The “most haunted house in the world,” the Winchester Mystery House, is a Queen Anne Style Victorian mansion in San Jose, California, once the residence of widow firearm magnate William Wirt Winchester. Fueled by rumors, stories, and confused fascination, the mansion has long been the subject of conjecture contained within books and now a movie Winchester, released February 2, 2018.
I find it fascinating that not an American director/producer, but Australian brothers, Peter and Michael Spierig, created the movie starring Helen Mirren (English) and Jason Clark (Australian). We went to see this movie on Tuesday. The critics have panned it. Of Google users who responded, 77% liked it. So what did the brothers get right? Actually, quite a lot.
The Real Story Stranger Than Fiction: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
The real story is as mysterious or crazy as the architecture of the home. Sarah Winchester was born Sarah Lockwood Pardee in 1840. By the time she was 12, she was allegedly fluent in Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian, and could quote Shakespeare. She married William Wirt Winchester in 1862, heir of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. It was actually her father-in-law, Oliver Winchester, who was the manufacturer of the repeater rifle (“the gun that won the west”). He died in 1880, and her husband, Will, a year later of tuberculosis. (She had lost an infant girl four years after they married.) She was suddenly one of the wealthiest women in the world; yes, owning a half share of the company and earning up to $1k ($25k in today’s dollars) per day.
Theories suggested for Sarah’s behavior were thought to have originated when she had an encounter with a Boston psychic who told her to travel west and build a home to house the spirits of the dead and that should she stop construction, the spirits of the evil spread by the guns would seek revenge.
In 1886, Sarah moved to California and bought the plot of land originally close to 162 acres that contained an eight-room cottage. She commenced to making additions, towers and cupolas. There were rooms that made no sense at all, served no purpose. In the movie, she is shown sketching additions on drawing paper although she would proffer designs on napkins or brown paper. As late as 1975, workers discovered a new room with only two chairs and an old phonograph, secured by a 1910 lock.
While most accounts, and the movie, suggests construction proceeded 24/7, there is some note that Sarah Winchester dismissed workers to “take such rest as I might.” Most, however, believe construction was ceaseless for thirty-eight years. The home is actually built using a “floating foundation.” The unique foundation is believed to have saved it from total collapse in the 1906 earthquake. Originally built seven stories high and possibly 200 rooms, it is today only four stories and approximately 161 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, two ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 panes of glass (including two stained glass with Shakespearean quotes), a séance room, 17 chimneys, two basements, and three elevators.
The mansion is predominantly redwood, disliked by Winchester, and painted over. The estate has now been reduced to 4.5 acres. With all those bedrooms, however, there is only one working toilet for Winchester. The other restrooms were decoys meant to confuse spirits. This is also why it is reported she slept in a different room each night. There is a distinct use of the number thirteen along with stairways that end in blank walls, closets that open to a floor below, cabinets that open to hallways and many innovative interior oddities also shown in the movie.
Winchester – the Movie
Along with details included noted above, the movie may be suggesting a confusion in the radical change of mores dealing with death and mourning during the change of the twentieth century, according to Colin Dickey – Feb 7, 2018 – New Republic. The movie is set in 1906 when Sarah Winchester lives with her niece Marian Marriott (no mention made of a nephew, however, in sources I found.) Helen is shown in expensive, fashionable black Victorian clothes with veil. (By the time of her death in 1922, no longer was the departed laid in the front parlor for viewing. Now the deceased was removed to a “funeral parlor” and the house’s parlor was renamed “the living room.”)
Dickey maintains the movie (almost) worth the price of admission is Ben Nott’s cinematography. More than creaking doors and moody lighting, Nott uses “an overhead shot of the house’s elaborate “Easy-Riser” staircase. (She replaced the original steep stairs because of her crippling arthritis.) Dickey appreciated the panoramas of the mansion, the gables, the pans through the labyrinth, and close-ups of “architectural peculiarities.” In addition, he closes his interesting article by mentioning that “in a house where grief is a maze, you can never exit as easily as you’ve entered.” Sure reminds me of the Eagles Hotel California, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
Maybe it is a horror story, but as I mentioned, you can’t make this stuff up. Will you see the movie? For the tiny time frame involved, they managed to cram in a lot of authentic realism. Helen Mirren does an admirable job–even looks a little like the original portrait of Winchester (thanks to Wikipedia and Getty Images above). Mirren plays the dramatic side, while Jason Clark plays a rather damaged psychiatrist (leaving a lack of strong male presence) reporting to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company on the level of her continued competency.
So many of the movies these days use that subdued, indirect lighting, creating dark scenes a la Batman. But it is intriguing and entertaining, and while employing latitude with the plot, still projects the set and views you don’t get on a $20 tour in this National Register of Historic Places. We thoroughly enjoyed. Let me know what you thought of it. Would you see it? (Or not) Recommended if you enjoy history, crazy tales, and soft thriller-horror. ©2018 V Williams
Attributions: Elena Nicolaou (February 1, 2018), Winchester Mystery House, Postcard showing the Winchester Mystery House circa 1900-1905 (Courtesy Flickr-San Jose Public Library California Room), Sarah Lockwood Winchester as a young woman-Wikipedia