A large house with a bleak history and enough ghosts to fill every room. One of the most notoriously haunted tourist locations on the West Coast, The Winchester House, is without a doubt one of the most well-known and least-understood stories of the ghost-hunting world. It has multiple adaptations including the one we’re reviewing today and a version made in 2009 called The Haunting Of Winchester House (2009). The real-life location has also been investigated by some of the most famous ghost-hunting teams around like Ghost Hunters and Buzzfeed Unsolved: Supernatural all with stories to tell.
It’s called the mystery house for good reason for so much of its conception and design were left to the reclusive Sarah Winchester in a time when new age spirituality and speculative journalism were booming. I’ll save my admittedly long historical ramble for the end and skip right to the movie review. For now.
Winchester directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, Director of Jigsaw (2017), follows the grief-stricken doctor Eric Price (Played by Jason Clarke) who is called in by investors pining for the Winchester fortune including her estate. The doctor is asked to evaluate the ever-elusive Sarah Winchester’s (played by Helen Mirren) mental stability and ability to continue as a shareholder in her late husband’s arms company.
Battling grief and addictions and later withdrawals of his own the doctor can’t help but speculate about the house and its unnatural ways. Through the story we see rooms being forged and torn down to accommodate spirits taken by the Winchester Rifle to help them move to the afterlife.
The film is gorgeous. From the period-appropriate silhouetted costumes to the lighting and the use of real artifacts it delivers exactly what it promises. It depicts exactly how the public saw Sarah Winchester and how they believed she lived. Of course, walking in tandem with the historical iteration of the Winchester legend the movie took liberties. Despite them, they were calculated changes. Regardless, I consider the film to be another fine example of the American Gothic period as in my review of Escaping the Madhouse (2019): The Nelly Bly Story.
The 1906 earthquake used at the climax of the movie was a real historical event that did have a very large impact on the Winchester house. The ghosts present were even a nod to history showing an overwhelming amount being people who at that time were oppressed, enslaved, and hunted for merely existing.
However, some of the ghosted figures were used solely as a shock factor and held no real place in the plot of the movie rather than to scare the viewer. Personally, I didn’t find it necessary to fall back on jump scares for this house’s spooky appeal, but as you’ll see in the historical ramble at the end, I might be a tad biased.
Camera Work, Lighting, and Makeup
The camera work alone is phenomenal allowing the true maze nature of the house to become a character within itself. Opting away from the use of multiple lighting strategies to show past and present memory this movie utilized a consistent warm light. It was a calculated tool to showcase how normal trauma and ghosts affected the Winchesters and only faltered for specific plot points. Instead, the use of white eyes and period-appropriate clothing was made to differentiate the living and dead, but that too was only used sometimes giving another layer of unreliability to every character that was introduced.
The Real Sara Winchester
Sarah, like most other women of her time, had very little to do with her husband’s arms company but shouldered most of its celebrity nature. Sarah’s life was an overall sad one. In the span of ten years, she would lose nearly everyone in her family beginning with her sister in childbirth, her niece, her daughter, father, father-in-law, husband then her mother. Death came like the seasons to Sarah. Now grief struck and sickeningly rich, she packed up her life and moved away from her hometown of New Haven taking her three sisters with her to start a new life in one of America’s most up-and-coming spots, California.
The bliss unfortunately was short-lived when she lost one of her sisters to addiction in the first year. In the wake of yet another loss and more money than she knew what to do with, Sarah allowed herself to fall into her love for architecture head first.
She would create plans and then change her mind frequently having structures built and demolished. Her workers were filtered through seasonally most of Japanese and Chinese descent who she paid living wages. That might not seem like something mentionable now, but during the time it was virtually unheard of.
Despite her lavish and rather embellished lifestyle Sarah was a private person never allowing journalists to interview her or throw parties and even going as far as to refuse two sitting presidents from staying at the estate.
This turned some heads. A little context about the Edwardian era, it was the birthplace of a lot of new inventions and ideas. During that time investigative journalism was being freshly established as a profession, war was around every corner, and of course, it was where new age spirituality was conceptualized.
If only I were kidding. This cocktail of ideas, professions, and economical events stirs Sarah up in a world of blame and macabre. The Winchester repeating arms company was the first of its kind on the market with revolving power only slightly rivaled by colt. In the interim of war the public looked for someone to blame and who better than the wife of the man who invented the most dangerous gun on the market and refused to talk to anyone?
Not to mention the mansion. Actually, let’s mention the mansion.
Society reveled in their ideations that the widow was guilt-stricken and haunted by the ghosts of everyone killed by a Winchester rifle therefore had to continuously build compartments for them to keep them from finding her spirit amongst the rooms. Her story spiraled over decades pulling her into occult circles, and all without protest from Sarah Winchester herself.
In 1906 the largest earthquake in California’s history shook San Francisco to its very core killing nearly three thousand people. The estate did not come away unscathed. Parts of the house collapsed, flooded, and were made completely uninhabitable.
Now later in Sarah Winchester’s life, she was left mostly to mourn the decades of work thrown into the house opting to fix what could be fixed and leave the rest to ruin. This is where a lot of the most famous parts of the house are known, like stairs that go nowhere and doors that fall off into the gardens. Realistically Sarah Winchester was the victim of boredom, fear, and natural disaster more than ghosts and ghouls. As for the legend of her attire, you know, the always-wearing black thing? I would recommend looking into Victorian mourning standards if you’re ever in the mood for a rabbit hole of crazy.
What does this have to do with entertainment?
I am so glad you asked. After Ms. Winchester died in 1922 someone needed to take over the house. It was big, odd and for all the years spent in the shadows, spooky. Passing from the Winchester family to John and Mayme Brown. They were businessy people who saw the house as the next big tourist attraction and that wasn’t misguided. With Sara’s fabricated personality of occult practices, they brought in journalists to get the scoop. John and Mayme went as far as adding new additions to the house to solidify the things said about Sarah turning it into a full-blown attraction. It’s open for tours that you can still visit today.
The movie delivers exactly what it set out to. In both fiction and reality Sarah Winchester was viewed as a recluse with an undeniable tie to death. This film showcased that well, and with care. Despite falling victim to jump scare reliability, which most retelling’s tend to do it was an overall enjoyable experience.
Winchester (2018) - The Crazy House That Ghosts Built - Malevolent Dark
Director: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:33
- Fantastic retelling of a historic ghost story
- American gothic stylings
- Spooky atmosphere
- Great performance by Helen Mirren
- Leans a bit too heavily on jump scares
- Takes some artistic departure from reality