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What Winchester Gets Wrong About an American Landmark

The new movie builds on the myth that when Sarah Winchester built her Mystery House, she was overwhelmed by grief.

Lachlan Moore

1906 was the year England’s last known sin-eater, Richard Manslow, died in Ratlinghope. Sin-eaters were usually poor people who provided a service for the newly dead: In exchange for a meal, they would agree to “take on the sins” of the deceased, particularly among those who had not had a chance to receive last rites. Eating bread and drinking ale over the grave of a recently deceased, Manslow and other sin-eaters would take on whatever was left un-confessed, embodying these sins so the departed could enter Heaven with a clean slate and pure conscience.

Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester Rifle Company’s riches and builder of perhaps the strangest mansion in America, has always been seen as our gun-obsessed nation’s sin-eater. Winchester’s father-in-law founded the rifle company that bore his name and earned his family millions, but she lost her only daughter in infancy, and her husband to tuberculosis 15 years later, leaving her alone for the next four decades of her life. As the story goes, she moved from New Haven, Connecticut to San Jose, California, where, besotted by grief, she took on a massive renovation project that would consume the remainder of her days.

According to the tour guides at the Winchester Mystery House, as it’s now known, Winchester was convinced her family was cursed, haunted by the ghosts of anyone who’d ever been killed by a Winchester Rifle. The house’s elaborate, sprawling, and labyrinthine structure—with 161 rooms, stairways that end in blank walls, closets that open up to the floor below, and cabinets that open out to hallways and ballrooms—was, the story goes, a means of keeping those ghosts at bay. In this telling of Sarah Winchester’s story (which, it should be stressed, bears no relation to fact), she lived her life in an odd form of expiation for the victims of America’s gun violence.

The Spierig Brothers’ new film Winchester, also set in 1906, takes the legend literally. Helen Mirren’s Sarah Winchester lives with her niece Marian Marriott, surrounded by a fleet of carpenters and servants who are less human than disembodied souls doomed to a purgatory of forever attending to the monstrous house. Meanwhile, an agent for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company recruits Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a psychiatrist with a dark past, to evaluate Sarah’s sanity and determine if there’s a way to seize her controlling interest in the company.

Winchester takes to a new level the idea that the house’s odd layout and constant modification is meant to keep ghosts in check. Séanced ghosts reveal the means and manner of their deaths, and Sarah complies by constructing rooms to help them work through this post-mortem trauma. As a ghost finds peace through Winchester’s paranormal therapy regime, it disperses, and the room can be demolished or repurposed for the next visitor.

But why should a wealthy woman, an heiress whose money comes from a successful industrial innovation, feel guilt about its use? Why should she spend her life devoted to the wreckage of gun victims instead of getting on with her life and remarrying? How can any of this, the film (along with the Repeating Arms Company’s agent) asks, be sane?

As someone who’s spent the last decade researching and writing about Sarah Winchester and her house, her story has captivated me not just because of its oddness, but because of the unique period she straddled. When her husband died in 1881, the rituals of Victorian mourning we’re still in full swing. A grieving widow was expected to wear full black, crêpe-trimmed attire for two years following the death of her husband; mourning dress was fashionable, changing with the seasons and updated per the latest trends, which meant that, for those who could afford it, it was expensive. Middle- and upper-class families spent lavishly on funerals, which would include not just silk winding sheets and coffins made of hardwood or brass, but also hired attendants waving black ostrich feathers—the more the better. Specially-ordered gloves, scarves, hoods, and hatbands could alone easily take up a third of the funeral bill, to say nothing of the coffin and hearse, horses and mourning coach and attendants. Ostentatious, defiantly public and expensive, mourning for Victorians was about displaying to the world the depth of your grief in tangible, material means.

By the time Sarah Winchester died in 1922, mourning had changed dramatically. No longer was the corpse laid out in the front parlor for friends and relatives to view; it had been removed from the house altogether, to the mortuary industry’s “funeral parlor,” and the house’s parlor renamed “the living room,” in open defiance of mortality. Death was made private, a task to be dealt with by trained professionals, a distasteful labor to be performed expertly, the sooner the better. (Sarah’s own funeral would be a modest affair: embalmed by the local Mortuary, and attended by family members and her staff.)

In 1917, five years before Winchester’s death, Sigmund Freud had published “Mourning and Melancholia,” in which he distinguished between a healthy period of mourning and an undue obsession, an unwillingness to let go. When the “work of mourning” is completed, Freud wrote, “the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.” By contrast, an obsession with the dead could give a “pathological cast to mourning,” an undue fixation on the past and a refusal to move on. Freud had, in other words, retroactively classified the Victorian cult of mourning as pathological.

Which is to say that the question about madness that swirls around Sarah Winchester is always in part a question of changing tastes. The work of mourning is not a constant, but changes from generation to generation. Victorian ostentation gives way to embalming and a lifelike appearance for open caskets, to cremation and scattering of ashes, to green burials. Sarah Winchester, who in this film enters the twentieth century still clad in last century’s widow’s weeds, seems to ask that most pressing question: If this behavior wasn’t mad 30 years ago and you’ve simply kept up at it, has it become mad now?

Winchester sets itself up to tackle this confrontation head on: Winchester’s antagonist is a psychiatrist, there to prove once and for all whether or not she’s sane and capable of retaining control over her company. And things predictably follow this path well enough at first, as the film pushes on the tension between the old way of commemorating the dead (through séances, excessive and misplaced grief, maternal comforting) and a more modern mode of managing grief (drugs and psychiatric hospitalization loom as a perpetual threat).

All of this takes place in Winchester’s best feature: the house itself, in its first real cinematic role. (William Castle’s 1960 13 Ghosts used some exterior shots but didn’t shoot inside the house itself). The film quickly makes the mansion into a metaphor for Sarah’s mind: “If you want me to open up this house to you,” she tells Dr. Price’s when he asks questions about her mental state, “I’ll need you to have clarity.” (One film poster goes as far as to depict Mirren’s head opening like a pocket-watch, revealing a collage of the house’s architectural details.) Like few other structures, the Winchester Mystery House makes for an easy metaphor for psychoanalysis’s sense of the mind: warren-like, filled with an endless rooms, many of them locked and needing delicate work to pry open, all alongside a fair amount of dead-ends and detours.

The literal and the figurative blurs as Price wanders the halls after midnight, attempting to peer into the locked rooms and understand the house’s secrets—in the process, of course, stumbling onto his own demons. Meanwhile, Ben Nott’s cinematography brings the Escher-esque quality of the house alive in ways that go beyond the typical clichés of creaking doors and moody lighting (an overhead shot of the house’s elaborate “Easy-Riser” staircase is one of many visually stunning moments). Horror movies have long played on the house-as-metaphor-for-the-mind trope, but rarely have they had such genuinely uncanny source material to work with. The least one can say of Winchester is that the filmmakers don’t squander the opportunity.

Ultimately, though, like a man lost in a maze of a house, the film can’t go anywhere. Despite being blessed with a marvelous setting and a promising premise, it quickly tosses it aside for something far more banal. The main players here, in the end, are bad husbands and bad wives, unable to protect their spouses from their alcoholism, suicidal ideations, and tuberculosis—soon it becomes clear that what’s at stake in the film is not mourning so much as the reunion of the nuclear family. In a pathological house run by women, where even among the ubiquitous male servants and carpenters, there’s no man to take charge, it becomes clear that the cocky psychiatrist will have to prove his mettle by protecting these imperiled women.

This is all predictable enough, and predictably exhausting. But the movie falls apart, finally, not for these reasons but because it has no real innovative solution for grief—and honestly, neither do we. Having saddled itself with an impossible set of questions, “How do we honor the dead, and when do we let go?” and “Is it mad to mourn the dead, even those you are not personally responsible for?” chief among them, Winchester at some point comes up against the enormity of these concerns and their ramifications, and falls back into special effects and supernatural terror to shift the conversation. The narrative patness of the final scenes falls flat precisely because in a house where grief is a maze, you can never exit as easily as you’ve entered.

What Winchester does do well—and what makes it almost worth the price of admission—is show off the house in ways one can never experience in a tour. Sweeping panoramas of its many gables and roofs, graceful pans through its labyrinth, loving close-ups on its many details and architectural peculiarities. For all of Helen Mirren’s talents, the house remains the true star of Winchester.

While the film and the lore surrounding Sarah Winchester would have you believe the house was built by ghosts, or by her grief for her husband and child, it was in fact planned and executed by a self-taught architect who spent her years creating and innovating. Her letters show no sign that she suffered from a pathological grief, nor do they hint at mental instability. The house is not a symptom of her mourning or her insanity, but of her insatiable curiosity and drive. While other self-taught artists have worked in paint or charcoal, Winchester worked in wood and masonry, exploring the limits of domestic construction in an age when women were forbidden from receiving formal architectural training.

For all of the nonsense associated with Sarah Winchester’s life, the house itself remains a singular work of American vernacular art, rivaled only by a few other achievements: Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain, James Hampton’s the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, and the archive of Henry Darger among them. And while those makers have long been categorized as “eccentrics,” none of them have been pathologized to the degree Sarah Winchester has been, despite the fact that her house remains one of the great accomplishments of American architecture. Her great masterpiece deserves every chance to be seen, appreciated, and loved—even under these less-than-ideal circumstances.