San José's most famous tourist attraction is the Winchester Mystery House. This rambling old Victorian mansion was the home of a very rich and very eccentric widow. Mr. Winchester had been the head of the company that made the Winchester rifle, the "Gun that Won the West". But he had died tragically young, leaving his business empire to his wife.
Mrs. Winchester was understandably distressed and, as one did in those days, she consulted a spiritualist. Much to her horror, she was told that the spirit world was full of the ghosts of people (and doubtless buffalo) killed by her husband's rifles. They were very angry with her, and things were going to get bad. Her only chance, the spiritualist said, was to build a house, and keep building it. For if the house was never finished, no ghost could settle into it, and she could never be haunted.
And so we have a warren-like structure in suburban San José that makes a fortune from those who believe in ghosts. There are many features in the house supposedly designed to confuse (or possibly trap) unwary spirits: doors that are very small or lead nowhere; long, winding staircases with very shallow risers; windows that look into other parts of the house; pillars installed upside down and the number 13 found everywhere.
The Mystery House is especially busy at Halloween. They do special tours in the middle of the night in which bold ghost hunters get to wander the spooky hallways in the dark, armed only with a special Mystery House flashlight (which you get to keep afterwards). As for the dead, the place is so popular that this year Elvis is haunting there. I have a photo of his ghostly white limo to prove it.
That, of course, is the commercial front, and very successful it is too. The reality is rather different. The description of the house is correct, but most of the anomalies can be put down to the continual building and to much less bizarre aspects of Mrs. W.'s life. The shallow stairs were a result of severe arthritis that prevented her from raising her feet very far. Everything was built small because she was only 4' 10" and designed the house around herself. She was a very distrusting person and used internal windows to keep an eye on her staff.
What is more, if you take the "Behind the Scenes" tour you discover that Mrs. W. was actually very smart. The house is full of the latest (for Victorian times) technological marvels. It has gas lighting in every room, it recycles rainwater in case of drought, and it was one of the first buildings in the area to be earthquake-proofed.
For more information about the Mystery House, see the rather longer review of it in my magazine, Emerald City. There is also a review of Tim Powers's excellent book, Earthquake Weather, which uses the Mystery House and various other spooky Bay Area buildings for settings.