Just the trailer for Winchester is enough to make me want to sleep with the lights on. The Helen Mirren-led horror movie, out now, tells the story of a woman who turned her home into a maze-like prison — not for herself, but for the innumerable ghosts she believed were haunting her. The more features she added to the house, the more convinced she was that they'd never be able to find her hidden among the false doorways and pin-turn corridors. Instead, they'd be trapped and thus powerless to hurt her.
The home that the film is based on, known now as the Winchester Mystery House, still stands — in fact, it's now a major tourist attraction, featuring special, extra-spooky tours on Halloween and Fridays that fall on the 13th of the month. The true story, however, may have less to do with ghosts and more to do with an unfortunate mixture of grief and guilt.
Before Winchester moved to her infamous house, she was known mainly as the wife of the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Her father-in-law, Oliver Winchester, founded the business and her husband, William, was in line to take over the company when the time came.
Early into her marriage, however, Winchester's life was eerily marked by death. Her infant daughter, Annie, died in 1866, and her mother, father-in-law, and husband later died in the span of a year, starting in the spring of 1880. It wasn't long after suffering these losses that Winchester moved to San José, CA, into what started as an eight-bedroom farmhouse.
Using the hefty inheritance she received from her father-in-law and husband, Winchester oversaw countless bizarre construction projects on the house. It would eventually amass 160 rooms in total, staircases that led to nowhere, and 2,000 doors (one opened up to a 15-foot drop, while others simply opened to reveal a wall). The renovations only came to end when Winchester passed away in 1922.
Despite the fact that many of her family members had died in close succession, these were not the ghosts that Winchester supposedly feared. The story goes that she believed the spirits of all those who had died by a Winchester rifle were haunting her, the heiress to the rifle business' fortune. Some say that a Bostonian medium gave her such an idea — and it was he who instructed her to move to California, buy a house, and never stop building onto it, in order to fend off the spirits.
For what it's worth, some theorize that the house's constant construction was either due to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, or it was simply a hobby for the wealthy widow. If the far more popular legend of a grief-stricken, paranoid Sarah Winchester is to believed, though, there might be a pretty straightforward explanation for the limited ghost sightings at her Mystery House today.
It's a common trope in fiction, from Macbeth to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven," for characters wracked with guilt and regret to see or hear things that others cannot. Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist and couples therapist, says that real-life cases of people having true visual hallucinations are quite rare, but that people can still feel "haunted" by immense feelings of loss, grief, or fear.
If we're to believe the lore surrounding Winchester, not only was she still grieving the deaths of her loved ones, but she also felt responsible for the gun violence wrought by her husband's family's rifle business. "Guilt is a powerful psychological force and can certainly express itself in a host of ways," Lundquist says. It can lead to stress and even prompt feelings of paranoia and anxiety in some people. Even if guilt, grief, or some combination thereof can't make you hallucinate, they can intensify a preexisting sense of unease.
In other words, it's possible that the fabled ghosts of the Mystery House were only real to Sarah Winchester herself.
Of course, this is merely another theory about a mysterious house built by an even more mysterious woman. We'll never know how guilty Winchester felt over the deaths caused by Winchester rifles, but we do know that she embarked on this construction project almost immediately following three very personal losses. If you want her life to be the stuff of horror films, it can. But, looked at from another angle, her story is essentially one of mourning and loneliness.