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Up until today, we had never heard of Sarah Lockwood Winchester (c. 1840 – September 5, 1922) nor of the massive and peculiar Victorian mansion she spent 36 years of her life obsessively building, reconfiguring, and adding to until her death. She was heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, and her 160 room “Llanada Villa” in San Jose, California came to be known as Winchester Mystery House, “the most haunted house in the world”. This February, Sarah’s tragic and terrifying story is coming to the big screen with Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren in the lead role.

According to Smithsonian.com, Sarah Winchester inherited her vast fortune from guns. “Her father-in-law Oliver Winchester, manufacturer of the famous repeater rifle, died in 1880, and her husband, Will, also in the family gun business, died a year later.” A grieving widow, Sarah left New Haven, Connecticut, and is said to have gone on a three year world tour before eventually settling in San Jose, where she spent enormous amounts of her wealth (she was one of the richest women in the world at that time) transforming what was once a small, two-story farmhouse into a 24,000 square foot behemoth of a home… at a relentless pace. Pamela Haag, Ph.D. writes, “She built her house with shifts of 16 carpenters who were paid three times the going rate and worked 24 hours a day, every day, from 1886 until Sarah’s death in 1922.”

So what fueled this woman “of independence, drive, and courage” to madly and manically build and build and build and build more home than she would ever need? Apparently, a medium.

Sarah was riddled with grief… in addition to losing her husband, who died at age 43, she had an infant daughter who died at just 40 days old. She was also haunted by “the spirits of those killed by the guns manufactured by her husband’s firearms company.” It all took a serious emotional toll, causing Sarah to became racked with guilt over her “gun blood fortune” and terrified that the tragic losses she’d suffered were “cosmic retribution” from the spirit world. Smithsonian.com notes, “A relative said many decades later Winchester fell ‘under the thrall’ of a medium, who told her that she would be haunted by the ghosts of Winchester rifle victims unless she built, non-stop—perhaps at ghosts’ direction, for their pleasure, or perhaps as a way to elude them.”

With all of that house around her, Sarah Winchester lived out her days in “almost complete solitude.”

Sarah Winchester

credit: Winchester Mystery House, Facebook

Winchester Mystery House, “renowned for its many design curiosities, innovations (many ahead of their time) and paranormal activity”, is now a museum of sorts that attracts design-lovers, curiosity-seekers, and ghost-hunters, alike. If you dare, you can tour 110 of its 160 rooms, and “see the bizarre attributes that give the mansion its name; a window built into the floor, stairs leading to ceilings, doors that open onto blank walls, a seeming obsession with the numeral ’13,’ cobweb motifs, etc.”

But if you’re not up for an in-person visit and prefer to pass on the chance to rub elbows with a ghost(s), Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built hits theaters everywhere on February 2, 2018.

Official Film Synopsis:

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 stories 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…

lead image credit to CBS Films