MRS. WINCHESTER’S HOUSE
Narrated by Lillian Gish
Directed by Dick Williams
Written by R.E. Pusey, Jr., Ray Hubbard
Runtime 29 minutes
In 1963 Robert Wise, director of The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Sound of Music, directed the film version of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Apparently as a sort of companion piece to The Haunting, that same year Lillian Gish narrated the made-for-TV short documentary Mrs. Winchester’s House.
Excellently shot in black and white, the star of the film is the labyrinthine architectural product of an eccentric heiress. Sarah Lockwood Pardee, born circa 1840, give or take five years, was a child prodigy who by age twelve was fluent in five languages. In 1862 she married William Wirt Winchester, himself heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which sold guns to the U.S. Army during the Civil War.
In 1866 Sarah gave birth to their only child, Annie Pardee Winchester, who unfortunately lived only forty days. Fifteen years later, in 1881, William died of tuberculosis.
According to the film, Sarah had long held a strong interest in the occult. After meeting with a Boston medium, Sarah left New Haven, Connecticut for California. Supposedly, the medium had advised her to build a house for the restless spirits of the Indians, the soldiers, and all those who died by a Winchester rifle.
But that’s the mystery—or perhaps puzzle—of Sarah’s house, because beginning in 1884 and continuing unabated literally for the next 38 years nonstop, the house was under construction. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all year every year. And Sarah herself was the architect—perhaps with a bit of help…from beyond.
Supposedly she spent a lot of time in a séance room with a planchette, basically a Ouija Board, and communed with William.
Dressed in black, wearing a veil, the reclusive Mrs. Winchester ordered bewildering peculiarities in the construction of her ever-mushrooming abode: rooms within rooms, stairways to nowhere. Skylights over skylights and a skylight in the floor. Tiny doors to big places; big doors to tiny places. A door that opens to a brick wall; a door that opens to a sheer drop. Some people find Sarah’s architecture comparable to the etchings of M.C. Escher. Others see Freemasonic-Rosicrucian influences involving the theories of Sir Francis Bacon.
Whatever the case, Sarah used a bewildering array of secret passageways to move about and observe unseen her shifts of workers working. There are literally miles of corridors inside. Once seven stories tall in some places, after the 1906 earthquake, the house was reduced down to four stories—and Sarah lived in a houseboat for the next six years. Yet even then, the work still went on.
One night, when she had returned, Sarah held a grand ball with rare and amazing food and wine, and a company of musicians. By midnight, the butler announced the names of guests. But as the musicians saw, there were no guests. It was the first and last ball ever held in the ballroom, and it creeped the musicians out completely.
You can visit Mrs. Winchester’s House freely on YouTube anytime, and stay there as long as you like.
Stewart Kirby writes for