Helen Mirren is taking on a haunting new role.
In a PEOPLE exclusive first look at the upcoming supernatural thriller Winchester, the actress bears a striking resemblance to real-life rifle heiress Sarah Winchester, whose spooky, 160-plus-room mansion has long fascinated tourists visiting San Jose, Calif.
“I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe people can be haunted, and Sarah Winchester is a haunted person,” Mirren, 71, tells PEOPLE. “That was the appeal in the role.”
Though audiences will get an inside look at Winchester’s labyrinthine home, the film’s directors, Michael and Peter Spierig, want to prove that there’s more to the mystery of the mansion than just a ghost story (but audiences can still expect to be scared!).
The real-life Sarah Winchester, in a rare, undated photo.
“Sarah Winchester is quite a remarkable woman, and the idea of her being just a crazy person who was haunted by ghosts is not the full story,” says Peter of the heiress, who died in 1922. “Helen Mirren, in particular, I think is great in portraying that.”
The movie, which will hit theaters in spring 2018, is based on the true story of Winchester, a woman who was convinced that she was being haunted by the ghosts of people who were killed by the famous rifle that her family manufactured. After the sudden deaths of her husband and child, she threw herself into never-ending construction on her sprawling mansion — which features stairways to nowhere and doors that open onto walls — to appease the spirits.
As the film depicts, a skeptical San Francisco psychiatrist named Eric Price (played by Jason Clarke) was sent to evaluate Winchester’s state of mind and discovered that her obsession with the house may not have been all in her head.
“It’s about a woman who is deeply troubled by the violence of the rifle and what she inherited,” says Peter. “She’s trying to come to terms with that.”
The Winchester house today.
Though the mystery of the mansion is famous, there is little known about who Winchester was as a person, so the directors based their research for the film on public records and letters.
“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who she was; she was a very private woman,” explains Michael. “I think that the truth is that she was an intelligent woman and a little misunderstood.”
Peter adds that she was an inventor who “was passionate about design and building.” She was one of the first people to ever have a telephone, and her house includes inventions like intercom and irrigation systems that she built herself.
In order to accurately depict the mansion, the Spierig brothers recreated the mansion and some of its rooms in Australia, and will wrap the film in the coming months with a shoot at the actual home in California.
Michael says that audiences can expect to see a classic “haunted house scary movie” — but one that’s “very much a drama about people dealing with grief and loss.”
He adds: “From what we’ve done over the last couple of months, I think everyone will be pretty scared.”