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Sept. 2, 2022

Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse at The Winchester Mystery House

Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse at The Winchester Mystery House

Today, the Winchester Mystery House took to the stage during Midsummer Scream to discuss their 2022 Halloween plans, and we’re playing the presentation for you. After a two-year hiatus, Winchester Mystery House presents a new terrifying chapter,...

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Today, the Winchester Mystery House took to the stage during Midsummer Scream to discuss their 2022 Halloween plans, and we’re playing the presentation for you. After a two-year hiatus, Winchester Mystery House presents a new terrifying chapter, Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse. In the first half of this presentation, the team explains the house's history and then transitions to the 2022 plans. Follow along to our Hauntathon:


Few locations in the world rival the legend and lore of the Winchester Mystery House, located in the San Francisco Bay area. As preparations are underway for its spirited Centennial celebration, we are thrilled to have some of its keepers of the iconic estate with us to share some of their exciting plans. Please welcome to the stage, Director of Marketing Natalie Taylor, Director of Operations Michael Taft, and General Manager Walter Magnuson.

Walter Magnuson:Well, hello everyone. Welcome. We're so happy you're here. And I do have to mention that my son and my wife were sitting in the front, and he just lost his tooth about 3 minutes ago, right here, and he loves all things spooky. So, I think that's a good omen, hopefully. But welcome, we're so excited to be here, we're so happy that you are all here, and we have a lot of awesome things to take you through today.

Winchester Mystery House, I'm hoping every hand goes up, how many people have been to Winchester Mystery House? Oh my gosh, look at this... Wait, there are a few, it's mostly in the middle here.

[Video Trailer]

Walter Magnuson: Well, I think as most of you know, our story begins, unfortunately, with Sarah Winchester's passing, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of her passing. She passed on September 5th, 1922. But even before her passing there were a lot of stories in the media speculating and just very, very curious. and this is a story which is from, I think, 1911 in the New York Times that talks about Sarah Winchester and that there were some odd things going on in this House, and the spirit world was warning her. We really find this fascinating because we have an ever-growing archive of things, of Sarah Winchester's life. To see the stories and the way she was talked about when she was alive before the house even opened for tours is always very interesting to us. 

Walter Magnuson: As I mentioned, she did pass, and you could see on the right, some of the early stories about the way this house was constructed, which giant anthill, I'm grateful that didn't really take on resonance beyond that. So, she definitely did not always have the most favorable coverage in her lifetime, but we all think the world of her, and we really want to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her passing with a life celebration, and something really, really focused on the special woman she was. 

Walter Magnuson: So, this year we're putting together some really special ways to celebrate her, and we're going to have some very cool ways, when you visit the house, to really celebrate what an amazing woman she was. So, we're still sort of finalizing that, but it'll be a very special tour. You'll get something very special when you come to visit. 

Walter Magnuson: She was from New Haven, CT, and has anybody been to New Haven, CT? If you really are interested in learning more about Sarah Winchester and your travels ever take you near there, I would recommend visiting, because it is the most beautiful location, there are so many things that are still there that were from her time, and it is her final resting place at Evergreen Cemetery and it's an absolutely beautiful place. They are also going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her passing with a very special ceremony in New Haven, and we're honored to take part in that.

Walter Magnuson: Just to that point, in New Haven, she was very, very philanthropic, which a lot of folks don't really focus on. They more focus on some of the more eccentric qualities she had. We're hoping with the 100th anniversary that we can really focus on a lot of her philanthropic efforts, because they're really beautiful, including the founding of a hospital in her husband's name, which is still there, and it’s now part of Yale. A lot of folks don't know that, but I think very, very special.

Walter Magnuson: So, daytime, we'll be having the tours with some very special remembrances of Sarah, and at night we have invited back James Van Praagh. Does everyone know who James Van Prague is? He is a medium who really, really, really loves the Winchester Mystery House, and we're honored that he's going to come back and actually do a very special seance and tour in the evening hours.

Natalie Taylor: The slides just keep advancing and I click them back. I'm sorry.

Walter Magnuson: I wish James Van Praagh were here.

Natalie Taylor: Yeah, something's watching us.

Walter Magnuson: He could exercise whatever is wrong with that clicker.

Walter Magnuson: So, this will be a very very... the last time James was there, he not only felt Sarah's presence, but also a number of other people that may or may not still be there, and shared a lot of details, and I found that fascinating, including the children, and the fact that seances were in the witch’s cap, and a lot of different things. So, I can't wait. This will all be on September 5th.

Natalie Taylor: We're making jokes about spirits, but you know, James did see quite a lot when he came back in, I think 2016 was the last time he came to Winchester. So, we're really excited he's kind of coming out of semi-retirement to do this event for us on September 5th. So, details about that will be on our website soon. It will be very limited and very VIP, but exciting opportunity for those that are interested to come out and you know, try to connect with Sarah. This goes back to spirits, right?

Natalie Taylor: One of the things that we hear a lot is, you know, we've been doing our mansion tour for over 100 years. The Daily Mansion Tour really focuses on... This is becoming comical... on the House itself and the oddities therein, Sarah's story, how she came to be in San Jose. 

Natalie Taylor: But one of the things we don't really talk about is the background of spiritualism in the Victorian era and this idea that Sarah may have believed that the spirits were haunting her because of the Winchester rifle. She was sort of seen, in modern day, as sort of being an eccentric type, but really when you look back at the Victorian era and her time, spiritualism was a very big movement. It was a huge movement in the late 1800s, the American spiritualism movement. The Victorian era is where you get a lot of traditions that are around death and mourning, including the wake, the Victorian dress, and that black veil that Sarah wore throughout her life came out of that timeframe. So, this year we're really excited to launch this new tour called Walk with Spirits, and if we could play the video for that would be amazing.

[Video Trailer]

Natalie Taylor: So, what's exciting about this is that again, we haven't really had a daily tour. We've done some Friday the 13th flashlight tours, we, of course, do a Halloween show, but we haven't offered this for our daily guests. So, this is a tour that could be done on its own, you can come and just do the Walk with Spirits tour, or you can combine it with our Daily Mansion Tour. We've just launched it this month, July 7th, and the feedback we've gotten from our guests has been overwhelmingly positive, they're really interested in that spiritualism movement, and there is an opportunity to sort of demonstrate what it would have been like to do a Victorian seance. So, again, you know, something to consider coming to

 Natalie Taylor: So, yeah, we're really excited about this tour. We hope if you are up in the area, you consider coming and seeing that different part of the House, you get to go on the third floor, which is purportedly the most haunted area of the House, as well as the basement, and maybe see our very famous wheelbarrow ghost.

Walter Magnuson: Hello again. So, as we look back on the last 100 years, I'm always taken with all of the ways that Winchester Mystery House has seemed to inspire creative types, and it's always fascinating to me to take a look at all of those things and sort of, Disney's Haunted Mansion is a great example, but there are so many other things that it's amazing, and we sort of put that all together in one nice sizzle, which I hope is next.

[Video Sizzle Reel]

Natalie Taylor: Yeah, we are very, very lucky how many people are interested and inspired by this house. We continue to host film crews almost monthly, there'll be some new shows, but you'll see them this fall, the next month or so gets very busy because everyone wants to come in the fall to film. We'll continue past our 100-year anniversary of just getting more and more of these types of film crews and inspiring people about, you know, inspiring people. I know you guys are all here for one thing, and that's Halloween, so I'm going to kick it over to Michael to talk all things Halloween.

Michael Taft: Thank you. So, those of you who followed us, and you know the past couple of years we've tried a number of different things with Halloween just through the pandemic, and this year I'm very happy to say that we're kind of getting back to our roots. A lot of feedback we've gotten from our guests is that they want us to go back to being scary. We have a very cool real haunted house, in a sense, which is pretty cool, so we're not building that thing from scratch. 

Michael Taft: So, we are announcing the return of Unhinged, which is one of our more popular shows that we produced for 2019. With this year's being Nightshade’s Curse, and to help me tell you more about this year's show, let me bring to the stage Mr. Scott Levkoff, Mark Streit, and Ron Hale. A little plug, Mark, and Ron have a very cool haunt in the Hall of Shadows this year, so go check it out when you're done.

Michael Taft: So, this year we're bringing back some classic characters and some whole new ones. Those of you, again, who are familiar with the show, we have our wonderful wheelbarrow ghost who's been a staple of the house since Sarah's passing back in 1922. We have our bride, the swamp hag Edna, Little Annie, Headless Helena, and the Caretaker. So, bringing back a number of characters that we've used over the years, both in the Unhinged show in previous shows, kind of playing door history a little bit with this year, and a bunch of new characters as well.

Michael Taft: The story is a whole new story, and we're doing both a really cool outdoor and indoor show. So, we'll entertain you and give you lots of fun, entertainment, shows, and games to play before you head into the house. We're trying some new things with the house as well, for the first time, we'll have two routes. So, you'll be able to not necessarily pick, we'll pick for you, but you'll split off on your route through the house, and we're making much more use of the House than we ever have in the past. Again, this show, if you want scary, bring your Depends because my goal is to make it as scary as possible this year.

Michael Taft: We're working with a lot of great partners to really bring this show to life. We're producing it in-house, but we have a lot of local talent, some other area talent, including Chris and Gina from Hollywood Haunters that are helping us out, building some things down here. You may have seen them on YouTube showing off their wares. Mark and Ron are building us some items, and Scott is going to be producing our outdoor show as well. 

Michael Taft: So, the biggest new character this year and the namesake of our show is Madame Nightshade. So, to tell you more about Madame Nightshade and how she has come to the house and become the key feature of this show, let me kick it over to Scott.

Scott Levkoff: OK. Thank you. I just want to say thank you, Natalie, Walter, Michael, Sarah Winchester for being here. I'm really thrilled, really honored. This is also secret, this is my first horror convention, can you believe it? I'm always working, I've been in showbiz my whole life, so I'm always producing shows. I've always wanted to come to one of these so I just can't believe all the enthusiasm and craft, and it's fantastic. So, I'm so excited to be invited to create content, immersive content. I've been working in San Francisco for 30 plus years as an immersive event producer, and designer. As fate would have it, my mother was a spirit medium, so I grew up with the Spirit Channel, and it gave me a very strange, unusual, unique perspective on life.

Scott Levkoff: Of course, I found out about the Winchester House at a young age, and I was very curious to kind of corroborate any kind of information or reality around what I experienced as a kid, which I didn't tell anybody. Because, you know, I was a lonely, gloomy, lonely child reading weird fiction and Lovecraft in middle school. So, you know, of course I was bullied. It was a secret of mine, so being here now to celebrate her life and to celebrate the realm of the spirits and a tradition, which I very much respect, is just really, it's such a great honor.

Scott Levkoff: So, I started doing spooky productions many years ago. There's a tradition in America called Spook Shows, right? They've been around for decades. Basically, magicians found a good dime in producing midnight shows right before spooky films. I'm really interested in exploring and celebrating other traditions such as the Medicine Show, the Spook Shows, and of course, exploring the movement of the spiritualists and mediums. Which, in one hand, as I experience, is a very real, very real phenomenon and on the other hand was absolutely a business. 

Scott Levkoff: So, what we are doing brings us to Unhinged Nightshade's Curse. So, I'm producing Madame Nightshade's Spirit Carnival, which takes place on the grounds of the Winchester and positions Mrs. Nightshade, Madame Nightshade herself, this very intense, mysterious figure that's obsessed with contacting, collaborating, and commanding the spirit world. So, she does this several times nightly with the help of the audience and an attempt to open and bridge the worlds.

Scott Levkoff: So, here you can see some influences, medicine shows, weird tales, I just love these little pulp stories and weird tales, astounding tales when I was a kid. Here's a here's one of the spook show posters, this is probably from the 50s or 60s.

Scott Levkoff: Here we see Madame Nightshade herself, commanding the infernal spirit machine. It's this bit of kind of weird, spooky technology that she's developed in an attempt to further open the abyss between the worlds. Here we see some old periodicals that we found from the late 40s, and here we see the Spirit Carnival, Madame Nightshade is commanding the spirits with the help of the infernal spirit machine, the guests all join in, everybody is invited to join in in this seance and bring through a host of phantasms that will then lure the guests into their house and to their doom. We see the infernal spirit machine actually goes way back, back to the 40s. We found one actual working machine, you can see we found some schematics here and some artistic interpretations of the phantasms coming through into this world, and I think that I think that does it for us.

Michael Taft: So putting together a show of this magnitude takes a lot of work, and we started working on this really right after on the heels of last year show ending, knowing that we wanted to do something bigger and better and kind of try some new things. The show really starts, you know, oddly enough, not with a story, but with a route. I think kind of a loose idea that we have to do in our heads, but kind of route through the House. So, this kind of gives you an idea. I mean we're talking about 25,000 square foot house over 4 different levels that we have to traverse through, and with this we're doing 2 routes, we couldn't have those routes intertwine or combine or meet. So, that alone took the better part of months just kind of figuring out and fighting over what spaces we wanted to use and not use, and how we're going to get people here and there and entering this way and exiting that way. That's been a big challenge, but, once we did that, then we kind of put the bones of the story together and just kind of built it from that.

Michael Taft: So, the stories evolved quite a bit over the past several months, but again, I'm super, super excited for what we're doing this year. Here's a nice little concept art piece of one of these scenes that you will see in this year show, our lovely taxidermist who is making some things for you to experience on your trip. To talk more about the show inside the house are masters of FX and props and all things haunt, Mark and Ron.

Ron Hale: Masters, I like it. I'm going to make the kids at the haunt call us Master, Master Ron and Master Mark. I like it.

Mark Straite: Sorry guys.

Ron Hale: Thank you, and to echo what Scott said, you know, such a pleasure to be back with Winchester for our second year there, and bringing it to a creepier, scarier version is just so exciting. The fact of being able to work in the House, and basically start off as home haunters and grow and grow and grow to the point where we're getting a chance to work with this amazing team and the history. 

Mark Straite: And this amazing place.

Ron Hale: And the amazing place, absolutely. So, as Michael said, one of the inspirations this year, and Scott, the spirit machine and the spirit tonic is driving all kinds of crazy things to bring an already creepy haunted house to an even scarier level. One of the earlier scenes, actually, within the mazes this year

Mark Straite: That was a slide of us, where we came from and doing home haunts until we started doing zoo productions and museums, and ultimately our goal was to be here at the Winchester because we've always loved it. There are challenges working in the house, because it is a historical location and you can't just drill a stud here to mount a light, you got to work about around preserving the house, and it comes with huge challenges. This is a nice slide of the before and after we worked with the House last year, and our whole goal last year was to make the House come to life. This year it's also going to come to life, but with a whole bunch more frightening characters involved as well.

Mark Straite: So this was the attic, and you could see the before is the more brown slide that's pretty, that's the way it looks. But then we had to put an Infinity mirror in there and make it come to life, and so that was one of the awesome and spooky things. In fact, we're bringing that effect back this year, I think, aren't we? 

Ron Hale: With a twist.

Mark Straite: Always with a twist. That's a great example of the one with the mirror in it, because we had to extend hallways, but we had to extend them to look like the house used to. So, we had to use lathe and plaster walls and historic wood, not from the house but from other places, to extend the hall and make it fit right in. The other slide there is a prime example of us bringing the House to life because that is the furnace, but it's hard to see there, but the pipes burst and scare the tar out of everyone as they're walking by that furnace, so that's a piece of the house that we had to bring to life. It was a lot of fun last year. It's going to be even more fun this year, because we've got twice the path to work with.

Ron Hale: And it's a lot of fun to be able to take existing architecture and then try to match it and hide things in plain sight. I think last year in the first week is set up, we had made a bunch of modifications to the basement that's there on the right and to the kitchen, one of the kitchens. We told Michael, "hey, let's go see what we're doing." He didn't realize we had done anything, which is exactly what we wanted, so things just blend right in until they don't.

Mark Straite: It was great, we worked for hours and then Michael came in the room and said, "well, you didn't do anything. I don't see anything here." Then we turned the effect on and he was shocked that we blended it in so seamlessly that a guy who works there every day didn't even know what we did.

Ron Hale: So yeah, tour guides were telling us all the time, those walls on the left, that they kept walking past them thinking, something seems different in these rooms. Yeah, there's 20 extra feet of wall in these rooms that you normally don't have to walk around people. So, it's a lot of fun to do, and challenging working with the tours going through the house. Obviously, very minimal amount of work can happen during the day, at night we spend all night in the house working, which is spectacular. For anybody that's at a haunt convention, you can just, you know, let your imaginations run.

Mark Straite: Imagine you're completely alone in the entire house, and it's pitch dark.

Ron Hale: It's really amazing, it's been a pleasure to do. And the House does have its own personality, for sure.

Mark Straite: Oh yes, Oh yes. Doors that are closing that you know one was in those rooms, you hear the floorboards creaking like people are following you. You get used to it. In fact, a lot of the text that we would use when we were up there, we're talking frequently to the ghosts around them, especially the wheelbarrow ghost in the basement, he made a lot of noise.

Natalie Taylor: Well, I think what makes my job as a marketer so exciting is that we have found these amazing partners that are super respectful of Sarah's House, our tour department, and our daytime tour guests to their point, you know, they work in the evening because we are running a full daytime tour operation. So, starting August, September, and October, the Operations and Tours department are not only managing a couple of hundred guests a day but also helping these guys to do all the install at night. Again, we're very excited to bring back this show, it was very popular in 2019. Unfortunately, with the pandemic we weren't able to bring it back at the level we wanted to. So, this year we are so excited to be able to really invest not just in the tech, but also in the actors, storyline, and the outdoor experience for guests. So, if you do come, please think bigger than just an hour-long tour. This is a couple of hours of experience on the estate, spend time in the midway for Madame Nightshade’s show, outdoors, there'll be food, drinks, all that fun stuff, of course, and then the walk-through experience of Nightshade’s Curse. 

Natalie Taylor: I wouldn't be a marketer if I didn't throw out that I did use some in-house talent for our video for the show this year. One of the characters is Little Mary, and she's in the front row, she's actually my daughter. You got to use what you've got, right? So, I would like to play a quick video just to show you guys a little sneak peek of what to expect for Unhinged: Nightshade’s Curse.

[Video Trailer]

Walter Magnuson: Hey, I don't know what kind of child labor laws were violated.

Natalie Taylor: She worked for some Roblox money I think is what it was.

Natalie Taylor: We also were so grateful, we had this amazing artist that is here at the show, Andy Sciazko, and he did all of these drawings of the characters. 

Natalie Taylor: Really important stuff. The show starts September 30th and runs for 13 nights. We're very excited, the website is, and all the information is there. For all details follow us on Facebook, TikTok, Instagram.

Mark Straite

Co-Creator of Straite to Hale Productions

Co-creator of Straite to Hale Productions, Mark Straite has been putting together home haunts with Ron Hale for years, progressing up to the point of now working with Winchester Mystery House as design and build contractors.

Ron Hale

Co-Creator of Straite to Hale Productions

Co-creator of Straite to Hale Productions, Ron Hale has been putting together home haunts with Mark Straite for years, progressing up to the point of now working with Winchester Mystery House as design and build contractors.

Scott Levkoff

Design Consultant

Design Consultant, Co-Founder, Creative Director, Scott works on a variety of productions.

Michael Taft

Director of Operations at Winchester Mystery House

Natalie TaylorProfile Photo

Natalie Taylor

Director of Marketing at Winchester Mystery House

Natalie Taylor is the Director of Marketing for the most famous haunted attraction in the world. While working at the historic Winchester Mystery House she has led the marketing efforts for the various movies, TV shows, tours through the house, and Halloween shows, and managed the brand's licensing efforts which include comic books, online gaming, and more.

Walter MagnusonProfile Photo

Walter Magnuson

General Manager at Winchester Mystery House

Walter Magnuson is responsible for overseeing one of Northern California's premiere attractions, a national and state historic landmark, and one of America's most extraordinary homes.