Winchester Mystery House

Where: San Jose, California, U.S.A.

Staircases that lead directly up to a ceiling and stop. Doors that open onto solid walls. A séance room with a floorless closet and a secret passageway. A window with a spider web design featuring 13 colored stones, to match the 13 palm trees in the driveway, and the 13 bathrooms, and the 13 coat hooks in the closets, and the chandeliers with 13 lights. Even if you don't believe in the supernatural aura that surrounds the Winchester Mystery House, you can't deny that there is something utterly bewildering and spine-tingling about this immense, ornate Victorian mansion.

According to legend, Sarah Winchester was devastated by the deaths of her daughter and her husband William. As president of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Mr. Winchester was renowned as the man whose rifles tamed the American West -- at a cost of thousands of lives. When his grieving widow sought the advice of a spiritualist following his death, she was told that the ghosts of those killed by his rifles would haunt her unless she built them a home. So she built, and built, and built, employing carpenters and craftsmen working 24 hours a day for 38 years until she created a seven-story monstrosity that confounds all explanation. When she died in 1922, work immediately stopped, so quickly that in many cases nails were left half-pounded into place.

The house was built around an existing farmhouse, parts of which can still be seen inside the rambling structure. Because there were no blueprints, the house was added onto in an irregular pattern until it spread out over most of the current 4.5 acre site. Some claim that the confusing pattern of hallways, staircases, and rooms were designed by Mrs. Winchester to confuse the spirits who might still haunt the mansion. Repeated sightings of spirits, and of voices that haunt the employees who work there, have only added to the creepy atmosphere of this uniquely bizarre landmark.

The Winchester Mystery House is located in the heart of San Jose, surrounded by the high-tech industries of Silicon Valley. Tours lasting about 65 minutes are offered year-round except for Christmas Day, and there are a number of options including a behind-the-scenes tour and -- for the brave at heart -- special flashlight tours offered only during the Halloween season and every Friday the 13th. Because of the design of the house, not all tours are open to children or the physically handicapped.

Information: Winchester Mystery House, 525 S. Winchester Blvd. (tel. 408/247-2101;

When to Go: Year-round.

Getting There: San Jose.

Where to Stay: The Fairmont San Jose, 170 S. Market St. (tel. 866/540-4493 or 408/998-1900; Moorpark Hotel, 4241 Moorpark Blvd (tel. 408/864-0300;