The sexist myth of the Winchester Mystery House

Sarah Winchester was no Miss Haversham of the Wild West

The Winchester Mystery House.
(Image credit: Lili Loofbourow/The Week)

Winchester, the gothic thriller about a woman supposedly haunted by the ghosts of people killed by the guns that made her fortune, came out Feb. 2 to lukewarm acclaim. The film is notable both for its mediocrity as horror and its surprising fealty to the historical details of the house in which it's set. The Winchester Mystery House is many things: a San Jose tourist attraction built around "the gun that won the West," the inspiration for Disneyland's Haunted House, and — more concretely — a sprawling collection of 160 rooms including 40 bedrooms, six kitchens, 2,000 doors, 47 stairways, and 47 fireplaces. Many of the rooms are unfinished. Some are exquisite. It's an architectural oddity, an unfinishable project whose creator no one quite understands.

Mostly, though, the Winchester Mystery House is a kind of Rorschach test of the people trying to tell its story. And on that score, Winchester actually fares better than most. I visited the house in preparation for the film, and what surprised me most was how bright and playful much of it felt. It's unsettling, no question: The legendary stairway to nowhere does exist. But there's more to the house than its spookiness, and that's thanks in part to its mysterious creator.

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