The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is well-known as a cavernous Victorian house, with twisting maze-like corridors, hidden passageways, stairs that go nowhere, and the number 13 occurring all over the place in window panes, stained glass designs, and light fixtures. It’s no surprise that they will be hosting ghostly candlelight tours this Halloween season, and I was lucky enough to sit down with Creative Director Peter Overstreet to chat about the upcoming “spirited” offerings (heh, sorry).
Full disclosure: I have been friends with this fine gentleman for many years.
UNCLE MIKE: What do you want to say about your background before we delve in to the event?
PETER OVERSTREET: I’m based in the San Francisco Bay Area, an event designer and professional illustrator, and I’m currently the Creative Director of the Halloween Candlelight Tours at the Winchester Mystery house in San Jose, California.
UM: I know Winchester has done haunts before that you were not a big part of…
PO: I wasn’t in a management position, I was an actor one of the years when they had the “Fright Nights” haunt, which was a much different show.
UM: So how is this show going to be different from then?
PO: “Fright Nights” was a lot more along the lines of the haunts of a lot of the theme parks here in southern California, like Knott’s Scary Farm, Six Flags, and Universal’s Horror Nights, and a lot of the people running it were originally from those shows, they brought that sensibility, which was fine. And they turned out to be big shows, a lot of staff involved, it looked pro, a really nice show. I think the real disconnect, at least from my perspective is that in San Jose there’s a different mentality and expectation with the Winchester Mystery House itself. I think if [Fright Nights] had been staged anywhere else, it would’ve been gold. But the house itself that didn’t lend itself to that. It wasn’t the fault of any one person, or any of the staff involved, it just wasn’t quite the right mixture.
UM: Uh huh.
PO: So what we’re trying to do is something more subtle, and my inspiration has been movies like The Legend Of Hell House, Robert Wise’s The Haunting, House on Haunted Hill–anything with the word “haunt” in it, basically. Crimson Peak. More like a gothic romance horror approach. Very Victorian. I sat down with all the ghost stories and movies and said “What are the top tropes?” You know, you’ve got the Ouija board, you’ve got seances, you’ve got candles moving, cold spots, whispers, blah blah blah. There’s not really a lot in the way of gory ghosts, and their manifestations aren’t really that terrible. Even Marley from A Christmas Carol is actually a gruesome ghost. As far as Victorian ghosts, there’s not really many blood-splattered ghosts that we see, like in 13 Ghosts, or anything like that.
PO: So the house doesn’t lend itself to that. So what we wanted to do was to give it that classy approach to traditional haunted house tropes in order to give people that experience that they’re not getting elsewhere. They can go to other haunts for the chainsaws and the creepy clowns and the zombies and the blood and guts–but that’s not us. We want to treat you and your friends like you’re the Scooby-Doo crew showing up and wandering around with a single lighted candle, going, “Jinkies! We gotta find something.” You know? “It’s old man Overstreet!”
UM: (laughs) What parts of the Winchester actual history are you bringing forward for this haunted event?
PO: One of the things I wanted to bring–I’ll address that in just a sec. If you go to the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, you mention the Haunted Mansion to any fan of it, you say words like “hatbox,” you instantly get Hattie’s face; you say “three thumbs,” the hitchhiking ghosts. You say “beating heart” you think of the bride. These characters that have their own–everybody has their own backstory for who Madam Leota was, but Disney never really answered that, they left it amorphous. What we have to deal with is, we have very definite histories for some of our specters. People know who Sarah Winchester was, people know who Clyde the workman was, people know who the butler and the gardener were. The one person we’re trying to cultivate as a character is from history, and it’s Boston spiritualist Adam Coons. Not much is known about him. We want to go back to history with spiritualism, and how spiritualists took advantage of very wealthy people. We figured, let’s make Adam that personality, make him a shyster, make him a con man, then he’s basically opened a Pandora’s Box by making Sarah build this house. But what he’s actually doing is like divine retribution: he’ll be stuck here, and he’s kind of that black hole in the house, sucking all the other spirits towards him because he’s become this malevolent presence.
UM: Very cool.
PO: So, we’re definitely incorporating history. We have Clyde who’ll be a manifestation, our “wheelbarrow ghost,” as some people know him. Sarah herself–we refer to the house as Sarah, because the house is like the biggest magic spell ever, it’s all intention. So Sarah is everywhere. She’s in the wallpaper, she’s in the windows, she’s everywhere, so we don’t really have a ghost that is supposed to be Sarah. We have a maid who was–sometimes it’s the maid and sometimes it’s Sarah’s niece, Marion. And they’ll both manifest, but we don’t actually have a Sarah Winchester wandering around. So, history’s a very big part of it, because you’re going on a tour with the tour guide who still has to give you a little bit of the history, because some people will come and not take the day tour and they won’t know anything about the house.
UM: Oh, right.
PO: But we’re not going to take the usual route. We’re actually going to probably go through half of the house backwards from the normal route. We’re not going to start at the usual locations. I won’t say where we’re going to start, because that’ll give away some of the surprises. We’re definitely dipping into history, we’re going to have a room that’s decorated very 1920s, Halloween, to show those early days, to get that nostalgia. Then you take your candle and you enter, and the only light you have is candlelight. You’ve got the flicker playing off the walls, very very creepy. For safety, we’ll have to have some dramatic lighting, because we have “easy riser” stairs and things we have to worry about. But once that’s taken care of the rest is all just darkness.
UM: I can’t wait to go through that. I’ve been through the house before, but I’ve never done one of their flashlight tours.
PO: Flashlight tours are okay, but the problem is nothing’s worse than walking through a dark room and someone putting a Maglite straight in your eyeball, and at that point the whole mood of the thing is ruined.
UM: And I love the idea, for safety’s sake, of the new synthetic lights, you know, that flicker. They look so much like a candle, it’s just like walking through with candlelight.
PO: We did a test run, where we walked through the attic with just a candle.We had to go up all the stairs and into these upper areas…
UM: I bet that wasn’t creepy at all.
PO: (Laughs) Oh boy. We actually saw a manifestation up there, a real honest-to-God ghost was up there. The whole crew saw it.
PO: The lights are going to be special because the top will be a huge thick taper, but at the base there’ll be an LED light that’ll shine out like a flashlight so the tour guide can actually help you upstairs, so the candlelight won’t be lost, but for safety’s sake we do have a flashlight. But just don’t have the audience walking around with flashlights anymore. But they will probably have the opportunity to buy a little electric candle with “Winchester” on the side of it, and walk around being Shaggy and Scooby with a memento from their own excursion. But the history is there, and we’re using that to build the whole story. So one room is dedicated to old magic because Harry Houdini, who named it the Winchester Mystery House, the legend goes. We have one that’s a fictitious magician named The Great Gaspar who basically arrived, was going to get a tour, but vanished. And left all his stuff there. And we were going through the attic and we found all of his magic stuff. We’re going to put it on display. There’s an old film projector that shows some of these reels of film that we found of his silent film performances and manifestations will take place around you while his films are being shown.
UM: Oh, that’s very cool. Architecturally I’m sure you’ve got a lot of difficulties and challenges. What is it about the actual building that will make it harder for you or actually makes it easier for you in some way to create this event?
PO: As anybody in the haunting industry will tell you, nothing’s worse than having to design your whole damn haunt based off of 4 foot by 8 foot panels. So the architecture lends itself to mood, and lends itself to lighting. I mean, this is the haunted house. When anybody sees it they instantly know right away: it’s the haunted house. To be able to wander around the Winchester Mystery House, with the architecture, all you need is a couple of very well-placed lights and you have the projection of hands on the wall or spiderwebs through some of the stained glass windows because it’s there. It’s built. It’s ready to go. It’s instantly creepy. It’s not a big challenge at all to utilize the architecture because it’s built around you. All we have to do is bring the ghosts inside. So, a lot of our work is done for us. Which is nice. But the hard part is the installing, because it’s a historical monument, everything is antique, and we have to be very respectful, very careful, so everything has to be padded with foam, or with felt. We can’t glue anything to the walls, we cannot tack anything to the walls, everything has to be freestanding, or easily placed on a table, turned on, and walk away. Gone are the Hilti guns and screw guns and staple guns, we can’t use any of that. We can’t even use tape. So everything has to be self-contained. We found some clever ways of how to secure secret panels in certain rooms where we can hide techs for some of our scares But, other than that it’s trying the find the best corners to hide in, the best way to move a piece of furniture just a little bit to the left to hide somebody. But that’s the biggest challenge, really, is the historic nature of all the artifacts and the building itself, because the building is an artifact.
UM: Anything else you’d like to bring up yourself before we finish the interview?
PO: I hope that people come to see this and realize that history doesn’t have to be boring, that the history of the house itself is interesting enough, but, because it’s a historical landmark, people may poopoo it and go, “Well, it’s not Dark Harbor.” Nothing against Dark Harbor at all, I love Dark Harbor. But it’s a historical place, and sometimes people don’t give [the Queen Mary] enough credit for being creepy on its own. It’s unusually creepy. The Queen Mary’s a creepy place. The Winchester is the same way. Taking a subtler route may actually start a trend with people who do ghost hunts and ghost haunts, to understand that darkness and imagination work better than most Halloween props.
We want to thank The Winchester Mystery House and Peter Overstreet for taking time out of their busy schedules to sit down and chat with us. Tickets to the Halloween Candlelight Tour go on sale October 2. Uncle Mike sez check it out!