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Inside The Winchester Mystery House


The new movie "Winchester" is a paranormal horror film about one of the largest haunted houses in America. The story is based on the life of Sarah Winchester, heiress to the company that created the Winchester rifle series. Helen Mirren stars as the eccentric woman who built and rebuilt her vast and ever-changing mansion from 1884 until her death in 1922. NPR's Mandalit del Barco visited the house that's now a popular tourist attraction in San Jose, Calif.


MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: At the famous Winchester Mystery House, tour guide Nicole Calande (ph) leads us up the wooden stairs.

NICOLE CALANDE: The house just creaks on its own. You check the area, and no one's there.


DEL BARCO: The Queen Anne revival-style mansion has staircases that lead to nowhere, doors that open to a two-story drop, a witch's cap with strange acoustics. The house historian, Janan Boehme, says tour guides refuse to go up to the third floor after dark.

JANAN BOEHME: Because you will actually hear footsteps coming down the hallway, and you think someone whispered your name. And you're looking around like, who's messing with me? And there's nobody there.

DEL BARCO: House marketing director Tim O'Day says some people report seeing a handyman named Clyde stoking the fireplace or carrying coal. He died long ago.

TIM O'DAY: He appears as an apparition in his white overalls and his mustache, and he'll just kind of blankly look at you. And if you look away, he disappears.


HELEN MIRREN: (As Sarah Winchester) Do you believe in ghosts, Doctor?

DEL BARCO: In the movie, Sarah Winchester's sanity is questioned by a psychologist hired by the company to push her out. Legend has it Winchester conducted seances to communicate with the dead.


MIRREN: (As Sarah Winchester) I can feel it in the air, in the walls.

DEL BARCO: Winchester remained in mourning for her baby daughter and late husband. She had workers build and rebuild her home nonstop day and night for nearly 40 years. Helen Mirren says in the movie, Winchester did so to placate the spirits of those who died at the hands of the weapon whose fortune she inherited.

MIRREN: She felt the weight of the effect of the Winchester rifle, what it had done, what it had achieved. It must be like being the inheritor of a fortune that was made on the back of the atomic bomb.

DEL BARCO: On the final day of filming on location last May, Mirren sat in one of the many rooms of the Winchester mansion and marveled.

MIRREN: Really, really extraordinary. It's the work of an artist, a huge imagination. There's something so eccentric and out of the ordinary about it. You know, you can only sort of be in awe of it, really.

DEL BARCO: Michael Spierig, who wrote and directed the movie with his brother Peter, says the notoriously reclusive Winchester spared no expense to innovate her architectural wonder.

MICHAEL SPIERIG: I never saw Sarah Winchester as a crazy person. She was more of a progressive thinker. She was apparently one of the first people to have a telephone. I think her number was 1-2-3-4. She was one of the first people to have a shower. She invented an irrigation system in the house that was ahead of its time.

DEL BARCO: Much of the mansion was destroyed by the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. It's now a California landmark that still has peculiar goings on.

Nothing, like, strange has happened while you were shooting here?

SPIERIG: No. There hasn't been anything.

DEL BARCO: What about that? What was that?

SPIERIG: Well, I mean, if you classify doors slamming and - maybe that's a ghost. It might be the wind. Who knows?

DEL BARCO: The Winchester House remains a mystery. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition,, and
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