clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What’s haunting the Bay Area’s historic buildings

New, 2 comments

Check out these four architectural stunners while getting your spook on this Halloween season

Three things the Bay Area isn’t short on: historic buildings, ghost stories, and grand architectural spaces that, too often, the general public doesn’t get enough opportunities to enjoy.

This Halloween, some haunted attractions, both new and old, will move into some of Bay Area’s most hallowed historic halls, some of which get neglected the rest of the year, while others are open year-round but get overlooked in the hustle and bustle of mortal affairs.

Here’s a look at some old favorites that are getting a new lease on life—or afterlife—this October.

The Winchester House

A very low angle photo of a yellow Victorian house with shingles, turrets, and multiple windows. Via Shutterstock
The Building

Built between 1884 and 1922, the Winchester House (these days marketed as the “Winchester Mystery House”) is already the Bay Area’s most famous haunted property.

Even those who have never visited the hallowed San Jose hot spot may know the story of Sarah Winchester, her rifle fortune, and her seemingly compulsive construction of a Victorian home that, at one point, measured seven stories tall and featured hundreds of rooms, many of them designed in nonsensical, inaccessible, or even dangerous ways.

Winchester House employees and guests have been telling ghost stories about the place for decades (Sarah often held seances in the house herself and believed it frequented by the restless spirits of those who died thanks to Winchester guns), and tours are more popular around Halloween.

The Haunt

In past years, the Winchester House’s seasonal attractions were mostly regular house tours spruced up with manmade haunting effects and candlelit atmosphere.

But the 2019 production brings something new and more elaborate in the form of a full-scale interactive theater piece set throughout the house, christened Unhinged, and built around the conceit of a house tour that goes horrifyingly awry, leaving the guests to fend for themselves.

Producer Donovan Friedman tells Curbed SF that the production sprawls over 68 rooms in the mansion, including a few that have never been open to the public before, including such illusions as a house fire right in the midst of the manse.

The advantage of building a haunt in a place like the Winchester House is that much of the legwork of scaring guests is done in advance.

“People want to come experience something in a true quote unquote haunted house,” Friedman says, noting that many “haunted houses are inspired to create rooms that look like this house already”—but his show gets to use the real deal.

Friedman confesses that when preproduction began in March, he was often uncomfortable being in the mansion alone; however, the only ghostly presence he ever encountered was a door that slammed by itself a few times, which, understandably incited an early end that evening’s work.

Unhinged runs through November 2.

The San Francisco Mint

A very low angle photo of a neoclassical building with columns and a steepled roof, with banners bearing the words “Terror Vault” and horrifying faces hanging from the front. Adam L Brinklow
The Building

A national landmarks since 1964, the mint at Fifth and Mission Streets is one of San Francisco’s grandest old buildings. It’s also one of its most neglected.

Designed by the fabulously named Alfred B. Mullet in 1874, it once held one-third of the nation’s gold reserves and produced 60 percent of the nation’s annual currency output.

When the building closed to the public in 1994, the city seemed not quite sure what to do with it, despite buying it in 2003 with tentative plans for a museum that never came to fruition.

Eventually, the Granite Lady found a new lease on life as an event space. But the three-story, 90,000-square-foot property has trouble attracting events ambitious enough to use up most of its vacant space. That is, until Terror Vault arrived.

The Haunt

In 2018, drag icon Peaches Christ—SF’s purveyor of high art and lowest common denominators alike—spearheaded Terror Vault, a haunted attraction that combined the Mint’s spectacular yet decayed atmosphere with Peaches’ theatrical sensibilities, using more elaborate staging and audience participation gags than other haunts.

The 2019 version preserves the same basic plot: The Mint became a makeshift prison for the city’s most dangerous criminals after the 1906 earthquake, with their violent ghosts interrupting a building tour in a most gruesome fashion.

This year’s rooms are mostly new, including a Golden Gate Park witch coven, a shack full of cannibal hillbillies, and a murderous Victorian brothel. The big finale sets guests loose to wander the old vaults themselves.

A woman (actually a man in drag) with heavy makeup, a bright orange wig, and a long black dress, posing on a red chaise lounge (actually a set).
Peaches Christ reclines on a chaise lounge inside the Mint.

Peaches tells Curbed SF that it would have been faster to leave most of the building as-is without adding the extra design elements—construction on Terror Vault began in June—but she and her team couldn’t resist delving into the seamier side of SF’s history and folklore.

“A Victorian bordello where the madame trains her girls to rob and murder the Johns was a no-brainer,” she says—who can argue with that?

In all, the haunt uses about 60,000 square feet of the building, but not all of that is Terror Vault itself. The lower reaches feature a zombie-themed escape room called “Apocalypse,” with the ground floor also sporting the likes of a gift shop, bar, restaurant, and an in-house fortune teller.

Terror Vault runs through November 3.

The Haas-Lilienthal House

The dining room in a Victorian home, with the table covered in faux limbs and blood. Mary Jo Bowling
The Building

Billed as “SF’s only Victorian House Museum open to the public for house tours,” this stately Queen Anne dates to 1886, designed by architect Peter R. Schmidt for William and Bertha Haas and opened to the public for the first time in 1972.

Most of the tours and marketing for the house emphasize the pristine nature of the home’s preservation and its status as a rare intact artifact of the 19th-century SF style—no historic neglect or paranoid widows here.

Although the house lacks the obvious public spookiness of some other locales, the place is supposedly haunted, according to house manager Heather Kraft (who also lives there).

Kraft tells Curbed SF she’s never seen a ghost herself and that the phenomena is limited to the likes of misplaced objects and odd sounds. But such things do apparently keep happening.

The Haunt

Beginning in 2013, Kraft and the house trust opened up the Victorian for a few weekends in October for a haunt titled Mayhem Mansion, themed around the twin terrors of ghosts and reckless urban renewal.

“We’ve stuck to the theme that the house is inhabited by the family of a surgeon, Dr. Mayhem, and his descendants are opening it one last time to the public before it’s torn down for condos,” Kraft tells Curbed SF.

She adds, “Everyone believes that’s actually true, because it’s so common these days.”

Thanks to the highly sensitive nature of the interiors and preservations efforts, Mayhem Mansion has a number of creative inhibitions; no projectiles or heavy bleeding allowed.

But the house is, fortunately, a haunting asset in itself.

“With a three-story Queen Anne Vic, everyone just automatically assumes—well, there’s something very imposing about the architecture, not everyone thinks it’s quaint, most people are very intimidated by the style and they think it just must be haunted,” Kraft says.

Southern Pacific Railroad Depot (Benicia)

A two-story 19th century train station decorated with eerie blue lights. Courtesy Benicia Main Street
The Building

This circa-1890 train stop isn’t original to Benicia and first appeared in the town of Banta, California. It later moved to Benicia in 1902 to serve as the terminus for those boarding “the largest ferry in the world” heading south to Port Costa.

That’s all history now, and these days the depot is a historic curiosity and the home office of Benicia Main Street.

The Haunt

Deborah Housman, event manager for Benicia Main Street, tells Curbed SF that the annual Haunted Depot is mostly the work of one man, Bob Florney, who though now retired from the organization, still shows up to haunt the place up every October, constructing almost the entire thing himself since 2008.

“It’s in the freight room, he makes tunnels through the maze back there and there’s two different slider doors, one in and one out,” says Housman, adding, “this is the only time of the year we allow anyone into that portion of the building. The city does allow us to go into there, but just for storage.”

Housman won’t say what Florney has in store this year—mostly because only he knows. In the past the likes of a ghostly saloon and haunted circus (complete with giant jack-in-the-box) have popped up in the space.

For the most part Haunted Depot is more mild than other Bay Area haunts. Volunteers intentionally tone it down when kids enter, making it an ideal family-friendly affair.

The Benicia Haunted Depot runs through October 26.