Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Why does the Winchester Mystery House have stairs leading nowhere?

        Science | Afterlife

Constructing the Stairs and Doors to Nowhere
You won't get far if you follow the stairs to nowhere.
You won't get far if you follow the stairs to nowhere.
Photo courtesy Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, CA

­Mrs. Winchester served as her own architect, but it's possible that some ghosts had a hand in designing the house as well. Each night, Mrs. Winchester would retreat to her séance room and receive instruction from the spirits on the progress of her house. The next morning, she'd present her construction workers with hand-drawn sketches of what was to be done.

Sometimes it seemed she didn't care what she built, as long as she could hear the hammers of her crew. The crew might spend a month constructing a room, only to be ordered to destroy it the next month. Because Mrs. Winchester paid well, no one disputed her instructions. Mrs. Winchester had inherited $20 million and just less than half of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company stock [source: Taylor]. This left Mrs. Winchester with a daily income of about $1,000 to spend on her house [source: Taylor]. (Multiply those figures by about 20 to get an idea of how much money that would be in 2008 [source: U.S. Department of Labor].)

But what of these doors and stairs to nowhere? Doors may open onto walls, or in the case of a second story door, to the outside, resulting in a big fall for anyone who might try to exit that way. A closet door in the second floor séance room opens onto a first-floor sink several feet below. The stairs to nowhere are pretty much what they sound like: Stairs go up until they reach the ceiling, and then they just stop.

The useless stairs might have a simple explanation; the stairs were likely a part of the original house that Mrs. Winchester bought, and when she started adding on to the home, she covered up the stairs. Whether it was accidentally or on purpose, Mrs. Winchester usually covered up her mistakes by just continuing to build around them. Because she had no master plan for the house, her architectural ideas didn't always work out. Since she had no deadline for completion, she'd either tear down the mistake or cover it up with something else.

Some people think that these touches were designed to confuse the evil spirits that were haunting Mrs. Winchester. Believing that ghosts would get lost on stairs that went nowhere or accidentally step out of a door that went outside, Mrs. Winchester might have deliberately installed these weird touches. If this sounds strange to you today, you're not alone. Even at the time that Mrs. Winchester was building the house, she was regarded with suspicion. Some thought her an eccentric with too much money on her hands, and her home took on the nickname "mystery house" not long after her death.

Because Mrs. Winchester left no diary or other communication, we honestly have no idea what might have been going on her mind. What we do have is her house, which is still open to tourists. Is it a monument to madness or money? Is it still haunted? On the next page, we'll poke around inside the Winchester Mystery House.