Near the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, cars zip by on the eight-lane I-280 freeway. Down the road, not far beyond the mansion’s gardens, are a Best Buy, a hotel chain, and Maggiano’s Little Italy. Life has gone on. But all 160 rooms of the Winchester Mystery House remain the same, still bearing the marks of the idiosyncratic mind behind their creation.
Visitors willing to shell out $20 dollars for the hour-long mansion tour see staircases leading nowhere, trap doors, Shakespeare-themed stained glass, a seance room, and many more features you'd never see in a typical mansion. In the movie Winchester, out Friday, February 2, you can be one of those visitors. The movie tells the story of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the heiress haunted by grief and guilt, who poured her resources into creating a house that was constantly under construction, and expanding from her wild imagination's plans.
Sarah Winchester was born Sarah Lockwood Pardee in 1840, the fifth of seven children in a respectable New Haven family. By all accounts, Sarah was genius. By the time she was 12, Sarah was allegedly fluent in Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian, and could quote Shakespeare. And because being a genius wasn’t enough, Sarah was beautiful, too – she earned the name the “Belle of New Haven.”
In 1862, Sarah married William Wirt Winchester, the heir to the massive fortune of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. “Repeating arms” is a fancy word for firearms; essentially, the Winchester Company made guns. And not just any guns: The nickname for Winchester was “the Gun that Won the West,” so influential were these firearms in decimating American Indian populations trying to defend their native lands, and paving the way for westward expansion.
Domestic bliss didn’t last long for Sarah and William. Four years after marrying, Sarah had a baby girl who lived only six weeks. Then, in 1881, William died of tuberculosis. After her husband died, everything changed for Sarah. She inherited the entirety of William’s $20 million fortune (about half a billion dollars, adjusted for inflation), and half the shares of the Winchester company. She suddenly became one of the wealthiest women in the world.
There have been countless attempts to explain why Sarah did what she did next. Why did she devote her fortune to building a house that had contained, in its largest state, 200 rooms, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 windows, maze-like corridors, and countless trap doors? "There are many understandings of her. Was she a Rosicrucian? Was she a straight-down-the-line Christian? Was she haunted? Was she crazy?" Helen Mirren said of Sarah in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
One explanation for Sarah's behavior stems from a legendary encounter she had with a psychic. During their conversation, the Boston spiritualist told Sarah that there was a curse on her family. The Winchester family had spread evil and violence around the world with their guns, and now, spirits were seeking vengeance. According to the spiritualist, the spirits had taken the lives of her husband and daughter. He advised her to go West, build a house, and continue to make renovations forever. Should she stop construction, the spirits would get her.
Likely, the movie is built on this legend. In Winchester, Mirren’s Sarah is terrified of ghosts that may be lurking in the house.
A less mystical explanation is suggested by Jahan Boehme, a historian who has worked at the Mystery House for 40 years. Sarah and her husband had spent years renovating their house in Connecticut. “I think Sarah was trying to repeat that experience by doing something they both loved," Boehme told the Los Angeles Times.
All we know is that, in 1886, Sarah moved to California and bought a plot of land that contained an eight-room cottage, and sprawling fields. She proceeded to oversee the construction of a complex, labyrinthine Victorian mansion. According to Smithsonian Magazine, carpenters worked for 24 hours a day, every day, from 1866 until she died in 1922. As long as carpenters were working, Winchester was sketching designs for additions. Winchester created a perplexing house that didn't abide by the laws of architecture, but rather, by the imaginings of her own obsessive mind.
“No one knows why she built that house,” Mirren told io9. “No one knows why two Shakespeare quotes are on stained glass panels there. You read those quotes and you can’t quite [figure out] what she’s trying to say. So the whole thing is full of mystery and, of course, that’s fabulous for our story.”
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