Gwendolyn Purdom
Updated February 01, 2018
Gwendolyn Purdom

The violent demons and paranormal attacks in the trailers for the new supernatural thriller Winchester may not be entirely historically accurate. But a frightened heiress *really did* spend nearly 40 years and millions of dollars building a sprawling —and super strange — California estate at the turn of the 20th century to protect herself and her family from vengeful spirits.

HelloGiggles was invited to visit that heiress’ real mansion, now known as the Winchester Mystery House, in San Jose ahead of the movie’s release, and while we sadly didn’t run into any angry ghosts, we did learn the whole weird, true story in the eerie rooms where it actually unfolded more than a century ago. Here are a few of the most fascinating—and freaky—facts we found out on our tour.

1Sarah Winchester probably built her massive mansion because of guns and ghosts

Mrs. Sarah Pardee Winchester (played by Helen Mirren in the movie), wife of Winchester repeating rifle heir William Winchester, moved to San Jose, California from Connecticut after living through two decades that were serious bummers personally. First, she’d watched her only child starve to death at only five weeks old because of a rare disease. Fifteen years later she lost her dad, her father-in-law, and her beloved husband in the same year. She was, understandably, devastated. So, legend has it, she found a Boston medium (spiritualism was big back then) and asked “hey, what’s up?” The psychic told her she was being haunted by the spirits of all those killed by her husband’s family’s rifles, and the only way she could get them to back off would be — wait for it — to move out West, and build a house, but never complete it because the constant construction would scare the ghosts away. (No, seriously.)

2The house was under construction 24/7 for *38 years*

Mrs. Winchester wasn’t about to go against the wisdom of a medium, so she started with an eight-room farmhouse and got to work with the more than 20 million dollars her hubby and mother-in-law left her (that’s about $484 MILLION today). She never finished the place, as promised, and at the time of her death in 1922, the house had 160 rooms, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, and 10,000 windows (that’s more than the Empire State Building!). And, as it wasn’t considered appropriate to entertain guests if your house was under construction, it was pretty much only Mrs. Winchester and her servants using it.

3Mrs. Winchester had a thing for the number 13

In case you haven’t gathered this by now, Sarah Winchester was just a touch superstitious. Aside from the whole ghosts-preying-on-her-house thing, she was also really hung up on the number 13. All throughout the house, things are in 13’s: 13 windows in a room, 13 drain holes in a sink, 13 steps in a staircase, etc. In one of the Winchester trailers, Helen Mirren references the number, too.

One of many doors to nowhere throughout the house.
Gwendolyn Purdom

4There are stairways, doors, and chimneys to nowhere

Our tour guides brought us to Sarah Winchester’s private seance room (because that’s a thing, apparently), where she was said to go each night, armed with the mansion’s blueprints, to commune with the spirits about the next day’s construction plans. That might be one reason why there are so many totally bizarre design choices in the house. Mrs. Winchester didn’t have any formal architecture training, but that still doesn’t explain why she added in multiple stairways that go straight to the ceiling; chimneys that stop a foot short of the roof; and doors that open onto nothing. It might have been to keep those pesky ghosts guessing, but nobody really knows.

5Mrs. Winchester designed a genius custom shower

Yes, some of Mrs. Winchester’s designs were pretty out there, but others were pretty brilliant. For example, the woman was only 4’10” and, like most women of her time, wore her hair piled on her head (it made her look taller). We all know what a pain that kind of thing is to maintain, so Mrs. Winchester had a special shower installed in the house in her later years (baths were far more common) that only sprayed her front and back from the neck down. And, of course, it only worked properly if you were 4’10”.

6The mansion lost three full floors in an earthquake

All those crazy numbers of windows and rooms and fireplaces? That’s how many there were *after* the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, that damaged so much of the once-seven-story house’s top three floors, they had to be almost entirely removed.

Some of Mrs. Winchester's leftover leaded glass collection.
Gwendolyn Purdom

7Mrs. Winchester’s art glass collection was epic — and mysterious

If you’re not into ghost stories, first of all, that’s a shame. And second of all, then you should visit the Winchester Mystery House to admire the tons of Tiffany and other leaded glass windows anyway. Mrs. Winchester had so many of these fancy panes, she had a whole storage room filled with extras that today are worth millions. Two windows in the house’s ballroom include quotes from Shakespearean plays in their designs, but like so many other parts of the house, nobody knows why she chose those particular quotes.

The room where Harry Houdini once held a midnight séance.
Gwendolyn Purdom

8Houdini once held a midnight séance in the house

If you shell out the extra fee for the extended Explore More tour on the Mystery House grounds, you’ll get to check out a creepy room in the top of one of the house’s turrets in which the famous magician Harry Houdini once hosted a séance. Unlike Mrs. Winchester, Houdini thought mediums were full of baloney, and actually put on the midnight séance to disprove the existence of ghosts. According to our tour guide, though, when he left he couldn’t concretely say the spirits didn’t exist, maybe suggesting the house was full of them after all?

9Walt Disney was reportedly inspired by the ballroom

One guide told us that Sarah Winchester’s ballroom — which cost $9,000 to build at a time when most houses cost less than $1,000, and, again, nobody actually used for balls — was Walt Disney’s inspiration for Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ballroom.

The man pictured on the far right is said to have been seen haunting the basement of the mansion.
Gwendolyn Purdom

10A ghost with a wheelbarrow has been spotted in the basement

Our guides had experienced a lot spooky things during their time working at the house: seeing orbs, unexplained organ music playing, hair-pulling. But one ghostly constant has been sightings of a man pushing a wheelbarrow in the house’s basement. They think it might be the spirit of a former landscaper on the property.

11Mrs. Winchester was strange, but generous

Mrs. Winchester was kind of all alone, but not really at all as she had dozens of live-in servants (and, you know, the ghosts). She was known for being an extra generous employer, paying her workers $3 a day instead of the going rate of about $1.50. She also provided on-site room and board (or a nearby house, if her workers were married) and threw an annual ice cream social on the grounds for local orphans.

Check out those chops on Mr. William Winchester.
Gwendolyn Purdom

12The late Mr. Winchester’s facial hair was delightful

William Winchester died in 1881 and obviously never lived in the house his wife built. But his portrait hangs in a few of the rooms, and we’ve got to say, the dude’s facial hair — a mustache paired with wispy mutton chops long enough to graze his collarbones — was the stuff of modern day hipsters’ dreams.

13The contents of Mrs. Winchester’s safe were super sad

When Mrs. Winchester’s heavy-duty safe was opened following her death, people were expecting to find mountains of money stashed inside. Instead, all she’d kept stored there were a few personal items, including her husband and baby daughter’s obituaries and a lock of her daughter’s hair. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we seem to have something in our eyes.

Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, and Sarah Snook, will be haunting theaters everywhere on February 2nd.