Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built (2018) is another based-on-a-true-story supernatural horror movie in the tradition of The Exorcist and The Conjuring. As usual, “based on” doesn’t mean much.
The plot centers on Sarah Winchester (played by Helen Mirren), widowed heiress to the Winchester firearms company. Prompted by a Boston medium, she supposedly spends her life and fortune obsessively building a sprawling seven-story mansion in San Jose to appease the spirits of those killed by the famous firearm. (You see where this is going.) As a result, the Winchester company hires a self-described quack doctor, Eric Price (Jason Clarke), to assess her mental stability. Sarah’s efforts backfire (of course), and soon zombie-like ghouls are on the rampage—their mayhem somehow triggered by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Although fascinating in its own right, Sarah’s real story has been greatly embellished—rather like the strange mansion itself. Folklore about the eccentric widow soon gave way to journalistic fakelore and that, in turn, to a script filled with nightmarish fantasy and scenes replete with that horror-film standby called the jump scare.
It was predictable that a film would be made about the Winchester Mystery House, the alleged around-the-clock construction of which yielded (before the quake lopped off two stories) an estimated 500 rooms in “an interminable labyrinth” and indeed “an architectural nightmare” with doors and windows opening onto blank walls and stairways leading to nowhere .And then there are the alleged ghosts: the mansion has been called the most haunted house in America.
That was what led me to tour the Winchester Mystery House in 2001 (see photo) and to conduct much additional research. In my investigation, I found that the anecdote about the “medium” was no more substantiated than the claims that Mrs. Winchester had spiritualist leanings. The supposed “séance” room was an erstwhile bedroom; the bell was used, not for midnight spirit assembly but as a call to begin and end work; and the doors and stairs to nowhere are easily explained by the constant additions to the sprawling mansion and the result of earthquake damage.
More recently, Sarah Winchester’s biographer concluded that the unusual house resulted not from an obsession with spirits but from an intelligent, creative woman’s fascination with architecture and interior design, coupled with her determination to leave behind a remarkable legacy. (See Mary Jo Ignoffo, Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune, U. of Missouri Press, 2012.)
As to today’s reputed ghosts there, I found that cold spots, odd noises, and other supposedly ghostly phenomena were easily explained by temperature variations, the settling of an old structure, and other mundane factors. For instance, a very real-looking elderly lady who was seen by a tour group, and only later thought to have been a ghost, was likely a straggling member of another tour taking a brief rest. (For more, see my “Winchester Mystery House,” chapter 16 of The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files, foreword by James Randi. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2004, 128–139.)
Rating: One wooden Nickel (out of four).