WINCHESTER: THE HOUSE THAT GHOSTS BUILT is the latest horror movie from the Sperig Brothers, identical twins Peter & Michael, the directing/screenwriting team who previously brought us chills with Undead, Daybreakers and Saw-franchise reboot, Jigsaw.
Inspired by true events. On an isolated stretch of land 50 miles outside of San Francisco sits the most haunted house in the world. Built by Sarah Winchester (Academy Award®-winner Helen Mirren), heiress to the Winchester fortune, it is a house that knows no end. Constructed in an incessant twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week mania for decades, it stands seven storeys tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To the outsider it looks like a monstrous monument to a disturbed woman’s madness. But Sarah is not building for herself, for her niece (Sarah Snook) or for the brilliant Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) whom she has summoned to the house. She is building a prison, an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts, and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters…
Sarah Winchester was a woman with a mission. Being the widow of the firearms magnate, William Wirt Winchester, brought her great wealth. Inheriting over $20m dollars on his death in 1881, along with nearly 50% of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, resulting in the equivalent of $25,000 a day in today’s money. But Sarah Winchester was a troubled woman. Losing first her infant daughter to a wasting disease, and then her husband to tuberculosis, she grew increasingly convinced that she and her family were cursed. Grieving – deeply depressed, she turned to a medium who, channelling William Winchester, confirmed her worst suspicions, informing her she was being haunted by the poor, tormented souls who had met their death by the Winchester Rifle. He advised her to ‘travel west’ from her home in New Haven, Connecticut and there to continuously build a house for her and the rifle’s victims. If she stopped, she would join her husband and child.
Settling in San Jose, California, Sarah purchased an unfinished farmhouse and so began to build, from the ground up, a magnificent but idiosyncratic mansion, without plans and no architect, just Sarah adding whatever room or feature she believed would appease or – as is rumoured – confuse the ghosts, resulting in such anomalies as stairs that lead nowhere, doors that open onto nothing and windows overlooking other rooms.
“It truly doesn’t have a lot of rhyme or reason,” says Peter Spierig. “A room is built on top of a room, next to a room and they are not even on the same level. There are strange architectural oddities, different shapes and sizes to the rooms. Strange stairs that go to ceilings and doors that open to two-story drops.”
Construction never ended; rooms were built, tore down and rebuilt in an constant cycle that continued 24/7, 365 days a year. The sprawling, labyrinthine layout was so vast and complex the servants had to use a map. Sarah was also obsessed with building the number 13 into the house, along with spider’s web motifs, which bore a spiritual significance for her, all of which she believed would keep the malevolent spirits at bay.
The house now stands at just four storeys, having been partially destroyed in the Great Earthquake of 1906. It boasts 161 rooms, 40 bedrooms, two ballrooms (one only partially completed) and 47 fireplaces. Even as late as 2016, new rooms were still being discovered in the house, in the attic area.
Production Designer Putland had the daunting task of recreating several key rooms in the house on sets in Melbourne, Australia. There were then three days of filming at the actual house in San Jose. Despite having visited and thoroughly researched the house for duplication purposes, since the film is set in 1906 much of the original house was destroyed after the earthquake that year. That meant expanding on period research and anything they could find that existed before the devastating incident. For that reason, many of the rooms seen in the film are those that remained intact in the house.
Says Portland: “I was so very fortunate to go to the Winchester House and see as it is today. When I first saw it, I was blown away by the scale of this great big Victorian mansion. But it’s not the extravagance and layers of opulence that blow you away. It is the layout and attention to detail. You could almost see the progression of the house as it grew and grew and grew, consuming parts of the original farmhouse. We were shown the water tower and instead of pulling the water tower down, it was just built into the house. I was there for three days looking through every doorway, every cupboard and I could still not find my own way around inside the house. It is such a rabbit warren of staircases and corridors and rooms and anterooms and verandas – quite an amazing complex that little farmhouse.”
There were two areas of the house that Putland says speaks to the haunting.
One is the Witch’s Cap where Sarah would go alone every night to get her building instructions from the ghosts for the next day. “It is a real room in that house and it is an amazing space,” he says. “The hallway that leads to the Witch’s Cap was something that really stood out to me as an architectural feat. That area spoke to me of a presence. It’s in the attic space of the house. Reference images from the time show us that there was a chimney that led up to the outside of the building, which is no longer there so we reinstated the fireplace and chimney in the witch’s cap which fell down in the 1906 earthquake.”
Recreated on set, “I find it fascinating this woman would build this room as a vessel to communicate with the dead,” adds Michael Spierig. “Because a lot of people sought out mediums back then, going to a spiritualist wasn’t seen as a fringe thing. I mean people actually saw it as science back then. She strongly believed she could communicate with the dead, communicate with her deceased husband and daughter as well. And so, she embraced this.”
Then there is the basement.
“It was quite spooky, but I don’t know if that’s because it was just deep down in the earth and it was dark,” says Putland. “The basement and the Witch’s Cap were very cool spaces to be in.” Both, as noted on the Winchester House Tour, are the most active areas of paranormal activity in the house today with many tourists reporting sightings of ghosts.
“That house,” says Putland, “really feels alive.”
“The hardest thing about doing a film like this is how do you make it scary? To keep it grounded in reality,” informs Peter Spierig. “When you have truth, a real story about a real place and a real person, that makes it really terrifying. Michael and I like to misdirect with scares – where you think it’s going to happen on this beat or at this moment and then it happens later or earlier, or goes in some other direction. That makes it a little scarier. But when the people are real, some part of you has to care and that is what makes it more terrifying. You want them to get out of that situation. You want them to survive.
“But the hope for Michael and I is that the audience experiences a very scary, terrifying, haunted house movie.”
As to whether the brothers believe in ghosts?
“I do believe that there is an energy source in all of us that may float around after we leave our bodies,” concedes Michael.
“I’ve never met a ghost. We’ve never chatted or hung out,” adds Peter. “I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anything. But I know people who have. Maybe it’s real. Maybe not.”
Privately owned and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Winchester Mystery House is open to the public, with a new tour added in 2017 that allows tourists to see rooms not previously open to them and those still unfinished at the time of Sarah’s death from heart failure in 1922.
Today, every Friday the 13th, a large bell at the house is rung 13 times at “1300 hours”, in tribute to Sarah Winchester – or maybe the current owners just aren’t taking any chances?
WINCHESTER: THE HOUSE THAT GHOSTS BUILT opens in UK cinemas 3rd February, 2018