It is billed as “The most haunted house in America.” The Winchester Mystery House , built in 1883, stands today in San Jose, CA. The intrigue surrounding the Winchester Mystery House has all the ingredients for a uniquely American haunted house story. It is at the heart of American history. It is about Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester fortune; a fortune built upon the guns that gave the wild west its character. With this fortune comes a curse, or so some people say. Riches built upon instruments of death are magnets for the restless spirits of those that were killed by the Winchester rifles, so sayeth the legends. And so sayeth the Winchester movie, directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, know collectively as “The Spierig Brothers.”
Both the truth and the myths surrounding Winchester Mystery House present much intrigue for the haunted house enthusiast. Truth – The extremely wealthy widow, Sarah Winchester, was a reclusive eccentric. She is responsible for all her house’s oddities, including staircases that lead to nowhere, doors that lead to nowhere, and windows that look into other rooms. (See Cosmopolitan.com). It started as an eight room farmhouse. After years of continuous construction, it is now a monstrosity of “24,000 square feet, four stories and as many as 160 rooms. It had 10,000 windows, 2,000 doors, 47 chimneys, 40 staircases, three elevators and a grand ballroom complete with an organ.” (Description is from an article found at cdn.americanrifleman.org). Throughout her stay at the house, Sarah Winchester designed and redesigned, built up rooms and tore rooms down. The house was always in construction mode. Why? Here comes the myths. What else was she supposed to do with all those homeless ghosts of the rifle victims that appeared at her doorstep? She had to make room for them! Or, some say, she built this maze-like house to confuse these, keep them lost. (See article at countryliving.com)
The Winchester movie is a fictional story based on fact. I would have it no other way. The truth has enough components to allow for the imagination to run wild. Creators of a haunted house film based on the Winchester Mystery house should stretch the truth into strange shapes that are as convoluted as the corridors, as tall as the pointless turrets. There is just so much material to work with, enough to create the best haunted house story ever. Ever I say!
So it pains to say, The Spierig Brothers (also the screen writers) completely waste what should have been the ideal setup. They commit haunted house malpractice. In exchange for a creative adventure through a house that has been effectively blueprinted and seemingly customized for a chilling haunting, we get cliché’s, jump scares, a bunch of boos and a whole lot of boredom.
The initial premise is promising. Dr. Eric Price (played by Jason Clark), is sent to Winchester House to evaluate the sanity, or lack thereof, of widow Sarah Winchester (played by Helen Mirren). This request is made by the lawyers representing the stakeholders of Winchester Repeating Arms Co, or those that own 49% of the company (with Sarah owning 51%). If she is judged to be mentally unfit as a shareholder, then maybe the interests of the other parties can benefit by claiming the entire company.
Dr. Price is an abuser of laudanum, an opium-laced medicinal concoction, so when he begins to see strange things at this mansion, it is perhaps due to drug induced hallucinations. After Sarah strips him of his drug, he continues to see ghosts and hear things that go bump in the night. It turns out, he himself was a victim of a Winchester rifle. Obviously he had survived, but that unfortunate encounter with the bullet leaves him prone to seeing the Winchester curse in action. See, those who have not been affected by the Winchester rifles do not see the ghosts.
So far the story is good. But then…yuck.
What’s missing in this story is the interaction between the ghosts and the house. In fact, viewers barely get a feel for the house itself, which should be central to all the scares. True, we get plenty of overhead shots of the enormous abode with all its subsections. We see the construction in process. We see that noteworthy staircase that leads to nowhere; we see several locked and forbidden rooms (the bad ghosts are locked in them.) But it felt as though all the action plays out in just a few rooms and hallways. Furthermore, the bizarre construction doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the scares. Quite often we are rushed through the scenery of the house. The Spierig Brothers should have studied Stanley Kubrick and paid attention to the many ways he made The Shining’s Overlook hotel come alive! They should have taken in some Robert Wise learned about the haunting atmosphere of Hill House, the house that is the subject of the film The Haunting. In both of these films, the innards of these haunted settings have a way of seeping into the viewers’ consciousness. Not so in Winchester .
There should have been spirits haunting every bizarre corner. Instead, the majority of the story focuses in on the spiritual shenanigans of one vengeful spirit. This spirit possesses a little boy and takes him on sleepwalking escapades. When this happens, the film becomes any of a number of horror movies, Conjuring 2, Insidious, Poltergeist, The Exorcist. At one point the spirit enters Sarah herself, and when she speaks, two vocal tracks play simultaneously; one of her own voice and the other is a voice of ‘demonesque’ quality, producing that overused eerie sound effect that has been used in Evil Dead 2 and many other films. At one point the spirit yelled in a sort of “shout growl” and I cringed. In another scene, furniture and anything in the room that is not nailed down soars in the air. Poltergeist activity everyone! Ooooo! So many gimmicks to this film. A movie about a house of the such bizarre designs should not need gimmicks. It should be the house itself that brings forth the chilling entertainment along with a camera that has the patience to take it all in. It should not rely on the same old bag of tricks that gets passed around from horror movie to horror movie.
At this point, I would like to step back from the review of this film and focus in on some of the actual history of Sarah Winchester, The Winchester Mystery House, and The Winchester Repeating Arms Co. Toward the end of this “history lesson”, I will offer some of my ideas for plot devices that might have made the fictional story more interesting. Some of my sources included Cosmopolitan.com, MilitaryFactory.com, winchesterguns.com, and several others. I reference in the appropriate places.
According to Cosmopolitan, Sarah Lockwood Pardee, born in 1840 in Connecticut, would later go on to marry William Wirt Winchester in 1862. William was the son of Oliver Winchester, owner of Winchester Repeating Arms Company. After William’s death in 1881, Sarah received an inheritance worth 20 million dollars. By today’s standards, that equates to roughly $450 million.
In the years following, Sarah continued to earn money from the sales of guns. The Winchester Repeating rifle was an innovative product and therefore commercially successful. According to MilitaryFactory.com ,the Model 1873 became known as the “everyday man” rifle. This is due to its lever-action repeating assembly. In fact, Winchesterguns.com noted that the Model 1873 is referred to as “The gun that won the west”. The expansion of the railroads brought the demand for these rifles to the west. Buffalo Bill once endorsed Winchester rifles. The teenage William H Bonney (a.k.a Billy the Kid) posed with a Winchester rifle in a picture (photo courtesy of Winchesterguns.org). And it was this repeating rifle that brought Custer’s army down; his boys had single shot rifles, the natives were equipped with the repeaters.
A lot of guns sold, a lot of deaths. Could Sarah have felt guilty from profiting off of these deaths? If so, did this guilt in someway contribute to her bizarre building designs? (The Cosmopolitan article describes the house as “objectively nuts.”) Country Living Magazine offers three possible theories . First, the article mentions that Sarah was at her happiest when she and her husband oversaw the construction of their New England home. So, perhaps Sarah was trying to recreate this happiness by embarking upon an endless construction project. Theory #2 suggests that Sarah was simply being generous to contractors, builders and architects. She wanted them to remain employed. I find this theory to be less truthful than the ghost story. I prefer theory #1 but with a darker twist – the constant building and rebuilding was an obsession; perhaps an obsession to ward off metaphorical ghosts. If Sarah wasn’t haunted by the deaths of those that died by the rifle, then perhaps she was haunted by the deaths of not only her husband, but also her daughter who died when she was just one month old. If Death equates to destruction, then maybe continuance = building. Perhaps if she stopped building, she would think only of death. A similar scenario occurs in the movie Reign Over Me. A 9/11 widower (played by Adam Sandler) recalls his last conversion with his wife before she boards one of the doomed aircrafts. They had argued via phone about remodeling their kitchen. Obsessively, he has his kitchen remodeled over and over , as if he is making amends with his wife’s wishes, trying vainly to deal with his guilt by constant rebuilding. Like the fictional 9/11 widower, maybe Sarah just felt the constant need to rebuild.
Theory number 3 is the fun one. It is the theory of the ghosts; ghosts of the victims of the guns. There are just too many of them coming to her in her San Jose house. She needed to build ad-ons. In these rooms the ghosts could flourish, or be confined, or get lost and therefore be less of a nuisance. Since the details of this theory are at best speculative, it is fun to expand the legends, to “ad-on” to it you will. It’s a house that can spawn hundreds of ghost stories. Why not have the stairway that leads to nowhere lead to an entirely different room upon descent? Why not have a large circular room spin like a merry-go-round, so that when its rotation stops, the exit doors lead to very different locations than the original pre-spin exits? Why not have a ghost drag a guest up one of the chimney flues, only to take that guest, mysteriously, to another chimney flue in a different section of the house? The possibilities are endless, but this film by The Spierig Brothers limits them severely. Yes, the movie brings in the architectural oddities, but ineffectively so. What to film goers get with the windows that look into other rooms? Jump scares, what else!
Since the film is unsatisfying, what then can one do with that hunger for Winchester haunts? I suppose a trip to the house might satisfy that hunger. According to USA Today the house is open to tourists. Some people have claimed to see the ghost of a worker pushing a wheel barrow. Others have claimed to have seen the ghost of Sarah Winchester herself. But there is one thing to note: there is no record of Sarah ever claiming that her house was haunted. None. All the stuff of ghosts comes from second or third hand accounts. But if you want to believe in the ghosts, then you will believe in the ghosts. And maybe then you will actually see one at this house. Isn’t that how the expression goes – “believing is seeing?” (okay I guess I got it reversed. But I like my phraseology better!) And maybe, just maybe, you can also believe that this movie is good. If you can do that, then good for you. You have found enjoyment in a place that I could not.
Folks, I leave you with this. It is another account of the “Spirit of the Winchester”