Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built may seem like it came out of nowhere, but the house, and woman, it’s based on have been a staple of American folklore for over one-hundred years. The Winchester Mystery House is a mansion in San Jose, California built around the clock by Sarah Winchester from the year 1884 until 1922 when Sarah died. At its peak, it stood seven stories tall, but the famous 1906 earthquake brought it down to the five it stands at today.
It’s a sprawling mansion with no building plan and countless oddities that seem to make no sense – unless you know the real reason she built it that way. As you’ve probably guessed, Sarah Winchester was married to a member of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company family, William Wirt Winchester. After his death from tuberculosis in 1881, she inherited over $20 million dollars and over half the company. She lived in Boston, MA at the time, and after her infant daughter also died, she went to a medium.
While visiting a medium might seem like an odd way to tackle grief, one of the film’s directors, Peter Spierig insists it was normal for the time she lived in. “She was haunted by the spirits who died at the end of a rifle. People went to mediums back then. It’s what they did.” The medium channeled William and told her to leave New Haven, Connecticut, travel West and build a new home.
In 1884, she purchased an unfinished farmhouse and began building a home that was not just built for her, but for the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles. Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built uses this true story as a foundation, and builds upon it by showing us what “really” happened during the house’s construction all the way up to the earthquake in 1906.
“We put as much of the true story as we could in the film,” said Spierig. “It’s a blend with the two. It’s a ghost story, and it’s a true story.” If you’ve seen the recently released trailer for the film starring Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester herself, you can easily see what Spierig means. The story of Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) entering the house to judge Sarah’s sanity seems like the perfect setup for a film like this. With such a large fortune under the control of a woman who is literally building a prison for ghosts, anyone who wanted to take the Winchester company from her would have an easy case to make. Of course, when he arrives at the house Price quickly realizes she isn’t crazy at all.
“I don’t think she was crazy at all. I think she was very sad,” said Spierig when asked about his thoughts on Sarah. “Then the loss of her daughter and husband destroyed and crippled her emotionally. I think she was misunderstood. She had a lot of money from the Winchester company and she used it to fulfill her passion.”
While the story of the film may take some creative liberties, the setting writes itself. As we toured the Winchester Mystery House, the first thing I realized is how easy it would be to become lost. The thing that exemplified this to me was the fact that it’s just as wide as it is tall. It’s hard to get your bearings when you can almost never see from one side of the mansion to the other. Even finding a corner is tough due to the way it’s constructed.
In one of the higher floors in the house is the Witch’s Cap, a conical room that overlooks the twists and turns of the mansion’s nonsensical layout. Our tour guide informed us that every night at midnight, Sarah would come up to this room and listen as individual spirits told her how to build their rooms. The rooms themselves are said to be the exact shape and layout as the room the spirits died in which makes them the spirit’s personal Hell.
Due to its shape, you’d think the Witch’s Cap would be quite tall, but I actually hit my head a couple times as we entered it. In fact, most of the ceilings we saw in the house felt just a little too short. This is because Sarah was a mere four-foot, ten inches tall. In addition to the stunted ceilings, the stairs are also just 2-3 inches tall in most places. One set that we ascended, called a switchback staircase, turned 9 times (if I remember correctly) but only took us up about 14 feet. The stairs were constructed this way because Sarah was plagued with terrible arthritis.
One of the film’s producers, Tim McGahan informed us that they had completely reconstructed the staircase with false walls on all four sides so that they could film the characters ascending and descending them. That wasn’t the only part of the house re-constructed for the film, though. While a fair chunk of the film was shot on location, the rest of it was shot on a soundstage in Australia. “We reconstructed the house’s facade and the field around it in Melbourne,” McGahan explained to us. “We also meticulously created a bunch of sets, some here, some in Melbourne so that we could film them more easily.” With such cramped conditions in the vast majority of the house, it’s hard to blame them for not filming entirely on location. Other bizarre inclusions in the house include a staircase that ascends straight into a ceiling, and a door that leads straight out of a wall to a three-story drop. We were informed that the shot below taken from the trailer was taken on location though.
I mentioned earlier that the famous earthquake of 1906 would play a pivotal moment in the film, but one of the problems that earthquake created for the filmmakers was that it reduced the size of the house drastically. Michael Spierig, the film’s other director, explained how they remedied that situation. “We took a 360-degree survey of the entire house,” he said. “Then we built our digital model. It sits directly on top of the real house that we photographed thousands of pictures of.” You can see a few flyover shots of the estate in the trailer, and I think the extra work that went into digitally modeling the house to then build on top of it absolutely paid off.
Both Mirren and Clarke are well-regarded actors, and when asked if it was a challenge to get them on board for the modest production, Spierig told us it wasn’t as hard as we initially thought. He said that they learned to just ask the people you wanted to act in your films when they were working on Predestination. They wanted Ethan Hawke for the leading role and he accepted right away. The same thing happened when they asked Mirren to play Sarah Winchester.
“All the cast were great. I’ve worked with a lot of the cast before and a lot of the crew,” said Peter Spierig. “I always think you never truly know how a thing is going to look. Then the actors come in and they play a scene and I can distance myself from all the machinery and watching Helen and Jason… They’re just so good. It’s always great.”
The final place we saw on our tour of the Winchester Mystery House was the basement, and it was by far the creepiest part of the house. Like nearly every other section of the mansion, I had to bend over to walk through most of it as the ceilings were very short. There’s a long hallway that leads to a coal chute and allegedly a ghost named Clyde (the man on the far right in the photo below) is known to appear and tip his hat with a grin at the end of it. I wasn’t lucky enough to see him, but I’m not going to be the one to doubt his existence.
In truth, I didn’t know a lot about the Winchester Mystery House before this tour and I was a little skeptical about the film as it’s releasing in February, a month dreaded by horror fans, but listening to the directors and the producers tell us about all the research they did to make sure it’s as accurate as possible (except for the spirits we’ll no doubt see) got me pretty excited to see the finished product. The house itself is already doing so much legwork in terms of giving them creepy stories to tell that at the very least, the film should have its fair share of haunting moments. I’ll just have to see for myself though when Winchester: The House that Ghosts Built releases on February 2, 2018.