Winchester: Truth is Better than Fiction

New film about delusional heiress in her strange mansion missed an opportunity.

Posted Feb 03, 2018

Edvard Munch
Source: Edvard Munch

I had only to see the preview to realize that the Winchester scriptwriters had traded a rich psychological tale for a predictable horror plot. Although Variety was kind, Rolling Stone said, “The Spierigs shamelessly pile on haunted-house clichés that lost their juice decades ago. Here's a film so deadly dull that even Mirren can't keep you awake.”

Since the Winchester house story is so unique, I’d hoped for a film with depth and surprise, something along the lines of what can happen when delusional people have the resources to fully act on their bizarre notions. It was an opportunity to probe a susceptible, fearful mind run amuck and expose an intriguing aspect of the human condition.

A few years back, I wrote a “Crime-Trotting” column for a travel magazine. In one column, I described the house and its background. For those who want to know more, I reproduce it here:

There stands a Queen Anne style mansion (sort of) at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California, that has been the subject of much curiosity and speculation. Supposedly, the ghosts of murder victims haunt the place, as does the house’s former owner, Sarah Winchester.

During the nineteenth century, when this woman grew paranoid about the people who’d been killed by her father-in-law’s invention – a “repeating” rifle – she engaged in something quite radical. Once a seemingly ordinary girl, she grew increasingly delusional in later life. But how did she arrive at the notion of building a home for ghosts? It was a process based in loss, need, and fear.

In 1862, Sarah married William Wirt Winchester, heir to the fortune that his father had amassed from his invention. They had a daughter, but she died as an infant. About a decade later, William died as well. These losses seemed to unhinge Sarah. Now quite wealthy, she became reclusive.

Managing a business and estate of some $20 million, and earning about $1,000 per day, Sarah had the means to do whatever she wanted. For her, this came to mean using everything within her power to appease the dead. 

She turned to Spiritualism, a famous nineteenth-century pastime. She invited mediums to conduct séances in her  home in New Haven, Connecticut, to try to contact her lost loved ones. One of them reportedly told her that he could “see” and “hear” her dead husband William, who said that the family was cursed because of the many people killed by the Winchester rifle. Sarah had to make amends with these spirits. If she didn’t, the medium allegedly said, the curse would claim her as well. She took this mandate seriously.

The first order of business was to move to the West Coast. With the ghost of William supposedly guiding her, Sarah located an unfinished 8-room farmhouse on 162 acres in the Santa Clara Valley. She purchased it and hired contractors and builders to make additions. This is where the vision gets its unique twist..

They were to keep building 24-7 and never stop. This haphazard remodeling, which began in 1884, lasted thirty-eight years, and employed more than twenty full-time carpenters. The estimated cost was about $5.5 million (over $75 million in today’s funds). After building new rooms, hallways, and staircases, they would demolish their work and start over.

There was no rhyme or reason to the architecture. The house had secret passages, stairs and doorways that went nowhere. Many rooms had thirteen windows with thirteen panes of glass or thirteen lights. Some windows looked into other rooms rather than outside.

By the time Sarah died in 1922 at the age of 83, the massive four-story building (three stories had collapsed in the 1906 earthquake) contained approximately 160 rooms (including two ballrooms), several towers and cupolas, numerous chimneys, forty-seven fireplaces, three elevators, over 2,000 doors, more than 1,000 windows, dozens of corridors, several upside down newel posts, and forty separate staircases (one with stairs only two inches high to accommodate Sarah's debilitating arthritis).

A rumor held that the house had been designed to confuse those spirits that weren't quite satisfied and might still try to harm her. This was also the reason for the lack of mirrors.

And things got even stranger. Sarah had the carpenters work on two areas specifically for the ghosts. In the windowless Blue Room, at midnight, Sarah often sat in special ceremonial robes to engage in secret activities. She'd ring a bell to let the spirits know she was there, and sometimes set out elaborate dinners.

In her will, Sarah asked her heir (a niece) to continue to maintain the house as a haven for spirits. Her trust was misplaced. The last thing the niece wanted was this crazy house. She took some furniture, carted the rest away, and sold the place at auction. Today it’s a museum that hosts tours, including special Halloween treats.

In 1924, Harry Houdini toured the house. So did Robert L. Ripley, who featured it in his column. Around this time, the mansion acquired its name, “The Mystery House.”