I visited the real Winchester Mystery House and it was sort of scary — but mostly sad

I’ve always been low-key obsessed with ghosts. As a kid, I was super into Beetlejuice and the episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? with the little girl trapped in the mirror. When I got older, I sought out historic cemeteries on family vacations and books that featured hauntings and restless specters. I’m not sure if I actually believe in ghosts. I’m also not sure that I don’t. I like the stories either way.

So when I got a chance to check out the the real Winchester Mystery House — the supposedly haunted San Jose mansion that inspired Helen Mirren’s new supernatural thriller Winchester — before the movie hits theaters this weekend, my inner history nerd and paranormal fangirl jumped at the chance. But after exploring only a fraction of the 160 beautiful and bizarre rooms Sarah Winchester built to ward off vengeful spirits at the turn of the 20th century, I ended up feeling less scared and more sad. Mrs. Winchester’s life was kind of a downer — but a fascinating one.

Sarah Pardee Winchester
Sarah Pardee Winchester

Sarah Pardee Winchester (the woman Mirren plays in the movie), and her husband, William Winchester, were living the upper crust life in New Haven, Connecticut in the mid-1800s. William’s father, and later William himself, headed up the Winchester repeating rifle company — a business made famous by its game-changing ability to fire 15 shots before the shooter had to reload. Needless to say, the family was super rich. But, as we have all learned, money can’t always buy everything. In 1866, Sarah had to watch her only child starve to death at five weeks old because of a rare disease, and in 1881, William was stricken with tuberculosis and died at 43 — the same year Sarah lost her dad and her father in-law. She was, understandably, a wreck.

Spiritualism was in at the time so, as the story goes, Sarah found a medium in Boston. She wanted to know why such horrible things kept happening to her family, and the medium told her it was payback. As the medium explained to her, the spirits of all those killed by Winchester rifles were after her, and the only way to appease them was to move out west and build a house that’s never finished. Constant construction would scare the spooky stuff away. And, Sarah bought it.

She took her $20 million inheritance, moved to an eight-room farmhouse just outside San Jose, California in 1884, and started adding to it. She kept adding 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the next *38 years*.

So, this random rich lady from the East Coast shows in a rural farming community and starts building a massive mansion that’s being worked on at all times. I asked our tour guide, Jessica, if the people of San Jose thought Sarah Winchester was nuts. Like everything with the Winchester story, they’re not really sure, but a lot of signs point to probably. In one Winchester trailer, the characters touch on this, saying they’re worried about Mrs. Winchester’s sanity.

The safe in Mrs. Winchester's ballroom only contained obituaries for her husband and daughter and locks of their hair.
The safe in Mrs. Winchester’s ballroom only contained obituaries for her husband and daughter and locks of their hair.

But the further I wound through Mrs. Winchester’s confusing stairwells (at the time of her death, the house had 47 of them), doorways to nowhere, and rooms inside of rooms, the more I felt for the eccentric widow. Yes, as I heard someone else in the group remark to a friend, if Sarah was really all that concerned about the victims of Winchester rifle violence, couldn’t she have taken some of the millions she sank into this sprawling estate and donated it to their families instead? But, she was also devastated. The veil you see Mirren wearing in the movie previews was accurate. Sarah was in mourning for the rest of her life.

Mirren told The Mercury News in San Jose that as soon as she got the Winchester script, she felt for the woman she’d be playing:

"People say she was crazy. I don’t think she was crazy at all, I think she was troubled, and I think she was like an artist. She wished to live on her own terms. The house is her work of art."

Dame Helen has a point. And not only was Sarah Winchester an artist, she was an innovator. All throughout her home, there are examples of clever fixes and cutting-edge technological shortcuts she had installed — like, she had custom shower that wouldn’t ruin her elaborate Victorian hairstyle? Brilliant!

If she launched her strange building project today, she’d be getting plenty of side-eye. Imagine what it must have been like for a grieving woman to tune out what people must have been saying and take charge of her life like that more than 100 years ago. Between that thread of female empowerment, and Sarah’s grappling with the weight of gun violence (yes, she and her family were complicit in that violence but still), her story felt almost timely.

Don’t worry, I still got my ghost fix.. The Mystery House staffers all have their own spine-tingly stories of hearing organ music, spotting an unnatural figure with a wheelbarrow in the basement, uncovering unexplained orbs or human shapes in photos, or having their hair pulled when nobody’s around. Tour Guide Jessica said even those who don’t really buy all the paranormal hype admit the house has a powerful energy. Once, she explained, three women who didn’t know each other in the same tour group all felt their necklaces slip off at the same time in Sarah Winchester’s private seance room. Plus, the other tour guide, Jack, punctuated his fun facts with a fitting maniacal laugh which definitely helped crank the creepy vibe up a notch.

The scariest thing I saw in the house by far.
The scariest thing I saw in the house by far.

The movie seems like it will highlight more of that unsettling angle, so you know I’ll be first in line with a bucket of popcorn. But I hope the onscreen version balances the scary ghost stuff with at least a little context — on Sarah Winchester and her brave, lonely, interesting life.