Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse (review)
Winchester Mystery House resurrects its Unhinged Halloween show, restoring the scares and adding a few new ones
Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse, the new Halloween shows at the Winchester Mystery House, is a solid return to form after the disappointment of last year. The San Jose tourist destination has long exploited its spooky reputation with tours promoting its allegedly haunted history, sometimes held at night by flashlight, but its record of Halloween presentations has been on-again-off-again for over a decade.
For Halloween 2011 and 2012, there was Fright Nights, which consisted of a quiet candlelight tour inside the building, with all the Halloween haunt activity restricted to the grounds outside. Fright Nights ended after a decision was made that this sort of event was not a good fit for a historical building in need of preservation. In 2019, that decision was overturned, resulting in the amazing Unhinged, one of the best Halloween haunts we have ever experienced – a ninety-minute tour through the house from top to bottom, loaded with lighting, effects, and a multitude of ghoulish characters – all wrapped in a loose narrative about the house’s penchant for swallowing souls. Unfortunately, the 202 pandemic lockdown prevented a reprise that Halloween, and in 2021 the Mystery House offered a different show, All Hallow’s Eve, which retained the lighting and effects but eliminated the live actors, resulting in a rather scare-less walk through the premises in search of a missing team of ghost hunters.
Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse is an obvious attempt to reclaim former glory, but unlike many follow-ups, it is not a slavish clone. As before, the event takes place both in and around the house; however, the spectacular video projected on the front of the building in 2019 and 2021 has been replaced with a live show. Once again the interior is haunted by myriad ghosts and ghouls, but this time the tour is entirely self-guided, making it more like a traditional haunted house than the slightly theatrical presentations of recent years – it’s just you and the ghosts for as long as it takes you to find your way out. The result does not fully live up 2019’s Unhinged, but it is an entertain step in the right direction – and definitely different enough to be worth revisiting.
Unhinged Nightshade’s Curse Review: Spirit Show
The biggest difference between Unhinged: NIghtshade’s Curse and Winchester’s two previous Halloween events becomes visible after checking in and passing through the gift shop to the courtyard. The outdoor area is less of a fully decorated, free-roaming experience. Instead of wandering the grounds around the building, you pass through an entrance – a giant devil’s face – into Madame Nightshade’s Spirit Carnival, which serves as a sort of first-act before embarking upon a tour of the haunted house.
Here, poster, settings, and creepy characters suggest a sinister travelling sideshow, with performances taking place at regular intervals. This is a very nice touch that makes precise arrival time unnecessary. You need not arrive early to wait in line: just show up near the appointed time on your ticket; then hang out in the Spookeasy Bar, visit the fortune teller, examine the exhibits in Madame Nightshade’s collection of oddities, or play midway games while waiting for the show to start.
Madame Nightshade’s Spirit Carnival is a bit schizoid: half carnival sideshow, half midnight spook show. The sideshow half features some impressive talent- an amazing juggler, an agile dancer who climbs a ladder with machetes for rungs – but it’s not exactly haunt-themed. More appropriate is an ailing man who is not only revived by a snake-oil salesman’s mysterious elixir; he is also inexplicably imbued with musical talent, launching into a rousing rendition of Squirrel Nut Zippers’s 1996 hit jazz-swing single “Hell.” With its ominous lyrics warning about eternal punishment (“In the afterlife you could be headed for the serious strife”), the song was perfectly suited to the occasion, setting the stage not only literally for Madame Nightshade but also figuratively for the haunted tour to follow. (By the way, this is the second live version of “Hell” we have heard this season, but unlike Monte Revolta at Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, this singer could actually sing.)
When Madame Nightshade takes the stage, the carnival entertainment is replaced by a spirit show as the medium summons lost souls with the help of an “Infernal Spirit Machine,” a device which resembles equipment from a 1930s mad scientist movie. Her invocation is surprisingly effective: the audience soon finds themselves surrounded by glowing skeletal figures with lighted eyes, some normal size, some enormous – their huge arms reaching out to embrace the crowd.
In essence, this is the blackout finale of a midnight spook show, but performed outside where it is impossible to turn off all the lights. Consequently, the spirits do not resemble amorphous phantoms floating in the dark; though wrapped in black leotards from head to toe, the bodies of the puppeteers are clearly visible. Yet somehow the obvious artifice becomes part of the charm, allowing the audience to marvel at the deft movements of the skeletal figures, who engage the crowd at length. Most amazing, the oversized figures manage a stealth attack or two, sneaking up from behind on unexpecting victims, who are surprised to suddenly see enormous skeletal arms reaching around to embrace them.
It like a wild, weird carnival of souls – part OIngo Boingo, part Tim Burton, and part spooky New Orlean mardi gras.
Unhinged Nightshade’s Curse Review: Self-Guided Tour
After the spirits slowly depart from Madame Nightshade’s Carnival, staff direct you toward the tour entrance; the path takes you past some decorations (giant skeleton, graveyard) that set the mood for what is to come. Then after a staff member delivers the usual instructions (“Don’t touch the ghosts and they won’t touch you”), you embark on a lengthy, self-guided tour of Winchester Mystery House, which is now presumably teeming with spirits unleashed by Madame Nightshade’s Infernal Machine.
First thing worth noting is that walking through this crazy old house at night is indeed creepy, and doing so on your own is even creepier (on a slow night, you might not even be grouped with any other guests).
Second thing worth noting is that, although most haunted house attractions are self-guided, Winchester Mystery House is a different beast entirely – an almost literal maze, famous for a door that opens on nothing and a staircase that leads nowhere. With multiple points of entry and exit in many rooms, the possibility of getting lost is more than theoretical, adding an extra layer of tension to the experience. Despite this, the tour has not been noticeably shortened from previous years; you explore everything from the attic to the basement at your leisure while dodging numerous ghosts and ghouls along the way. At times these costumed characters direct you where to go next; in other cases, security/staff point you in the right direction; occasionally, motion-sensitive lights indicate stairs you should take up or down to the next location.
The result is the longest haunted house walkthrough we have ever encountered – just when you think you have seen it all, there’s more – and just as Dark Harbor used to exploit the very real interiors of the Queen Mary, Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse makes the most of the Winchester Mystery House’s vast interior. Cloaked in the darkness of night, the atmosphere of the place is not to be underestimated, and its cumulative impact grows with each new trip up or down a rickety old stair case to some decrepit old room that feels like something out of a horror movie except that it’s not a set.
The emphasis is on old-school supernatural scares; the tone is uncanny rather than gruesome. Much of the tour is low-key, relying on the authentic interiors, enhanced by moody lighting, to send subtle chills up your spine; however, there are more spectacular scenes, such as the “burning” attic with timbers glowing red, where a burn victim or a fireman (hard to tell in the dark) yells at you to run for you life before the flames can get to you.
Things start off a little slow. Instead of actors, the first two or three rooms rely on decorations, eerie lighting, and visual effects for their impact. Could this be a replay of last Halloween’s unpopulated All Hallow’s Eve, relying on the settings to deliver all the scares?
Fortunately, that turns out not to be the case. There are dozens of characters haunting the dark hallways – mostly dead souls but one or two more monstrous figures, such as a living scarecrow. In the dark, the costumes and makeup are pretty convincing, and the performers seem to be having a grand time at your expense. Many deliver brief jump-scares, but a few engage you at length, particularly a mad doctor who wants you to join his experiments. Instead of screaming and yelling, there is a kind of mocking, tongue-in-cheek attitude to these more verbal characters, some of whom, amusingly, try to ingratiate themselves with their repulsive offers, such as the way-too-friendly lady at the end, who wants to add you to the house’s permanent collection – a request we politely declined before making our escape.
Unhinged Nightshade’s Curse Review: Conclusion
Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse offers a truly extraordinary Halloween haunt: an extended journey through a massive, authentic structure, using decorations, special effects, and actors to enhance the venue’s allegedly haunted history. As such, it stands on its own terms and can barely be compared to anything else except for previous haunts at Winchester Mystery House. On that scale, it ranks in second place, just behind 2019’s Unhinged, a little bit above Fright Nights, and well above All Hallow’s Eve.
We missed having the entire grounds around the house transformed for the Halloween season, and the carnival sideshow aspect of the Madame Nightshade show seemed slightly out of place to us, even though the performers were entertaining. On the other hand, Madame Nightshade’s invocation of the spirits was a blast of Halloween fun, putting the audience shoulder to shoulder with some amazing skeletal figures – like being in the middle of a parade of the undead.
The journey through the house had more strengths than weaknesses. We missed the narrative structure and extended scenes that distinguished Unhinged, but the self-guided aspect added more opportunities for unexpected scares, along with the ability to set our own pace, pausing to engage with some characters or scurrying away from others. The sheer number of rooms provided an entertaining variety of experiences: some low-key and spooky, others quirky and crazy, and one or two truly spectacular. The overall vibe was mostly one of apprehension – walking virtually alone through a real haunted house – punctuated with sudden jolts.
It’s a bit out of the way for most of our readers, but if you are planning a trip to the Bay Area this October, or if you live near San Jose, Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse provides a Halloween haunt experience like no other.
Our rating of Unhinged: Nightshade's Curse
1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse effectively exploits its famous location to create a lengthy haunted house walkthrough unlike any other. Fans of the original Unhinged may miss a few elements that have been dropped, but the new version adds an entertaining carnival spook show, and for the first time visitors wander the haunted halls of Winchester Mystery House totally without the benefit of a guide, setting their own pace as they encounter delightfully spooky scares within.
Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse gets a “mere” four-star rating (Highly Recommended) rather than a full five stars because the presence of security/staff mitigates the sense of isolation in the self-guided tour, and we would have preferred a more obvious theme inside the house, with ghosts related to the Spirit Show performed outside.
Otherwise, this is a highly recommended Halloween event that invokes an enjoyable level of fright – scary but not disturbing – and the incredible amount of time spent inside the house is well worth the admission price.
Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse continues at the Winchester Mystery House on weekends in October, plus select weeknights, including Halloween. General admission is $64.99 on Value Nights (early in the month) and $69.99 on peak nights. VIP admission is $79.99 on Value Nights and $84.99 on peak nights. The address is 525 S. Winchester Boulevard, San Jose, CA 95128. Learn more here: winchestermysteryhouse.com/unhinged.