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How ‘Winchester’ Reminds Us That Spiritualism Is America’s Best Old-Timey Occult Obsession

Posted by AlexScorseby

Think ghost stories and haunted houses are popular now? You should have been around 150 years ago, when America’s fascination with spiritualism was in full swing. Originally centered in New York around a small cult-like group, Spiritualism developed into a massively popular movement based on the belief that the soul exists and lives on after death, and can be contacted in the afterlife.

Reports of séances and other congress with the departed led to fame for individual mediums, some of whom, like Victorian-era YouTube stars, developed targeted marketing allowing them to build massive followings. The belief in Spiritualism was rooted in genuine faith, but charlatans took advantage of widespread interest to make money off those willing to pay to communicate with their loved ones.

Accounts claim over eight million people were Spiritualists at the end of the 1800s, when the US population was only 70 million people – that’s more than one in ten Americans attempting a direct dialogue with the spirits of the afterlife.

The film Winchester, starring Helen Mirren as the famed widow Sarah Winchester, brings Spiritualism back to the light. Sarah Winchester was said to have a deep interest in spiritualism rooted in her fear of vengeful spirits. Her being one of the wealthiest women in the world allowed her to fight that fear by constructing a sprawling 500 room home to house or possibly imprison the dead souls killed by the Winchester rifles.

The truth of that story is debatable, but it’s a great concept, and the massive fad popularity of Spiritualism is a unique part of American pop culture.

Spiritualism was so big that dozens of personalities became public figures, either as superstar mediums and other supernaturally connected types, or as agents of science who sought to debunk frauds and cons. People who were big in their own fields ended up at seances because it was the fashionable thing to do – that might explain why someone like Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, whose pioneering work in radioactivity was a cornerstone of 20th century science, once sat around a table waiting for the dead to speak.

Spiritualism even converted scientists, and spurred the creation of high-profile collectives like the Ghost Club, a London group which included members such as Charles Dickens and poet Y. B. Yeats, and which focused on research and investigation of psychic phenomena, hauntings, and other similar events that make for great movie plots.

The two biggest public figures in the world of Spiritualism, or at least the two whose reputations have stuck around, are men famous for other work. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was interested in psychic phenomena and became a devoted Spiritualist, inspired in part by the shock of deaths caused by WWI. He was a Ghost Club member, too.

For a time, Doyle was close friends with Harry Houdini, who in the 1920s worked to debunk fraudulent mediums and other spirit-chasing hacks. Their relationship broke down in part due to a difference not just in opinion about the legitimacy of psychic activity, but faith in what it represented. Doyle actually believed Houdini was a powerful medium, and that he performed impressive feats of magic and illusion by channeling supernatural power – and that debunking other mediums was a power play.

The efforts of famed anti-Spiritualists like Houdini helped dissipate interest in Spiritualism, as did new photography techniques which helped debunk seance tricks like levitating tables and the manifestation of “ectoplasm.” The Spiritualist movement was made more complicated by the fact that most practitioners and a large percentage of believers were women – and that interested groups were also often champions of women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Fortunately the weakening of Spiritualism as a movement didn’t undermine those efforts.

While the popular movement is long gone, many of the images and concepts developed by mediums have survived as tropes in ghost stories and horror movies.

And then there’s the Winchester House. Built by Sarah Winchester, whose late husband built their massive fortune with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company – maker of the rifle famously known as, “the gun that won the West.” Late in life, Sarah Winchester became obsessed with spiritualism, and consumed by the idea that the ghosts of all those killed by Winchester rifles were ready for vengeance and needed a place to live.

[Credit: CBS Films]
[Credit: CBS Films]

That’s one story, anyway. True or not, it’s a great tale, and the facts are plain enough: after inheriting a massive stake in the Winchester company and her husband’s fortune, Sarah Winchester was seriously rich, with more than enough money to move west from Connecticut to San Jose, California, and spend millions on more than thirty years worth of construction on a house that would ultimately feature over a hundred rooms, stairways that lead nowhere, and other unusual design elements. Whether these were purposeful decisions made to confuse spirits, or the natural byproduct of decades of work on a house with no architect is something each visitor can decide.

After Sarah Winchester’s death the house was sold to a local investor and eventually became a landmark tourist attraction. Frequented by millions over the decades including Disney Imagineers who were set to study it as they designed the theme park’s Haunted Mansion ride. Appropriately enough the current name – the Winchester Mystery House – was the byproduct of a visit from the man who helped end the Spiritualist movement: Harry Houdini.

Winchester stars Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snooke and Angus Sampson. The film opens in theaters on February 2.