Immersing visitors in California's beautifully bizarre Winchester Mystery House

The projected image of person leaning against a glass inlaid door, as two visitors to Winchester Mystery House look on.

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After the tragic deaths of her child and husband, Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune, set about building a 160-room house to appease the spirits who died at the hands of the gun. With sprawling corridors and staircases to nowhere, people worked non-stop for decades creating the incredible Winchester Mystery House.

Art Processors the latest team to add its touch 

For this year’s nighttime All Hallows Eve experience, a guided tour seemingly goes wrong and takes a turn for the paranormal. Art Processors produced subtle soundscapes, lighting effects and videos in the rooms that bookend the story, ensuring they are immersive moments. We made the video glitch, hinting at possible ghostly activity. Objects abandoned in the basement over the years spookily creak into life due to an eight-channel soundscape, immersing visitors in a deep texture of steam, a coal burning furnace, fluid pipe gurgles, an ancient wheelbarrow and an activated elevator.

This soundscape is now also part of the day time tour so that visitors get a sense of what it was like to be in the basement at the time the home was being built. We also designed and installed a spatial audio system which will stay in place permanently and act as the engine for further storytelling, for instance this Christmas and at the upcoming Centennial of Sarah Winchester’s death.

The external buildings of Winchester Mystery House with Halloween decorations and pumpkin faces in the windows.

Internationally famous

As you might expect with such a fascinating history, Winchester Mystery House has piqued the interests of ghost hunters and creatives alike. Documentaries like Unsolved Mysteries and Ghost Adventures, many websites and even a 99% Invisible podcast feature it. But although you can learn much about the Winchester Mystery House from the comfort of your home, the best experience is a visit to the San Jose location where you can fully immerse yourself in the mystery and spookiness of the legend of Sarah Winchester. How do we participate to make this experience even more meaningful and riveting?  Augment the experience. Entertain. Lean-in to what makes the house extraordinary. Here’s our approach...

1. Build on the original 

We’re talking here about a house that is more than 100 years old and has had technology added in a modular way. All the systems run independently: there's no central hub where the entire estate is turned on and synchronized. But we were able to go in and layer on a new level to the house's operation without changing a whole lot of what was already there. That speaks to our company’s creativity and technical know-how, even within some fairly confined parameters. What does that look like? Taking an existing video and modifying and adding new effects that link to the nighttime story. Or using the already-installed controller to cue lighting effects to go with that video, ensuring everything is in sync.

2. Consider the story at the heart of the experience 

The house is a constantly evolving space and it has a life of its own – a story to tell. What we had the opportunity to do was create a technological system that animates the house, gives it a voice, and supports the storytelling of the guides that host the tours around the house. 

But the real feat here is not the technology. The estate itself has a very defined story and whatever we put in it had to both conform and enhance that story in a way that made it fresh and fascinating for people – whether they are interested in scary movies, history buffs or tourists. What is the content? What's the nature of the linear experience? How do sounds in one part of the house relate to another? These were the questions we needed to consider to ensure we created the right experience, both for the short-term Halloween tour, and everyday and future tours. 

A ghostly image stands behind a glass inlaid door, projected onto the glass as people look on with their backs in view.

3. Be prepared for anything

Even before we added spooky elements to the basement where the nighttime story ends, there was a certain eerie feeling there. It had not been worked in for decades so it's probably one of the places that is still like it was when Sarah Winchester was there. The boiler was functional for many, many years and so there's coal dust everywhere. There are bird nests and what look like 100-year-old spider webs. When reaching up into caverns to run speaker cables, we were wondering what we might find! It really is straight out of a scary movie. 

4. Set the scene for future blockbusters 

With this new technology in place, the future holds more immersive technology to help visitors really feel the house and its history. With the Centennial celebration on the horizon, Winchester Mystery House’s aim is to engage visitors even further into the story of the house and transport them back to the time when it was being built. We could also look to use attraction-based technology to bring all the systems into a central interface to operate lighting, sound and beyond. But whatever is next for our creative and technological partnership with Winchester Mystery House, one thing’s for sure – it won’t be what you expect.