This visit to the Winchester Mystery House is the latest entry in Project: Haunted House, a series of posts where I visit purportedly “haunted” places and write about my experiences. Read more here!
The crazy, reclusive woman is a well-worn archetype in literature and film. Emotionally and psychologically unstable, she is damaged goods, unable to escape from a painful past. She is isolated from others. Those around her define her by sorrow, anger, and “insanity.” Her behavior is misinterpreted and her motivations are ignored. She might start off as a psychologically stable character, but cruel psychological manipulation breaks her down. Sometimes, she really is insane, but her mental illness is far more complex than portrayed and we’re never given her full story. These portrayals twist her into something both delicate and dangerous
You know this archetype. The most famous example is Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, but she shows up in different versions as the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, and Jennet Humfrye in The Woman in Black. She also appears in films like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Gothika, and The Ring. Some of these works are my all-time favorites. I’ve always been intrigued by these characters, probably because I’ve always seen them as very misunderstood.
The Crazy Lady also shows up in tons of myths legends, and ghost stories. One of the most famous examples of a weird, reclusive, possibly bat-shit lady is Sarah Winchester, mistress of the infamous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.
Alcatraz. The Rock. The most infamous prison in America.
Ask anyone about it, and almost everyone will know exactly what you’re talking about. Even though Alcatraz only operated for twenty-nine years, its impact on the popular consciousness is legendary. It’s inspired many films, most notably the 1979 classic Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood, and the 1995 classic The Rock, starring Nicholas Cage.
It even had a TV show, Alcatraz, a few years ago (my personal favorite, due in no small part to the amazing Sam Neil).
Gone too soon.
The story of the prison looms large in our collective history, an archetypal prison made real. We’ve heard about the freezing, shark-infested waters surrounding the island. We’ve heard that the United States Prison System ran the prison with an iron fist. We’ve heard about the men who stayed there—Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, Jr., to name a few. We’ve heard that it was a “super prison,” an inescapable, impenetrable fortress. We’ve heard about the failed escape attempts, including the six men who broke out and were never seen again. Did they drown in the frigid, black waters? Or did they make it the Mexico after all?
And we’ve also heard that the prison is haunted.
For the first installment of Project: Haunted House, I decided to pay a visit to one of my favorite bars in Houston—La Carafe.
Built in 1847, the building that would eventually host La Carafe stands at the corner of Travis Street and Congress Avenue in the heart of downtown Houston’s Market Square Historic District. It is a narrow and long structure, slouching to one side and threatening to topple over. The balcony porch, door and window trim, and drainpipes are painted a rich green, which contrasts nicely with its practical yet charming brick exterior.
“It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.” –Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Let’s talk about haunted houses.
A staple of the horror genre, the Haunted House is a concept that every culture recognizes. Generally, the story involves ghosts or spirits that remain in the world long after they should have passed on, inhabiting a dwelling and terrorizing the current residents or anyone who dares to spend the night. There are several variations on the trope. Instead of a location, a ghost may be tied to a particular person or object. The ghost may wish to harm living persons who dare stay in the house. It may want to impart some forgotten story, buried underneath the floorboards of the house. It may want to accomplish some unfinished task or fulfill some neglected duty. The ghost itself may not exist; perhaps the house isn’t haunted so much as the characters have imbued the walls of the house with their own secrets and fears. The house itself may be alive, or at the very least, not inanimate.
Anyone else thing this house might be looking back at us?