If you're the sort of person who pays attentions to roadside attractions or spooky American lore, you're likely to be familiar with the Winchester Mystery House. Currently the house (built between the years 1884 and 1922) is an attraction in San Jose, California, providing tours to guests interested in seeing a house full of oddities. But more than just the architectural attraction, what continues to sell the Winchester Mystery House is the story that accompanies it.
That story is what now leads to a feature horror-thriller film, Winchester, to be directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig from a screenplay by Tom Vaughan and starring Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke. Mirren will play Sarah Winchester, a woman and heiress who supposedly continuously built onto her house for 38 years to appease the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle.
The reasons for her lavish spending and odd behavior are the stuff of American lore — stories kept alive by the tour guides of the Mystery House. And while it's certainly great fodder for a thrilling horror film, perhaps the myth around Sarah Winchester does her a disservice. There is another theory, backed up by history, that may allude to Mrs. Winchester's real motives. A theory that could help Winchester avoid a few of the cliches perpetuated in horror films (like the one in the video below).
- 7 Insane Stories from People Who Work in Haunted Houses
- Do Not Disturb: Elisa Lam & Other Film-worthy Hotel Murders
- Innocent And Sinister: Ranking The Top 55 'American Horror Story' Characters
Rumors And Whispers
Sarah Pardee married William Wirt Winchester in 1862. They were happy and rich and in the upper crest of New England Society. In 1866 the couple's infant daughter Annie died suddenly. Supposedly Mrs. Winchester never got over the tragedy and was pushed further over the edge when her husband died of tuberculosis in 1881. Widowed in her forties, Sarah Winchester is said to have sought the advice of a medium for dealing with her grief.
The attraction's website states:
According to some sources, the Boston Medium consulted by Mrs. Winchester explained that her family and her fortune were being haunted by spirits – in fact, by the spirits of American Indians, Civil War soldiers, and others killed by Winchester rifles. Supposedly the untimely deaths of her daughter and husband were caused by these spirits, and it was implied that Mrs. Winchester might be the next victim.
The continued story is that Sarah Winchester was advised to move west (where the majority of victims from the rifle had lived) and began building a place for these spirits to survive. As long as she kept building she could stave off the curse and even death itself.
Sarah Winchester was mostly private. Which, of course, only leads to societal rumors. Her home was called "The Spirit House" by locals and either because of her seclusion or jealousy over her vast fortune, the uncivilized people of the Santa Clara Valley wasted no time in forming their own stories around the widow and her home.
Tales surrounding Mrs. Winchester included the rumor that she never slept in any bedroom for two nights in a row to confuse the spirits roaming her house and out to get her. Supposedly she communed with the dead often in her "Blue Room" located in the center of the house. Construction workers leaked info regarding the various odd instructions they were given, building doors to nowhere, staircases into ceilings, windows into floors, and repetition of the number 13 in fixtures and instructions, all based on blueprints provided by Mrs. Winchester.
More Than A Superstitious Spiritualist
But was the elusive Sarah Winchester truly a disturbed woman driven by superstition and grief? There is much to suggest the lore we embrace now, as colorful and intriguing as it is, may be just that, lore. After all, the late 1800s and early 1900s were especially unforgiving of single women.
In fact, Sarah Winchester grew up educated, speaking four languages and playing the piano beautifully. She was known as the "Belle of New Haven." It would stand to reason that after the death of her beloved husband Mrs. Winchester simply wanted a change of scene and a hobby to distract her. She visited family in California and found it beautiful and charming. It's also quite possible the stuffiness of east coast society (and maybe money-grubbing men in pursuit of her fortune) left her wanting.
A Victim Of The Times?
What if Sarah Winchester was a younger woman with an active mind, a lot of money, and a desire to do something of interest? Over the 38 years of construction, Sarah Winchester oversaw the construction of 160 rooms, 13 bathrooms, 2,000 doors, 47 fireplaces, 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 17 chimneys, six kitchens, 3 elevators, two basements, and one shower. She was known as a detail-oriented task-master, aware of every screw used and every dimension specified.
Why would a woman building a house for the dead worry herself with these details? Her employees spread rumors that she spied on them, but perhaps they weren't used to a mistress who ran her own house and concerned herself with the affairs of men. Perhaps they hadn't met a woman ambitious and eager to use her mind, a woman intrigued by architecture and design, hindered by societal norms but given a certain amount of freedom due to her wealth.
Mrs. Winchester owned homes in several other cities: Atherton, Los Altos, and Palo Alto. Toward the end of her life she spent more time in them than at her San Jose mansion. She was also hugely beneficent, inviting children to play on her grounds and donating huge amounts of money to charity. Despite allegations of squandering her fortune on her weird home, she left quite a bit of money to her family and various medical organizations, several of which exist to this day. (And do note she died quite peacefully in her sleep at 82 with nothing to indicate she had pursued eternal life in any supernatural way.)
While genre films aren't always apt to paint a delicate picture of historical figures, especially when cheap thrills are on the line, we can only hope Winchester gives more depth to the woman behind the tale. As an actress of great substance, Helen Mirren could easily flesh out Mrs. Winchester and set the history books at least slightly more straight.
Do you think history owes it to Mrs. Winchester to give her a bit more credit, or does the spookier version of her story make for a better thriller?