San Jose author and macabre historian Colin Dickey has written a new nonfiction book exploring the famous haunted house of San Jose, the Winchester Mystery House. Published by Viking, “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” started from Dickey’s childhood experiences of growing up near the reputedly haunted mansion in San Jose.
As a child, Dickey became fascinated with the mysterious building. This interest didn’t wane over the years while he earned his doctorate in comparative literature and began teaching creative writing at San Diego’s National University. In 2009, he delved into the grisly world of grave robbing with “Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius”, a historical true crime account of larcenous phrenologists. With his newest effort, Dickey has hit closer to home by focusing on the origins of the legends that surround the Winchester Mystery House.
The Winchester Mystery House started life as a humble farmhouse. Sarah Winchester, the wealthy widow of rifle mogul William Winchester, purchased the house and began a lifelong construction project. Over a period of 38 years, she added on multiple additions, built doors that opened into blank walls and filled the house with hidden passageways. Local legends explained Sarah’s strange building obsession with spooky stories about vengeful ghosts determined to haunt the widow of the man whose rifles killed them. According to popular lore, Sarah would be safe from these malevolent forces as long as she kept building on to her home.
Dickey paints a less sensational picture of Sarah Winchester in his new book, arguing that she was more motivated by architectural interests than spiritual. He also connects her to the phenomenon of building ghost stories around independent women. The childless widow did not match the cultural norms of the day, and Dickey argues that the ghost tales may have been a response to this.
“Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” is currently available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle editions. An audiobook version of the book is also available from Penguin Audio.