Helen Mirren’s new horror movie is based on a terrifying true story

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Kayleigh Dray
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Dame Helen Mirren (actor, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and feminist superhero) has a bevy of awards and accolades to her name – and, as a rule, everything she touches turns to (metaphorical) gold.

So, when we learned that she’d turned her attention to the world of horror, we knew better than to expect the sort of lacklustre scary movie that prioritises jump scares over bone-chilling storytelling.

Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built promises to be a horrifying depiction of real-life events, based on the true story of Sarah Winchester, who built a 160-room mansion after the death of her husband in 1881.

Complete with doors and stairwells that led to nowhere, the sprawling property – which is open to brave visitors in California – spans a whipping 24,000 feet. Yet Sarah, right up until her death in 1922, lived completely alone.

Why, then, did the firearms heiress insist that her home be kept under constant construction for 24 hours, 7 days a week for 38 years?

Well, according to many, Sarah was acting on the advice of a medium who warned her that she needed to build a house with enough rooms for all of the souls of people who'd been killed with Winchester rifles. 

The very same rifles that her husband – and his family – had designed and unleashed upon the world.

In a bid to protect herself from these vengeful spirits, Sarah reportedly insisted that her home be ever-changing: construction never stopped, she slept in a different bedroom every night, twisting hallways and secret passageways helped her traverse the property without being “followed”, and she held nightly séances to guide her and her foreman’s building plans.

Eventually, at a cost of about $5 million, the house grew to 160 rooms in 24,000 square feet. Then, in 1906, the great earthquake hit, t the seventh-story tower and buckling the top three floors. And Sarah, who had a habit of sleeping in different rooms, was trapped in a bedroom before her staff could find her.

Afterwards, she sealed off the entire front of the house and left it in a state of disrepair.

Speaking to the LA Times, Winchester Mystery House historian Janan Boehm, admits that she is sceptical about the ghostly superstitions that surround Sarah and the property.

Instead, she believes that the wealthy heiress kept building because she had a large staff, tons of money, and wanted to keep her workers gainfully employed.

“She had a social conscience and she did try to give back,” said Boehme. “This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all.”

If you’d like to make up your own mind before the film hits cinemas in February, you can fly to California and visit the Winchester Mystery House for yourself.

If, you know, you’re brave enough.

Images: Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.