A staircase that dead-ends at the ceiling. A door that opens into thin air. An affinity with the number 13: panes in the windows, steps on the stairways, petals on a stained-glass flower. There is no place like the Winchester Mystery House.
The sprawling 160-room Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion in San Jose, Calif. has been spooking and fascinating visitors as a tourist attraction since 1923. Now the house and its intriguing history are hitting the big screen in Winchester, a horror thriller starring Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke.
The movie is inspired by the mysterious life and legacy of Sarah Winchester (played by Mirren), the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune. The reclusive widow started construction on the house in 1886, but was said to have never stopped building, with workers laboring 24 hours a day until her death in 1922. No one knows why, though they have plenty of theories — some more ominous than others. One theory, explored in the movie, is that she felt haunted by the spirits of people killed by her family business’s rifles.
Read on for more of the Winchester Mansion’s spooky secrets.
Sarah’s Complicated History
The woman behind the design of the 24,000 square foot mansion “is absolutely shrouded in mystery,” Mirren tells PEOPLE in the magazine’s new issue. “Everything I read about her, the people who worked with her loved her and because they were so loyal to her, nobody knows much about her because nobody spilled the beans about her.”
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Born in Connecticut, Sarah Lockwood Pardee married William Winchester, whose father founded the rifle company at 22. The couple’s only child, daughter Annie, died at 6 weeks old. William died in 1881, making Sarah a widow at 41 and an heiress to $20 million (more than $450 million today). Winchester Mystery House historian Janan Boehme says “there are all sorts of explanations,” for how and why Sarah became obsessed with constructing and re-constructing her home. “Like she was trying to disconcert bad spirits she didn’t want to have in her house, or she was just a really bad architect.”
What started as a simple two-story farmhouse now has 40 staircases and 2,000 doors, not all of which make sense or have specific function, like the staircase to nowhere and the door that opens into thin air.
“If you look at a lot of old Victorian homes that have undergone extensive renovation, you will find those kind of oddities,” says Boehme. “For example, the first staircase to the ceiling that is really well known, at the beginning of the tour, it actually did go upstairs once. But she put a hallway over the top of it.”
Boehme says another third floor staircase dead-ends to nowhere because Sarah decided not to rebuild the fourth floor that was destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. “At one time, there was a whole entire other floor on top of that,” she says. “Now the staircase just doesn’t go anywhere. I sometimes wonder if she had a sense of humor, because she left these things and she didn’t have to. But maybe she liked to remember what was there, or she thought it was funny. I don’t know.”
How haunted is it?
The question of whether the mansion is haunted, as the movie suggests, depends on who you talk to about it. People claim to have felt Sarah’s presence still lingering in expansive home.
“Often psychics will say that they can sense her,” says Boehme. “Generally, it’s It’s kind of good energies, though often sad.”
Another presence that visitors claim to have seen is a “wheelbarrow ghost,” believed to be the spirit of a former loyal employee of Sarah’s.
“Generally he’s dressed in overalls, and he carries an old wooden toolbox or is pushing a wheelbarrow,” Boehme says. “The other place he’s been seen is in the basement pushing a wheelbarrow, which is why we call him the wheelbarrow ghost. He’s still looking after the place.”
Boehme doesn’t necessarily dispute the claims, though she says she’s never seen a ghost in her time working with the house. But if she were to encounter one, she doesn’t think it would be as scary they are portrayed in the film.
“The psychics I’ve worked with here all say it was a good energy, especially up around the third floor near the servants’ quarters,” she says. “They’ll say that they feel a lot of energy, a lot of activity of employees who like to come and visit the place, because they were happy here.
“I’ve heard things I can’t explain,” adds Boehme. “I don’t ever feel unsafe here. But I never feel alone here either.”
Winchester is in theaters now.