A sprawling house with connections to the famous gun family is full of mystery, writes Pamela Wade.

Anywhere else, when your guide admits, "I get lost here every day," you would feel short-changed — but at Winchester Mystery House, the reaction is sympathy. Empathy, even, especially if you're still struggling with jet-lag, because this place totally messes with your head, it's so unreal.

Cinema-goers watching the new-release haunted-house movie Winchester, starring
Helen Mirren, could easily think it was exactly that — a crazy, made-up location, as famously imaginary as the creepy house in Psycho — but, as the setting and a virtual character in the movie, Winchester House is completely real. It's in San Jose, just a half-hour drive from San Francisco airport, and is bizarrely out of place in this high-tech capital of Silicon Valley.

The building of the rambling, 160-room Victorian mansion began in 1884, was partially undone by the great earthquake of 1906 and then continued until the death of Mirren's character, Sarah Winchester, in 1922. She was the sole driving force behind its 24/7 construction, designing it herself with no overall plan, and financing it with the vast wealth she inherited from her husband. This was generated by the hugely successful Winchester rifle company, whose most popular firearm was the repeating rifle nicknamed "the gun that won the West".


The most persistent explanation for Mrs Winchester's eccentricity in never considering the house complete — and the one behind the movie — is that she felt guilty about all the people killed with this weapon, and haunted by them. The continuous construction of the house was a means of appeasing their spirits, by following the architectural directions delivered by them in the frequent seances she held alone, high up in a turret, in a room with one entrance and three exits.

Whether or not that was the case, it makes a good story for a movie, and also for the daily tours of the house. Even if you're not convinced by the ghost story, it's a fascinating place to explore: from the outside a jumble of towers, turrets, cupolas, pitched roofs and verandas, the inside is a confusing maze of rooms, doors and staircases.

Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester.
Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester.

Many of these lead nowhere — one prominent staircase stops at the ceiling, doors open on to blank walls, or other doors, and there are windows in the floor — and others are so oddly built that they are disorienting. One switchback staircase, rising only 3m overall in seven zigzags, has 44 steps, each just 5cm high, and gives an inexplicable sensation of descending as you climb.

Mrs Winchester was less than 5ft [1.5m] and suffered from arthritis, which could explain the shallow risers — but the Tiffany stained-glass window set against a wall? The recurrent number 13 and spider-web motifs? The second-storey door that opens to mid-air? The secret spy-holes and hidden doors? These are less easy to explain — as are the sheer numbers. There are 2000 doors, 10,000 windows (more than the Empire State Building), 47 staircases, 13 bathrooms, six kitchens and 50-60 bedrooms — in this house, even counting is hard — despite

Mrs Winchester never having any (invited) guests. Her staff were each supplied with a map in order to carry out their duties.

But it's not all weirdness: there is beauty too.

The grand reception rooms have intricate wooden parquet and panelling and beautiful tiled fireplaces, the Tiffany stained-glass is gorgeous, the hand-painted Japanese wallpaper in the bedrooms just exquisite.

The gardens are lovely and even include a cabbage tree. It's well worth a visit. Just don't go there jet-lagged.


Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built premieres in New Zealand cinemas on March 1.

Winchester Mystery House is open daily from 9am to 5pm.