The True Story of the Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House

In the annals of bizarro American history, there exists a house so notoriously elaborate and kookily constructed that – despite tales of hauntings, accidents, and disorientation – it remains a viable tourist trap to this day. Nestled in the heart of San Jose, California, the Winchester Mystery House has been the subject of intense fascination since its construction in 1884. And for good reason: the house is a literal maze, with staircases that lead nowhere, a custom-made Tiffany window designed to look like a spiderweb, and hidden messages meant to ward off spirits throughout its many tangled rooms.

The new horror movie Winchester, in theaters today, is a fantastical interpretation of the house’s history, with Helen Mirren as the famously offbeat Sarah Winchester. But this is a house so historic and strange, with a backstory full of twists and turns – like the house itself – that the Hollywood version trades in for ghostly apparitions and jump scares. The truth may not be scarier than fiction, but it’s certainly more interesting.

With that in mind, let’s dig into the true story of the Winchester Mystery House: why it was built, what it means, where you might have seen it before, and why it remains a fascinating artifact of American spiritualism.

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Who was Sarah Winchester?

Sarah Winchester was a New England debutante, and later the wife of William Wirt Winchester, treasurer of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. William’s father, Oliver Winchester, developed the Winchester repeating rifle, one of the first rifles capable of repeated discharges following a single ammunition reload. The rifles were nicknamed “the Gun that won the West” after they were used in many battles against Native Americans. They were also used in the Civil War. Their place in bloody American history would come to haunt Sarah Winchester – literally.

When William passed away in 1881, Sarah inherited his fortune, roughly $20 million. (In today’s money, that’s about $520 million.) Armed with enough cash to do just about anything, Sarah set her sights for California. According to tabloids from the time, her cross-country move was inspired by a psychic, who told her to move West and build a home for the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles. Sarah, whose mental health was spiraling after the death of her husband and a daughter who died in infancy, was susceptible to the psychic’s suggestions that her fortune was cursed.

The psychic also allegedly told Sarah that her own life was tied to the construction of her spiritual fortress. The day construction stopped would be the day that she died.

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The Winchester Mystery House is Born

Thoroughly spooked, Sarah followed orders and bought an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose. She began renovations on it almost immediately, and over time, those eight rooms evolved into 160. On Sarah’s orders, the house was also turned into something of a maze. Some believe this was an effort to confuse the spirits, “tricking” them with sight gags and superstitious riddles. Sarah was said to sleep in a different room every night to keep her spiritual tormenters from finding her. She also took the death warning to heart: for the next 38 years of her life, not a day went by that there wasn’t some form of construction occurring at the Winchester mansion.

It’s hard to properly describe just how insane Sarah Winchester’s house is. The 160 rooms are comprised of 40 bedrooms, two ballrooms, dozens of staircases – some of which lead straight into the ceiling – and even two basements. The number 13 appears frequently, and there are rumored sèance rooms hidden somewhere in the labyrinthine knot of wood and stained glass. Aerial views show a house so sprawling it looks like some sort of theme park attraction. Some doors open to steep outdoor drop-offs. Some don’t open at all.

Of course, there are varying tales about the true nature of the house’s eccentricity. Due to the tabloid nature of Sarah’s alleged interest in the occult, there’s reason to suspect it was merely conjecture, the media attempting to paint a wealthy and grieving woman in a hysterical light. The house’s size is impressive, but some have argued that its more ridiculous elements are side effects of a 1906 earthquake that collapsed its top three levels. (The home was originally seven stories and is currently four.) After the destruction, Sarah’s construction team scrappily pieced the home back together, hence the odd doorways and staircases.

But occult-obsessed or not, Sarah Winchester was still quite the character. This 1963 documentary, narrated by silent film star Lillian Gish, recounts the public fascination with the odd and reclusive Sarah, who was so hidden away that locals snuck onto her property just to catch a glimpse of her.

The Legacy 

Sarah Winchester died in September 1922. By 1923, her sprawling mansion was already a tourist attraction. It remains so to this day, with daily tours, and special spooky tours around Halloween. Given its supposed spiritual origins, it’s also a popular destination for paranormal investigators looking to communicate with Winchester rifle victims. The house has been featured on episodes of Ghost Adventures and Ghost Brothers, and was also used in a MythBusters segment.

The Winchester Mystery House has inspired all sorts of fictional media, too, from video games like The Evil Within to comic books to the new film. But perhaps its most famous interpretation was in Stephen King’s Rose Red, a 2001 ABC miniseries that the horror author scripted and produced. King based the Rose Red manor and its wealthy widowed owner, Ellen Rimbauer, on the Winchester house and Sarah. In the miniseries, Ellen continues construction on her own odd mansion until she eventually disappears inside of it; in King’s version, Ellen’s house continues to build itself even after she’s gone.

No one knows the exact intent behind Sarah Winchester’s Mystery House, and no one ever will; if anything, the new film will only perpetuate the myth of its haunted origins. But that’s part of its legacy either way, a house that, however it came to be, lives on in the collective imagination of creators spooked by it, and crowds that swarm to it, hoping for a sign of life from beyond.

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