The Real Story Behind The House In The Helen Mirren Movie ‘Winchester’

Marcio Jose SanchezAP Images

Helen Mirren is starring in the new movie Winchester about the reclusive Winchester rifle heiress, Sarah Winchester, and her strange Victorian manor known as the Winchester Mystery House, located in San Jose. Sarah Winchester was said to be haunted by the spirits of those killed by her family’s firearms, and after she was widowed she took on the strange remodel of a home which started out with eight rooms and ended up with 500.

Sarah Winchester And Her Winchester Mystery House Became A Curiosity After Her Husband’s Death

Janan Boehme, official historian at Winchester Mystery House (now a tourist attraction) says that Sarah Winchester was uber-rich and much talked about before she started building her mystery house, according to Chicago Sun-Times.

“She was Bill Gates-rich from this famous family, so people watched her, talked about her, and speculated.”

The myth is that Sarah Winchester became obsessed with mediums and spiritualism, and a psychic or sorts told her she needed to keep adding to her house in order to ward off evil spirits. But Boehme says that there is no indication in the letters of Sarah Winchester that this was the case.

Boehme believes that the constant building helped to occupy the mind of Sarah Winchester who was dealing with personal grief.

“We may never know why she built like she did. But people do certainly conjecture.”

The Winchester House Grew From 8 Rooms To 200 In Its First 20 Years

The Smithsonian Magazine explains that once upon a time the Winchester Mystery House was the largest private residence in the United States. What used to be poised as a remote estate now sits next to a freeway, a mobile home park, and an old movie theater.

Sarah Winchester bought the home in 1886 as an eight-room cottage amidst fields and orchards in San Jose. By the 1906 earthquake, the house had ballooned to 200 rooms, 10,000 windows, 47 fireplaces, and 2,000 doors, trap doors, and spy holes. Rumor has it that it is difficult to pinpoint where the original eight-room house is in the now bloated design.

Sarah Winchester inherited her money through her husband’s family, and most of it was made through the sale of Winchester firearms. Her father in law, Oliver Winchester was the creator of the Winchester repeater rifle, who died in 1880, and his son, Sarah’s husband, died the next year, spurring the extreme building phase of the Winchester Mystery House.

And Sarah Winchester wasn’t a bystander in the building process, as she constantly made sketches on napkins and any paper she could find. She employed 16 builders and paid them well over the going rate to work around the clock to continue the building of the infamous Winchester house.

And the Winchester Mystery House wasn’t just seen as odd by modern standards as a writer for the San Jose Mercury News toured the Winchester house in 1911 and was puzzled by what he saw.

“[The Winchester house is a] great question mark in a sea of apricot and olive orchards.”

Tours Of The Winchester Mystery House Don’t Disappoint

Pamela Haag, a writer for the Smithsonian Magazine toured the Winchester Mystery Mansion to see for herself what Sarah Winchester did over the years with her millions, and was initially disappointed to see that from the outside, the house looked normal.

“At first glance, I was deflated, for the unusual reason that from the outside, the house wasn’t entirely weird.”

But as Haag stepped into the house, the bizarre design unfolded with a staircase that went nowhere, and simply led to a ceiling. Throughout the house, Winchester had forty different staircases built, many which served no purpose at all.

“Cabinets and doors open onto walls, rooms are boxes within boxes, small rooms are built within big rooms, balconies and windows are inside rather than out, chimneys stop floors short of the ceiling, floors have skylights. A linen closet as big as an apartment sits next to a cupboard less than an inch deep.”

Haag describes much of the house built in an almost Alice In Wonderland style with full-sized doors next to one for a child, and large rooms next to small, cupboard-like ones. Other designs are meant to trick the eye.

“Details are designed to confuse. In one room, Winchester laid the parquetry in an unusual pattern: When the light hit the floor a particular way, the dark boards appeared light, and the light boards, dark. Bull’s-eye windows give an upside-down view of the world. Even these basic truths, of up and down, and light and dark, could be subverted.”

Haag saw the house as a “clever riddle” and she says the tour helped give her new perspective while writing her book on gun culture which included the Winchester family, The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of an American Gun Culture.