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Spending Valentine's Day at the Winchester Mystery House is not for the faint-of-heart

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Spending Valentine's Day at the Winchester Mystery House is not for the faint-of-heart

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When it comes to making a romantic gesture on Valentine's Day, most men opt for the safe choices (i.e., cards, chocolate and/or flowers).

But if you're one of those guys who's got a bit of a dramatic / gothic streak, if you sincerely believe that every great romance should have an element of surprise & mystery to it ... Well, maybe you should consider taking your beloved out to San Jose to tour the Winchester Mystery House.

Okay. I know. Taking someone that you care about into what has been called the most haunted mansion in all of America may seem like a very odd way to say "I love you." But given that the love-of-your-life is likely to stick quite close to your side as you two wander through this massive 24,000 square-foot structure and experience the Winchester Mystery House's annual Friday the 13th Flashlight Tour and/or its super-popular Hallowe'en Candlelight Tour ... Substituting flowers & chocolate for frights this year might actually wind up being a very smart play.

"And how exactly did the Winchester Mystery House wind up with such a fearsome reputation?," you ask. That has a lot to do with the legend of Sarah Winchester. Who was the widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester.

As the story goes, following her husband and infant daughter's passing, Sarah decided to consult a medium. Who then told the Widow Winchester that her family's troubles could be traced directly back to the restless spirits of all those people who had been killed by weapons produced by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

To hear this medium talk, the only way that Sarah could ever hope to appease all of these spirits was by moving west and then continuously building them a home. And that's just what the Widow Winchester did. She first traveled from Connecticut to California. And then -- after acquiring a two-story, eight-room farmhouse on 160 acres of land in 1885 -- Sarah launched into what can only be described as the original extreme makeover.

"How extreme?," you query. Picture a private home done in the American Queen Anne Revival style. Only this house eventually grew from 8 relatively simple rooms to a sprawling 160 (these included 13 bathrooms and 6 kitchens). This now-4 story-tall building (At one point, the structures that made up the Winchester Mystery House included a 7 story-tall tower. But that building was damaged by the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and eventually had to be pulled down) has 47 separate staircases. Not to mention 52 skylights, 17 chimneys, 10,000 windows and 2,000 doors.

According to legend, workmen following Sarah's admittedly bizarre architectural instructions labored continuously on this house for 38 years. From 1886 to 1922, to be exact. And all of those hammers finally fell silent on September 5th of that year when the Widow Winchester passed away at the ripe old age of 82.

One of the only known photographs of Sarah Winchester

A mere five months after Sarah died, the Winchester Mystery House was first opened to the public. And ever since then, over 12 million people have passed through its halls.

Not all of its halls, mind you. Sometime this Spring, the Winchester Mystery House will be launching its "Explore More" tour. Which promises to take visitors to parts of this mansion that have been off-limits for decades.

And speaking of exciting things that will be happening later this year: This designated California historical landmark will be going before the cameras in 2017 as the production team behind "Winchester" arrives from Australia to shoot some exteriors. This thriller - which has Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren playing the Widow Winchester - is expected to hit theaters in 2018.

And speaking of hitting ... Given that so much of the mythology associated with the Winchester Mystery House has ties to the Winchester Repeating Rifle (i.e., "The Gun that Won the West") ... Well, the folks who run this unique landmark wanted to do more than just offer guests on the grounds the chance to tour the Winchester Firearms Museum (which houses one of the largest collections of Winchester Repeating Rifles in the U.S.). They wanted to give people the chance to have a fun, hands-on experience that was still very much in the "spirit" of this Santa Clara Valley treasure.

Which is why - late last year - "Sarah's Attic" shooting gallery made its debut at the Winchester Mystery House. According to the entirely fictional backstory that was cooked up for this new attraction, a 161st room was recently discovered at the mansion. This boarded-up attic space was where Mrs. Winchester supposedly stored items like her pump organ, a plush Victorian couch, an antique sewing machine as well as some artwork.

Now where this gets interesting is - in addition to serving as storage space - Sarah also supposedly used this part of the Winchester Mystery House's attic for the holding of séances.

"And if you follow our tongue-in-cheek backstory, when moving the room to our Central Courtyard, a rifle accidentally went off and surprisingly activated the spirits that haunt the space. Which then caused all kinds of crazy phenomenon to occur," said Walter Magnuson, General Manager of Winchester Mystery House. "Now our tour guests will have the opportunity to do the same as we have opened it up to let them take a rifle in hand to activate 38 known targets (one for every year the incredible mansion was under construction) that then unleash the supernatural."

This recent addition to the Winchester Mystery House is yet another way to prove to your love that you're not one of those oh-so-predictable "cards, candy & flowers" guys. You can challenge them to a shooting contest at "Sarah's Attic." With the idea being that whoever loses then picks up the tab for a romantic meal at the nearby Winchester Café (which features a recently revised menu by renowned Santa Clara Valley caterer Tony Santos).

Who knows? Maybe you two will have such a good time, you'll then decide to sign up for the Winchester Mystery House's Skeleton Key Club. Which is what will allow you to be among the very first to experience the all-new "Explore More" tour. Which - appropriately enough for Valentine's Day - isn't for the faint of heart. Which is why only those guests who are ages 13 and up will be allowed to gain access to parts of this mansion that have never before been open to the public.

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, February 14, 2017

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