In 1886, Sarah Winchester moved from her home in New Haven, CT into a two-story farmhouse in San Jose. The widow of William Wirt Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company—the manufacturer of firearms—she had inherited a fifty-percent ownership of the company and over $20.5 million, so she was wealthy, but she had also lost her infant daughter and only child to a children’s disease called marasmus.
According to published accounts, a medium, who had allegedly been channeling Sarah’s husband at the time, told her to make the move west for a specific reason: to build a residence not just for herself, but for the ghosts of those who died from Winchester rifles. Thus began the creation of one of the strangest houses ever built.
Today the mansion is known as the Winchester Mystery House. It takes up 24,000 square feet of space (puny in comparison with the William Hearst Castle further south along the California coast), with 160 rooms, at a price of $5 million. Here’s a live walkthrough of the house from last April.
Was the house haunted? Rooms were added to it, day and night, until Sarah’s death in 1922 because, the story goes, she believed in the presence of ghosts, and the rooms held them at bay. The truth is much more mundane, but that hasn’t stopped speculation over the house’s supernatural connection, and a few years ago, Hollywood took a stab at telling the story.
Winchester doesn’t tread new ground in horror cinema, but it’s classier than most, thanks largely to the presence of Helen Mirren as the titular widow. In an original screenplay written (with Tom Vaughan) and directed by the Spierig Brothers, Sarah’s competence is challenged by the WRAC, who send Jason Clarke, playing a doctor, in to determine whether she’s sane enough to still be co-owner.
The film relies too much on jump-scares and only scratches the surface of the wider issues of profiting from weapons manufacture. It also has elements of other horror flicks: The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, The Omen, etc.
I remember wanting to see this when it initially came out. The mediocre reviews kept me away, but it’s not terrible. Clarke, the guy from Zero Dark Thirty, holds his own opposite Mirren nicely, and Sarah Snook is good as Mirren’s niece.
If nothing else, Winchester got me interested in the real-life elements behind the story, which are fascinating in and of themselves.
Other movies about houses: