Richard Crouse: Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, is a real house of horrors
Winchester has the underpinnings of a good psychological drama but a biography dampens the mythology with a dose of reality.
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The house is one of the strangest buildings ever erected. A massive 24,000 square feet, the rambling Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion has zigzagging staircases, 2,000 doors, rooms-within-rooms and over 10,000 windows. Some will even tell you the old place is haunted. Located on nine acres in Silicon Valley it is known as the Winchester Mystery House.
These days the house is open to the public but for many years it was the obsession of Sarah Winchester, the eccentric heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company fortune, who envisioned the place as home to an “army of ghosts.”
This weekend, in the mystery thriller Winchester, Helen Mirren plays her. The backstory sees the widowed Winchester, reeling from the loss of her husband William in 1881, visit a psychic in hopes of finding solace. He says her recent tragedies — the loss of a daughter, father-in-law and husband — were the work of the spirits of people killed by the Winchester repeating rifle, a.k.a. The Gun That Won The West. To save herself from the restless spectres, he told her to move west and build a home big enough to accommodate all the phantoms that bedevilled her family.
She took the advice to heart, buying a large 161-acre plot of land in San Jose, Calif., and began building. And building. Legend has it that with no blueprints, Winchester, one of the richest women of the 1880s, spent the next 38 years — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — working on the strange dwelling.
Winchester lived in the house during construction and, to confuse curious spirits, never slept more than one night consecutively in any of the bedrooms. At night she held séances to confer with the ghosts who shared her living space, hence the nickname The Mansion Designed By Spirits. Guided by those apparitions she ordered never-ending alterations that required the use of maps to navigate. The place grew to such a size that after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake damaged the home, it took the staff hours to find her in the labyrinth of rooms.
Just as eccentric as the ever-evolving layout were Winchester’s home decor choices. She engraved the numbers 7 and 11 throughout the house for good luck and the number 13 to ward off evil spirits. A chandelier was redesigned to hold 13 candles instead of the usual 12 and drain covers on sinks were punched with 13 holes. Today, in tribute, a large 13-shaped topiary tree sits on the property and every Friday the 13th a bell is rung 13 times at 1300 hours.
Winchester lived in the home until her death in 1922. Work on the home ceased instantly and there are several half-driven nails in the walls where carpenters stopped hammering when they heard the news.
Winchester has the underpinnings of a good psychological drama but a biography dampens the mythology with a dose of reality. In the book Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune, author Mary Jo Ignoffo says Winchester “routinely dismissed workers for months at a time ‘to take such rest as I might.’”
Whatever the truth, Mirren sums it up best: “There’s nothing like it anywhere that I’ve ever seen. It grew out of such very specific circumstances that are sort of unrepeatable.”