This visit to the Winchester Mystery House is the latest entry in Project: Haunted House, a series of posts where I visit “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.
In a remote corner of Austria, not too far from the Danube River, lies a small cemetery known as Friedhof der Namenlosen, the Cemetery of the Nameless. If you’ve seen the film Before Sunrise, you know this place–Celine and Jesse visit it during their romantic tour of Vienna. And you may have heard that it’s supposed to be haunted.
The cemetery was established by the locals over one hundred years ago so that there would be a proper burial site for those who had drowned in the Danube. Oftentimes the identities of the deceased were unknown, as were the reasons behind the deaths. Nevertheless, the locals did their best to honor the dead, laying out gravestones without names, tending the graves, and even bringing water and bread for the restless spirits who dwell there.
Today, the cemetery is said to be one of the most haunted places in Austria. Some of the buried have been identified, but of the 101 people buried there, 61 are still nameless. There are no more burials and no one to tend to the graves. There are no candles, no fresh flowers. The cemetery is overgrown and shadowy, like some eerie scene straight out of a gothic novel.
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?
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 the Market Square Historic District in downtown Houston. 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 vibrant green, which contrasts nicely with its practical yet charming brick exterior.
Throughout its life, the building has functioned as everything from a bakery to a trading post. It wasn’t until the 1950s that it became a bar. Due in no small part to its longevity, many believe that the bar is haunted. Some swear that a woman in gauzy white will push women down the stairs because, even in death, she is jealous of their beauty and sees them as competition. There are reports of ghostly lights and orbs floating about, some of which have been captured on film. Supposedly. The building’s second floor, only open after 9 PM or for a semi-annual séance, is a common denominator in the tales. The ghosts of young children are said to play on the second floor. The spirit of a bartender named Carl is believed to inhabit the building, making his presence known with a disembodied voice that announces last call as closing time approaches.
I’ve never experienced a supernatural encounter there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were actually haunted. There’s so much history soaked into the walls, into the floorboards. The owner adamantly resists many modern influences. La Carafe is a cash-only bar. There are no TVs. At night, candles light the interior, and electrical light is employed sparingly. During the day, the main source of light comes from outside, resulting in long, soft shadows throughout. The heavy scent of incense fills the whole space, creeping to the upper level, wafting out to entice potential customers. The actual bar is an old, Art-Nouveau piece, probably hand-carved.
This is the bar you go to when you feel contemplative and nostalgic, eager to enjoy some wine and good conversation with your date, your friends, or random strangers. You go there to stare at the old photographs, the ancient newspaper clippings about local events, and oil paintings of gorgeous and nameless women, all flickering in the dim light.
For this blog, I find La Carafe intriguing because, even though it’s purportedly haunted, it doesn’t seem to be hurting for business. It’s open every day, including holidays and hurricanes. There are always customers, many of whom are aware of the reputation. I had my hypotheses as to why, but I went to investigate with as open a mind as I could muster.
When I arrived, John, the bartender, was on duty. He was accommodating and eager to chat about the building’s history. He’s worked at La Carafe for over a decade and has been a customer for twice that time. Almost right away, I asked him about the ghost stories and whether or not he believed them. He claimed to be a skeptic about the resident ghosts, but he did admit that it was entirely possible that ghosts might inhabit the property, adding that if any place in Houston was haunted, it was La Carafe, and if any ghosts were there, they would be friendly more than anything.
John recounted his versions of the stories, rattling them off as he poured drinks. His first involved a bartender who had passed away years ago. The bartender had been a fixture at La Carafe, and everyone missed him a lot. One night, sometime after he had died, the bartender hired to replace him was closing up. This new bartender was by himself, as he was much of the time when it was his turn to close the bar. He had almost finished when he saw someone on the second floor, a man he’d never seen before. He rushed upstairs to kick the man out, but when he got there, the second floor was deserted. The next morning, the new bartender told the owner what had happened, describing the mysterious man as best he could. The owner was not surprised that the new guy perfectly described the old bartender’s appearance.
John himself had experienced something similar. One night it was John’s turn to close up, and after the bar had emptied, he heard a loud thud come from the second floor, like the sound of someone falling off his or her barstool. He ran upstairs to make sure no one was trying to stay past closing. When he got there, the second floor was deserted.
Another story involved a couple who wandered into the bar one day, looking for a place to grab a drink. The couple was curious about the old building but unaware of the history or the reputation of the bar. At some point, the man excused himself to the bathroom. Now, a quick word about these restrooms—they are tiny. Only one person at a time can fit in the restroom, which makes for a very tight and claustrophobic space. Suddenly the man came tearing out of the restroom, swearing up and down that someone had grabbed his shoulder while he was washing up. John insisted that the man wasn’t acting and was indeed shaken. “White as a sheet,” claimed John.
John’s favorite story, and the thing that was most interesting to me, and involved the ghost that pushes beautiful women down the stairs, only John seemed to think the ghost is that of a man, not the ghost of a woman.
John’s feelings on the matter were a mix of amusement and genuine concern.
“I can’t tell you how many girls go up and down those stairs and get actually upset that they didn’t fall. ‘Oh, I must not be pretty! The ghost didn’t push me!’ But how pretty are you going to look if you fall down those stairs? Hit the brick walls and the sharp edges on the way down?” John asked.
“Yeah, that’s not really what I would call a compliment,” I said.
“Here’s what I think. This building is old, and those stairs are really uneven and steep. They wouldn’t pass code today, but because the building is protected as a historical marker, they are grandfathered in. Now, going up and down those stairs in high heels, four glasses of wine in you, you might fall down those stairs,” he explained.
It was an excellent insight. As I’ve discussed before, I’m very interest in how and why people interact with their environments, I went up and down those stairs and found them to be tricky. If I had been intoxicated, I would have had a hard time managing them. They were uneven, steep, and my foot didn’t fit on the individual steps. These stairs were no joke. I definitely didn’t want to take a tumble down them.
Still, I found myself wondering if there was a ghost and if it would push me. Thankfully, no one pushed me. I chose to believe that it’s not because I’m not pretty, but because the ghost realized that this was a very mean thing to do to unsuspecting women. Or the ghost knew that as soon as the ER discharged me, I would come back to ruin the ghost’s day.
Later, as I wrote this post, I couldn’t help but question why I’d even wondered if I would be pushed. I suppose it’s because I care about what others think about my physical appearance, even if it’s a ghost, which says a lot about me. The fact that I entertained, however briefly, that I could how pretty I was by whether or not I ended up as a broken heap at the bottom of a flight of stairs says even more about me. It’s a harmful and backward way of thinking. I’m still reflecting on the experience.
At the very least, I suppose that people, myself included, harbor certain desires to be close to the past even as we enjoy the advances we’ve made. We are drawn to it. The desire can manifest itself as harmless and useful, especially when old buildings are renovated or vintage furniture is repurposed. But this desire can be misunderstood. It can play upon our insecurities, making itself known in the very real safety hazard caused by outdated stair construction.
After all, the past creates the present, but its meaning comes only from those who look back. The past wants to be remembered and yearns to be studied. It wants to explain how we all got to this point.
We all hope that we will be remembered and studied. We hope that generations to come will care enough to ask for an explanation. If nothing else, we hope they find the old, historic bar, slouching to the side, order a glass of wine, and wonder if that stumble on the stairs was because we were trying to reach them.
“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?