The Winchester House is one of the most haunted places in the United States. It’s a beautiful Victorian mansion with trimmed hedges, Tiffany glass windows, yellow walls, and cherry-red shingles. But the inside is a labyrinth. There are staircases leading nowhere and doorways to empty walls. Its 160 rooms include a grand ballroom, a “witch’s cap” tower, twin dining rooms, 47 fireplaces, trap doors, and a conservatory. The lore around Sarah Winchester, the mansion’s heiress-slash-widow who was driven to insanity, adds to its reputation. But at first glance, the beautiful, dollhouse-like mansion appears to look out of place in San Jose, California. 

The Winchester House sits across the street from a shopping mall. A few highlights from the area include a Japanese stationery store, outdoor coffee near a giant chess set, SoulCycle, and a CineArts movie theater where I watched “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” in middle school. Looking out from the window of the shop where I bought my high school prom dress, you can see the hedges of the Winchester House hovering in the back. But despite growing up in the region, hardly anyone I know has stepped foot on the Winchester House grounds. 

Nowadays, Winchester House is a tourist spot. Over 12 million people have visited the mansion and it’s been the site of documentaries and films. The story goes like this. In 1839, Sarah Winchester was born as Sarah Lockwood Pardee in New Haven, Connecticut. She married in 1862 to William Wirth Winchester, the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms company most known for “The Gun that Won the West.”

After the deaths of her daughter and husband, she became a widow at only 42 years old. She inherited her husband’s 20 million dollar fortune and 50% of the company stock—making her one of the most wealthy women in the US at the time. She moved to a farmhouse in California and for the next 38 years, the farmhouse would remain in constant construction and eventually become the Winchester House. The house was still undergoing additions when Sarah Winchester passed away in 1922. 

There’s another layer to the story. In trend with the Victorian era, Sarah Winchester took part in séances and mysticism. It is suggested that her family was involved in Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. According to legend, the grieving widow was told by a medium that the Winchester fortune and family were haunted by victims of the Winchester rifle, many of them Native Americans. As a result, she moved West and began to build—either to appease or avoid ghosts. To be honest, the story gets a bit vague here. An article in the Daily News also claimed that “the owner of the house believes that when it is entirely completed she will die.”

Why else would there be such a bizarre mansion and ongoing construction for almost four decades? Additional claims of ghost hauntings, sightings, and paranormal activity at the Winchester House have added to this lore.

But perhaps there is a simpler reason. Sarah Winchester was supposedly beautiful, fluent in multiple languages, and the “Belle of New Haven” when she married. Additional stories tying her to mysticism and occult were bound to happen to famous people in the Victorian era. It’s the equivalent of modern-day trends like “dark academia” or “cottagecore” or even (in timely Halloween-season spirit) “witchtok.”

After the death of so many family members, Sarah Winchester moved West to be close to her remaining family. She was a philanthropist, but also a very private person—her staff maintained unquestioning loyalty and tight lips even after she died.

As for the bizarre mansion? In the ballroom, one of the Tiffany-glass windows includes a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III: “These same thoughts people this little world.” It refers to the titular character’s speech from within a prison cell, reimagining his own world within those walls. Similarly, Sarah Winchester might have simply done what we all do—change, update, destroy, build, and rebuild our lives—only she had the money to make it a reality within her mansion. Sarah Winchester was a petite woman at 4’10” tall whose internal machinations and private life ended up casting a large shadow in the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley.

In the past two decades of growing up in Silicon Valley, I’ve seen the landscape change to accommodate the growth of tech giants, new flashy businesses, and overwhelming crowds. Still, when I left the Bay Area for college, I was struck by how suburban my hometown feels. There is a stubborn commitment to the pretense of normalcy and, like a double identity, there is an understanding that we all have our own private lives and issues.

It’s fair to criticize this committed display of everyday-ness as a thin veneer for privilege and wealth, but perhaps a similar feeling can be found with the Winchester House. Perhaps the unintended aversion to visiting the Winchester House by some of us who grew up in the area is because it feels like an invasion of a deeply private person. Perhaps Sarah Winchester fits in with the Silicon Valley lifestyle more than she initially seems. 

Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!