Like the house, legend of bizarre Winchester mansion grows and grows

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Helen Mirren plays the heiress to a firearms fortune in “Winchester.” | CBS Films

A reclusive heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, haunted by the angry spiritsof those killed by her family’s famedfirearms, is at the center ofthe ghost story “Winchester,”in theatersFriday.

Helen Mirren plays the widowedSarah Winchester, thought to be insaneas she orders constant expansion and renovation ofherbizarre Victorian mansion.

“There are many things about the movie that are absolutely real,” says Peter Spierig, who directed “Winchester”with his brother, Michael. “But were ghosts haunting Sarah Winchester, as people said at the time? There’s nothing to confirm that—or deny it, either.”

Here’s what we know to be true:

Sarah was real

The socialite heiressmade a splash when she moved to San Josefrom Connecticut in 1884following the death of her husband, William (and their baby15 years prior).

Winchesterwas a highly discussed celebrity even before she begandrastically overhaulingthe home that became known as the Winchester Mystery House.

“She was Bill Gates-rich from thisfamous family, so people watched her, talked about her, and speculated,” says Janan Boehme, official historian at Winchester Mystery House, now a preserved tourist attraction.

The house is a marvel

The homestarted witheight rooms.By 1906, it was seven stories high with an estimated 90 rooms.

The movie (which was not screened for review) riffs onthe oft-repeated legendthat Winchester had been instructed by a spiritual medium to keep building to ward off the spirits haunting the house. But there’sno indication of that in Winchester’s letters or those of her confidantes, Boehme says.

Under constant remodeling during Sarah Winchester’s lifetime, the Winchester house is full of odd features. | CBS FILMS

Under constant remodeling during Sarah Winchester’s lifetime, the Winchester house is full of odd features. | CBS FILMS

An alternative theory:Winchester was occupying her mind as a way of dealing with her personal grief.

“We maynever know why she built like she did,” saysBoehme. “But people do certainly conjecture.”

A door goes nowhere

The Winchester Mystery Houseincludes fascinating features. Stairways go straight into a ceiling,a doorway opens to a two-story drop, there’sa design preoccupation with the number 13 (closets with 13 hanger pegs, halls with 13 ceiling panels).

Possibleexplanations vary from an attempt to confuse haunting spirits to design miscues resulting from constant construction.

“But there’s nothing definitive. Thisreally is a perplexing house,” says Boehme.

A quake rocked it

The infamous 1906San Francisco earthquake, rather than thefilm’s rampaging spirits, did severely damage Winchester’s home, trapping her in a room. “They had to free her with a crowbar,” Boehme says.

The terrified Winchester toredown the top three damaged floors and spent more time on her nearby houseboat, but continued building out. In 1922, she died of heart failure in her bedroom at Winchester Houseat age 82.

Ghost stories persist

While Winchester herself never mentioned hauntings and friends denied them,speculation was rampant.Harry Houdini himself visited after Winchester’s death to debunk spiritualists. But the ghost stories continue today.

Some visitors have sworn to have seen the“wheelbarrow ghost,” a kindly apparationin white overalls who apparentlyworkson the house.

“There is a good energy here,” says Boehme. “Even if none of the ghost storiesaretrue, Sarah Winchester was a truly fascinating person.”

Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY

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