By Ed Carroll
Gun buffs who have a penchant for the big screen—and who don’t mind having their brush pants scared off—will want to check out the new horror film Winchester. The movie is not about guns, per se—at least not in the same way that the Jimmy Stewart film Winchester ’73 was—but rather the first family of guns.
Sarah Winchester, the widow of company treasurer William Wirt Winchester (d. 1881), himself the son of founder Oliver Winchester (d. 1880), is best known as the eccentric who continuously built a mansion in San Jose, California, from 1886 until her death, in 1922. When she died, the 24,000-square-foot “Winchester Mystery House” contained at least 161 rooms, 40 staircases and 2,000 doors. (It was actually quite a bit larger before the 1906 earthquake.) The massive Queen Anne-style home is a California landmark on the US National Register of Historic Places.
The death of Sarah’s and William’s infant daughter and then the early death of William left Sarah grieving, depressed and among the wealthiest women in the world—she having inherited more than $20 million (more than $500 million today).
The movie Winchester plays up the legend that the reclusive heiress felt haunted by the spirits of those who had been killed by her family’s rifles and that she was trying to either accommodate or confuse the ghosts. (Others suggest that she simply really enjoyed building and remodeling and had a ton of money to indulge her enthusiasms.) While elevated by the “presence” of Helen Mirren in the leading role, critics have been thoroughly ambivalent on the results.
Still, the House That Winchester Built is itself a “presence” in the plot, connecting the scary movie to fans of the famous “gun that won the West.” While the set is actually something of a recreation built in Australia, for the many Model 21 or Model 1886 enthusiasts who have wished they could visit the original, Winchester is coming to a screen near you.