Guns don’t kill people. People do.
Yeah, don’t tell that to Sarah Winchester.
As the heir to and majority owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Sarah knows a thing or two about guns. Winchester guns—used by soldiers and lawmen, cowboys and criminals—have made her a very wealthy woman: Her bank was built on bullets.
But making money through such lethal means has also taken a toll on Sarah. Years ago, a medium told her that her very name is cursed: All the people killed by those well-crafted rifles were determined to exact their revenge upon the Winchester family.
Sarah feels that curse acutely: Her only daughter died when she was just a month old. Her husband keeled over from tuberculosis, leaving her mountains of money and, Sarah believes, oodles of eidolons.
Sarah’s convinced that there’s only one way to calm these cantankerous spirits: Build a house for them. After all, home is where the haunt is.
Sarah bought an eight-room mansion outside San Jose, California, in 1886, and began using her vast fortune to expand it. Twenty years later, the place has grown to seven stories and nearly 100 rooms; the building continues day and night, 365 days a year. Sometimes new wings are torn down almost as soon as they’re built. It’s a boon for the local construction industry, surely, but the house itself is a bit … odd. Stairs lead into ceilings. Doors open to nowhere. And the number 13 is everywhere: Thirteen stair risers. Thirteen hooks on a wardrobe. Thirteen nails hammered into the bars across bedroom doors, sealing them mysteriously shut.
But while Sarah may be the majority owner in Winchester, she’s not the only one, and her frenetic building activities are making the other stockholders nervous. Is the weapons maven simply eccentric? Or has her trigger finally snapped? Many secretly hope so, given the vast wealth and power she controls. But there’s only one way to know for sure: Hire a psychologist to study Sarah in the natural habitat of her enigmatic, sprawling mansion.
Eric Price seems to fit the bill. He’s a mind doctor of some repute, though he’s hit a rough patch of late. His wife died under tragic circumstances, and ever since he’s been awash in a sea of low-class women and high-priced liquor. He’s not above using his own medications, either, and those can be pretty pricey, too.
When a representative from Winchester comes calling on Eric and asks just how much the doctor owes to his creditors, Eric states flatly, “$300,” not an insignificant sum back in 1906.
“We’ll pay six,” the rep says, meaning $600. But then he adds, “For the right assessment.”
Eric accepts. He figures it’ll be easy money. It’s not as if Sarah’s eccentricities are hidden, after all. They’re out there for the whole world to see—or at least the world of central California—written in nail and board.
But Sarah, it seems, had a hand in choosing Eric, too. She believes he may have his own special connection to her creepy, cavernous casa. And he might just confirm what Sarah’s known for years: Her ghosts are as real as the house itself.
Eric isn’t the only guest staying at the Winchester house. Sarah’s niece, Marion, and her son, Henry, live there as well. And while the movie’s events suggest it’s not exactly the healthiest place for the two to stay, Sarah’s intentions in offering them a place to live were undeniably generous. She’s also willing to take some pretty serious risks to protect her houseguests when things begin to get out of hand. And Sarah’s quite forgiving when one of those guests (possessed by a vengeful spirit) tries to off her with a rifle.
Marion, for her part, seems to be a devoted mother; she grows quite concerned when her little boy starts sleepwalking and jumping off rooftops and whatnot.
Winchester is quite the spirited movie, you might say. (Ha ha!) No, seriously, there are a lot of ghosts here, and they just love jumping out from behind mirrors or crawling on floors or sending roller skates skidding down hallways. They’ll occasionally blow out fireplace fires, throw furniture around and, when the mood strikes, possess the occasional houseguest.
They are, we’re repeatedly told, strongest at midnight: Sarah apparently built a bell tower so someone could ring a toll at the stroke of that hour, and she chooses that time to commune with whatever spirits happen to be around. We see her sitting in some sort of trance, getting messages from the ghosts, who communicate what they’d like to see next in the house (usually replicas of the rooms they were killed in).
Sarah talks about both spiritualists and spiritualism, and she believes 13 is a “divine number” that connects life and death. She eyes a bullet that Eric carries around—a bullet that supposedly “killed” him for about three minutes. She tells him that such souvenirs have a “powerful connection to the afterlife,” adding ominously that they can “sometimes do more harm than good.”
Eric initially believes all this talk of ghosts and spirits is pure hokum: “I do not believe anything I cannot see or study,” he says. It is a bit odd that he’s so insistent, considering that by this point, he’s already seen more ghosts than Ulysses in Hades. But perhaps he assumes they are just products of his drug-addled mind. (More on that later.)
Sarah and Eric have very different ideas on what to do about Henry, who seems to be susceptible to possession by one of the house’s spirits. Eric wants to take him to a hospital. Sarah insists on keeping him in the house. “Conditions can be cured, doctor!” she says. “Curses cannot!”
Marion refers to the spirits in the house as “demons” at one point, but she also suggests that those supposed supernatural entities are simply concoctions of her aunt’s disturbed mind.
Before visiting the Winchester house, Eric spends time in his own home with several women who are apparently prostitutes. We see one of these women in the background slowly sashaying sans shirt but wearing a short skirt. (Her bare back faces the camara).
He tries to strike up a conversation with one of these women, who’s apparently his favorite: “What do you think controls you?” he asks. “Your body or your mind?” She quips that she’s under the control of his money at the moment. Both are lounging in robes and underwear, and she bares a bit of her belly during the conversation.
There’s an aura of seduction about her. When she and several other women leave Eric’s house, Eric kisses each of them in turn—mostly on the cheeks. But for his main paramour, he reserves a lingering kiss on the lips.
Elsewhere, Eric kisses Marion on the cheek lightly, but he still obviously pines for his dead wife.
While Sarah insists that most of the ghosts that visit her are benign, not all of them are. One currently in residence is particularly hostile.
The ghost seems to possess Henry at times, forcing the boy at one point to plummet off a house ledge. (Eric sees and saves him.) Another time, a possessed Henry picks up a gun and starts firing it at Sarah. When the bullets run out, he hits her several times with the weapon’s butt.
That specter appears as “itself” at times, too, revealing a face torn by an ancient gunshot wound or two. (In flashback, we see the man gunned down by, of course, Winchester rifles.) He also throws people against walls, pushes over furniture and, perhaps, causes the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. We witness some of the massive damage that temblor inflicts: Walls, ceilings and roofs tumble down, killing at least two people. (We see their bodies partly buried in the wreckage afterward.)
Someone is shot in the chest (a small spot of blood is seen), and another commits suicide by rifle (off camera). A painting seems to bleed. We see a mass killing in flashback. A ghost is apparently vanquished by a gunshot. A lot of glass is broken. Furniture is ruined.
A ghost calls Sarah a “b–ch whore.” God’s name is misused once, and Jesus’ name is abused twice.
Eric has both a drinking problem and a drug problem. We see him and his partly dressed paramour drink and partake of Eric’s favorite drug, laudanum (a toxic, narcotic tincture derived from opium). They fill what looks like an eyedropper with the substance before letting it drain into their mouths. Eric also offers an unexpected houseguest whiskey as he pours himself a glass. He drinks from a flask on the way to the Winchester house, too.
But when Eric arrives, Marion smells the alcohol on him, and she crisply tells him that Sarah does not approve of drinking “before the dinner hour.” She suggests that he “freshen up.” He does so. But even before Sarah sits down, Eric tries to silently get a footman to pour him a glass of alcohol. He seems relieved when he’s finally served a bit of liquor.
Sarah knows about Eric’s drug habit. “Are you an abuser of medication?” she asks him bluntly when they first meet. And even though he denies it, Sarah later directs his “medicine” to be confiscated, explaining that he’ll need a clear head if he hopes to understand the house.
Marion says that her dead husband “loved the drink more than his wife and child.” We see lots of cigarette butts in an ashtray.
Eric scolds himself for being a “fraud,” suggesting that he anticipates declaring Sarah insane regardless of his professional verdict. He lies and disobeys Sarah’s wishes on occasion.
Sarah Winchester was a real person, and her house is real, too. You can even visit it: The Winchester Mystery House opens its doors to 110 of the mansion’s 160 rooms, claims its website¬, and visitors can see them all for the low, low price of $39.
While historians say there’s little proof that the real Sarah Winchester thought she was building the house for dead Winchester victims, let’s face it: Something’s weird going on with that real-world abode. Open the wrong second-story door, and you’ll fall out of the house. Walk up the wrong stairway, and you’ll bonk your head on the ceiling. Some suggest that new rooms are still being discovered. (The latest was found in 2016.)
Winchester, the movie, is just as nonsensical as Winchester, the house. It’s a low-fright affair as horror movies go—certainly brimming with its share of jump scenes but lacking any truly spine-tingling atmospherics.
Perhaps for discerning moviegoers who think all horror movies are kinda … horrific, that’s a good thing. We can also laud Winchester for, given its genre, going relatively light on problematic content. While the movie is violent, it’s not particularly bloody or grotesque. While two misuses of Jesus’ are present, the language is otherwise relatively restrained. And both the living and the dead generally keep their clothes on.
But for all of its restraint in some areas, this movie’s twisted spirituality is as bothersome as its spirits. And while occult spiritualism was indeed super-popular during the movie’s timeframe, so was Christianity—not that we’d know it from Winchester.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.