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Photograph by Eric A. Carlson

Notes From The Underbelly

Sarah Winchester--Ghost Buster

By Eric A. Carlson

"You must go up to go down ... and down to go up."

--Michael, Mystery House tour guide

A JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES begins with an Egg McMuffin and a cup of scalding joe. As I prepared for an arduous tour of the Winchester Mystery House, a discomfited middle-aged man waiting for his McFood groused, "This place has no ergonomics--none!" On the subject of McDonald's, they would do well to turn the air conditioning down a notch. Like modern-day mega-movie-palaces, the AC is jacked up to mask background stench, or perhaps to freeze out loafers and slow eaters, the icing of customers chalked up as "collateral damage."

The Winchester Mystery House, 525 S. Winchester Blvd., is adjacent to fast-fading Century 21, 22 and 23 theaters. Entry to the house proper is via the gift shop, where an annual pass can be obtained for $40. A fair dinkum price that entitles you to, among other things, first dibs on "flashlight tours." The gift shop itself is an attraction--filled as it is with countless amusing knickknacks, mostly relating to mystery, Winchester rifles or Sarah. And racks of historical postcards, and handsome souvenir spoons labeled "Real Pewter." I was tempted by Ripley's Believe It or Not Invisible Ink Quiz Book--but resisted. I did shell out the lucre for a small wooden ammunition box emblazoned with "Winchester--22 Long Rifle Cartridges." A perfect container for your PDA and cell phone.

At the far end of the gift shop are several functioning antique love testers and fortune-telling machines. I dropped a quarter into a love tester, squeezed the handle with ardor and watched a needle ascend--past "poor fish," past "harmless" and beyond "wild"--finally coming to rest at "hot stuff." One step below "uncontrollable," but several important notches above "passionate." With a bounce in my step, I moved on to the Zelda fortune-telling machine. Zelda demanded 50 cents. I pulled a lever and waited anxiously for a card to tumble out: "Good luck and happiness will always be Within your grasp, Within your reach." What a rip. People need more specific information. Think how interesting it would be to receive fortunes such as: "On Tuesday, you will experience an epiphany." Or "At a Preservation Action Council picnic, you will be stung by a yellow jacket."

At 10:30 I joined Mansion Tour group #06, and was led into the bowels of the Winchester Mystery House. Michael, our stalwart young tour guide, provided droll commentary as we wended through many of the 160 rooms. In 1884, Sarah Winchester purchased an eight-room house and immediately began building--construction continuing, uninterrupted, until Sarah's death in 1922. Thirty-eight years of hammering. Sarah's traumatic loss of daughter Anne and husband William Winchester, prior to her move to California, is described in several booklets found in the gift shop--you can't go wrong with Ralph Rambo's account, Lady of Mystery, a bargain at $4.50. The stairs to nowhere, doors to oblivion, upside-down columns and ubiquitous use of the number 13 point to architecture designed to thwart spirits (some say the ghosts of those cut down by Winchester Rifle slugs).

End of tour spits you back into the gift shop--ingenious. Hungry, I walked over to Sarah's Cafe for soup and sandwich--it was excellent. I recommend spending an extra dollar for the plastic Winchester Mystery House souvenir mug. Organ music drifted in from the room of antique love testers, providing a giddy carnival atmosphere.

Final Note: None of the countless mysteries encountered in Sarah's house are a match for the troubling and mysterious concept of Daylight Savings Time--a bizarre edict that renders all clocks and electronic devices useless--twice a year. It is enacted so that farmers can avoid blue moons aligning with the precession of the equinoxes.

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From the May 24-30, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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