others take note of their guests, lavishing them with unwanted attention.

What these apparitions don't do - with one or two exceptions - is deliver jump-scares. Most rooms offer an encounter, some longer than others, often revealing details of past tragedies. One clever recurring theme is seeing a character and a body and realizing they are one and the same. We don't want to reveal a major spoiler, but one example of this is so subtle it is easy to overlook: one young woman weeps mournfully over a body drowned in a bathtub. Look closely, and you will see the body is her own. Look more closely, and you will see the corpse's eyes open and make contact - even though she is beneath the surface of the water!

There is a narrative thread that ties the scenes together by following through on the setup seen outside. The premise is that your guide, frustrated by the slow pace of the preceding tour, has taken a detour off the usual route, taking you into the basement, where bad things soon happen. Midway through, you overhear a radio report about the Winchester Mystery House tour being shut down by police because thirteen guests are missing since their guide took them off the approved route; in other words, you have gone missing, just like the faces on the posters outside, just like the little girl whose father told you of her disappearance. We won't say much more than that, except that the thread is tied up at the end with a sort of afterlife reconciliation that invites visitors to remain...forever.

At sixty-five minutes in length, Unhinged offers much more than other Halloween haunted houses - even more than the redoubtable Reign of Terror Haunted House in Thousand Oaks. Partly that is because the experience involves some level of interaction within each room, so guests are stopping to see what's happening, not walking through continuously. Nevertheless, this is a mammoth experience that exploits its location to fullest effect.

Unhinged Review: Winchester Mystery House Halloween Light Show
Winchester Mystery House Halloween Review Light Show
A digital light show is mapped onto the facade of Winchester Mystery House.

The other Halloween highlight is the Unhinged Light Show, which is much more than just spooky lights dancing in the night. It's a site-specific piece of digital mapping, which brings the facade of the mansion to life, telling the story of an unfortunate tour guest who suffers through an unnerving overnight stay after being accidentally left behind.

With music, dialogue, and sound effects, the eight-minute show is essentially a ghost story written on the face of the Winchester Mystery House. The mansion plays itself, with the digital projection casting shadows on the exterior and creating silhouetted figures in the windows. As the night wears on, apparitions manifest inside and out, floating through windows, and eventually a fire erupts (a historical plot point also referenced in the Unhinged tour). Eventually, dawn breaks, and everything is safe - or is it?

The digital animation is spectacular, and the simple story ties the imagery together, building to creepy climax that elicits enthusiastic applause from viewers.

Unhinged Review: Winchester Mystery House Halloween Estate Activities & Atmosphere
Unhinged Review: Winchester Mystery House Halloween 2019
Halloween atmosphere on the grounds of the mansion.

Besides the Unhinged tour and light show, the Winchester Mystery House offers what they call "Estate Activities" on the grounds around the mansion, including popup bars and tarot card readings. For additional fees, you can fire a rifle in the shooting gallery or hurl an ax at a target. There is also a separate area with sideshow type-games (e.g., Skeleball), though these were mostly overlooked on the night of our visit.

There is enough fog and decor to make you linger, but the activities do not warrant an extended stay. Additionally, food options are limited. There is a tiny grill in the gift shop building, which serves decent enough fast food, but you won't be able to make a dinner out of it.

At least you can enjoy some creepy cocktails at the two bars. We sampled a pair, one called "Dark and Story," the other called "Poisoned Apple." The former consists of ginger beer and rum, garnished with a lemon wedge; the latter is comprised of vodka, cranberry juice, and apple juice, also with a lemon wedge. Both are excellent - a great way to cap the evening while soaking up the Halloween atmosphere outside the house. As you exit through the gift shop, make sure to view Christine McConnell miniature Gingerbread recreation of the Winchester Mystery House.

Unhinged Review: Conclusion

Except for various low-key flashlight and candlelight tours, the Winchester Mystery House has not offered a large-scale Halloween haunt since Fright Nights. seven years ago. We enjoyed that presentation, but it suffered slightly from placing most of the haunt on the grounds around the house, reserving the interior for a traditional historical tour, illuminated by flashlight and people by a few silent, costumed characters, who provided atmosphere but no scares.

For Halloween 2019, Winchester Mystery House: Unhinged ups the ante by moving the the majority of the haunt inside the house. It far exceeds their previous effort, ranking as the most extensive haunted house we have ever walked through. Really the only reason not to attend is distance. But Los Angeles fright fans who don't mind a five-hour drive (or a plane flight) should check it out.

Winchester Mystery House Halloween Ratings
  • 100%
    Unhinged Tour - 100%
  • 100%
    Unhinged Light Show - 100%
  • 80%
    Estate Activities & Atmosphere - 80%
93.3%

Bottom Line

The Winchester Mystery House’s 2019 Halloween event exceeds their previous efforts, turning the historical mansion into the most extensive haunted house walk-through ever.

Unhinged continues at the Winchester Mystery House through November 2. The address is 525 S. Winchester Boulevard, San Jose, CA 95128. Learn more here: winchestermysteryhouse.com/unhinged.

Unhinged Review: Winchester Mystery House Halloween Photo Gallery

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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.