Movie Beat: ‘Winchester,’ stories, and the things ‘everyone knows’


By Jenniffer Wardell

Sometimes, the things “everyone knows” turns out not to be true at all.

“Everyone knows” that the Winchester Mansion in California, with too many doors and staircases that lead nowhere, are that way because of ghosts. After she lost her husband and infant daughter at a young age, legend says a psychic told Sarah Winchester that the spirits of everyone killed by Winchester rifles had cursed her family. It goes on to say that she built the strange house in an attempt to appease them, and construction continued on it until the day she died.

When I first heard the story, I assumed it was completely true. Not the ghosts, of course – I generally believe the dead have better things to do – but the idea that grief could make a woman obsessive and afraid. People shut themselves away for a thousand reasons, and that seemed as good as any other.

But then I heard about “Winchester,” the new movie opening this weekend that plays with the idea of a house full of vengeful ghosts (the movie isn’t being screened for critics). Suddenly, Sarah Winchester became more than just a passing story. She was my job, which meant that it was time to do a little more research.

I assumed, when I started, that I would turn up a more nuanced view of her belief in the ghosts and whether she ever thought they’d been appeased. Instead, what I found is that there’s no evidence for the ghost story at all. She never talked about it, never hung out with any psychics, nothing. Though she never gave a definitive explanation for her strange house, the theories are either that it was an odd way of keeping local contractors in business or she simply didn’t know how to design a house (for example, she never made a master plan). Part of the house was also damaged by the 1906 earthquake, which didn’t help matters either.

The story about the ghosts, it turns out, came from the people who bought the place after Sarah died. The ones who turned it into a tourist attraction, and opened the place to the public only a few months later. According to a carpenter who worked on the property for several years, they also made several architectural changes to the house and blamed them on Sarah. Clearly, these are people for whom accuracy was of the utmost priority.

In the end, most of this information was remarkably easy to find (a lot of it is right on her Wikipedia page, carefully sourced from her biography). I could have looked for it any time, spurred by nothing more serious than a desire to find out whether this thing I’d “always known” to be true had any actual basis in reality. If I had, I would have immediately seen the legend for what it really was – a sales pitch, designed to con people into tossing away their money at a tourist trap.

But I never looked. I never even thought about it.

The fact that I believed this particular lie for so long didn’t damage much, in the long run. I’m sure that, wherever Sarah Winchester is right now, she doesn’t care even a little bit about what my opinion of her was. She probably doesn’t care about any of our opinions, since she didn’t seem to care much about that sort of thing even when she was still alive.

But it upsets me a little, that I let myself be so unaware of what the truth was. I can’t help but wonder what other stories I’ve just blindly accepted, taking the things “everyone knows” at face value without bothering to find out whether they’re actually true. Or, for that matter, who told the story in the first place. I’m a journalist – I should know better than anyone the importance of a credible source.

So I’m going to start checking. Every time I find myself nodding along to something “everyone knows,” I’m going to look into it. That way, I can find out for myself how real the information is.

I feel like I owe it to Sarah.

(Cutline: Helen Mirrin in “Winchester.” Photo courtesy of CBS Films)

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