Winchester, the supernatural thriller now available from Redbox, reminds us of that classic line from the western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That goes as much for haunted houses as it does for the Old West. If you believe in poltergeists, Winchester scares up plenty of ghostly jolts. But in the case of Sarah Winchester, just the facts are eerie enough to creep you out.
Oscar-winner Helen Mirren stars as Sarah, heiress to the Winchester rifle company fortune. She lost both her infant daughter and her husband. Grief-stricken, she relocated from the East Coast to San Jose where, clad in black, she oversaw the design and construction of literally the damndest estate you’ve ever seen with doors and stairways that led nowhere, among other architectural oddities. The construction on which she devoted her massive fortune continued nonstop during the nearly four decades she lived there until she died in 1922. The caretaker, John Brown, had fallen in love with the house and made a deal to lease the property until he could afford to buy it. He opened it for tourists just months after Sarah died.
In the film, a psychiatrist (Jason Clarke) is sent to Winchester to determine if she is sane enough to lead the Winchester company. There was no Eric in real life, but there was a Sarah and there is the Winchester Mystery House (legendary magician Harry Houdini himself gave it that name); still packing them in as a tourist destination that attracts thousands of visitors.
Janan Boehme is Winchester’s historian. She has worked at the estate on and off over the past 40 years, and currently also serves as curator and archivist, director of special projects and conductor of VIP tours (she showed Helen Mirren around the place!). But she has been fascinated with the Winchester house and its story—the facts and the legend–since she was a child growing up three miles from the estate. She spoke with Redbox about Winchester’s enduring mystique.
Redbox: What is this hold Winchester has on you?
Janan Boehme: I fell in love with it when I was a little girl. The first time I saw it, I said I’ve got to work there someday. It was so big and back then it was kind of decrepit; the lawn wasn’t well cared for, it looked so spooky and so amazing. It just attracted me. When I turned 18, I applied for a job, and even when I wasn’t working here I always stayed in touch.
Redbox: Did you ever think, “This would make for a good movie?’”
Janan Boehme: (The story) has something for everyone. People love the idea of a haunted house, but for me, it’s Sarah’s story. She was a tough lady; she was super-rich, but she had a very sad life. Her family was the most important thing to her, so losing her husband and her daughter was the worst thing that could have happened to her. And she did such an odd thing with her money. People come here looking for the history, for the architecture, for the ghosts. It’s a pretty fascinating place.
Redbox: We have to ask: have you stayed in the house overnight? Have you encountered any ghosts?
Janan Boehme: I have stayed in the house overnight, but nothing happened. I’ve never seen anything, but I’ve heard things. I have to say, I always thought what I heard was friendly. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have stuck around so long.
Redbox: What does the movie get right about Sarah and the house?
Janan Boehme: Obviously, it’s a work of entertainment, it’s not meant to be a (documentary), but it does get that the house has a personality of its own. What I like most about the movie is that Helen Mirren plays Sarah with such intelligence and sensitivity. She’s an amazing actress. She brought a lot of passion to the role. I’m tired of hearing Sarah referred to as the crazy old lady who built the crazy spook house. There was much more to her than that.
Redbox: The movie suggests she was moved to build the house as a shelter for ghosts of the victims of her husband’s product and that severe grief made her a recluse.
Janan Boehme: One reason Sarah was camera-shy was because she had problems with her teeth, which would have been common back then. She didn’t want to be photographed. Stories about her are more legend than truth. People didn’t understand her. She didn’t want to engage with the media, so they made up their own stories. The movie definitely has an interesting take on what she might have been thinking. I think it is very inventive.
Redbox: Did you get a chance to meet Helen?
Janan Boehme: I took her and her husband on a brief tour of the house. She was pretty excited to see the place (most of the movie was filmed in Australia). They were on a tight schedule, so not a lot of time to talk, but it was certainly an honor to get to meet her. She is just an amazing woman. I hope I look that good at her age. (laughs) She has a lot of presence.
Redbox: What do you think is the special lure of the haunted house movie?
Janan Boehme: Because it’s giving something inanimate a personality. It’s hard to deal with; how can you understand the motivations of a house? It’s hard enough to understand people. But this movie focuses on grief, loss and regret. These are universal themes than everyone can relate to.