Coming to theaters this Friday, February 2, is Winchester (2018), the new horror thriller by the Spiereg Brothers (Daybreakers, Jigsaw), starring Helen Mirren, Sarah Snook, and Jason Clarke. It’s a film I’m excited to see, not only because it offers the incomparable Helen Mirren another juicy role in a genre she hasn’t explored much even in her diverse & distinguished career, but because the story itself is one that has haunted my imagination since I first encountered it in the pages of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, over 30 years ago (more on that in a moment).
The film centers around Sarah Winchester (1840-1922), widow and heiress to the estate of her husband, William Wirt Winchester (yes, of THOSE Winchesters), which included a 50% stake in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Needless to say, the Winchesters were among the wealthiest families in post-Civil War America, largely due to the success of the 1873 Winchester repeating rifle, commonly known as “the Gun that Won the West.” By “won”, of course, we mean “slaughtered”–mostly indigenous peoples, but also anyone else who got in the way of the nation’s “manifest destiny”: Mexicans, free black settlers, poor farmers, religious communities that didn’t move along fast enough, or rivals for any piece of dirt likely to earn a reasonable profit. It was a distinctly American success story.
After her husband’s death, Sarah Winchester used her fortune to move from her home in Connecticut to San Jose, California, where she built and continued construction on the infamous Winchester Mansion for nearly 38 years (continuously or on-and-off, depending on the source). Some believe that she did so out of a sense of guilt, or possibly a curse, brought on by the spirits of all those who had been killed by Winchester weapons. This was the age of Spiritualism, after all, and the “curse” was allegedly suggested to her by a Boston psychic who claimed that in order to remove it, she should move westward and build a house for herself and all the restless spirits—but that she must never stop construction on the house lest those spirits seek revenge upon her and her remaining family. Other, less supernaturally-inclined biographers, have argued that the house was merely an ill-conceived and poorly executed architectural diversion for an eccentric rich woman. Whatever the truth, the house itself (now known as the Winchester Mystery House and listed on the National Register of Historic Places) stands as a monument to a certain kind of obsession—emotional, spiritual, or maybe artistic—that could only be made real by that unique blend of American money, will, industry, imagination, and exploitation.
The history is fascinating in itself, and the film could probably do well as a straight biography. But it’s obvious from the trailers that the filmmakers have taken their inspiration not only from the historical facts, but from the mysterious rumors, superstitions, and sensational speculations that surrounded Sarah Winchester for the better part of her life, and beyond. Among those speculative visions are two notable comic book tales inspired by the Winchester House and its owner. The first, which I mentioned earlier, was Alan Moore’s “Ghost Dance,” the final tale in his now-legendary run on Swamp Thing (#45, February 1986). You can read a good summary of the tale here.
What stuck with me about Moore’s story wasn’t the supernatural horror element (although this was part of its interest for me as a 14 year-old), but its evocation of a dark past in American history that is eerily reflected in the emotional lives of the present characters. I would later learn that the term for this particular kind of fiction is “the gothic”. In fact, this story is part of the Swamp Thing’s “American Gothic” story-arc, in which he faces supernatural threats that evoke a number of America’s deep-rooted and very real horrors: domestic violence, sexual abuse, drugs, racial tensions, and, of course, guns. In this story, the thinly-veiled “Cambridge House” uses both the real and speculative history of the Winchester House to provide a context for understanding how gun violence is situated in a cultural and psychological complex of desires, resentments, power, and perceived “manhood.” David, the most emotionally and spiritually sensitive of the characters, seems incapable of violence or even self-assertion, until he feels himself humiliated, dominated, and ultimately driven to seek revenge through the “secret fraternity” of the gun. It is an all-too familiar story in the current climate of mass-shootings, toxic masculinity, and violence against women. While the Swamp Thing is well-equipped to handle the literal ghosts and monsters in these tales, he is powerless to stop the more insidious spirits that haunt these human characters.
Another more recent and possibly direct inspiration for the film is Peter J. Tomasi & Ian Bertram’s extraordinary House of Penance (2016). This limited series, now available in trade paperback, offers a more historical, though still fictionalized, re-telling of the Winchester House story. It puts Sarah Winchester back at the center—a large-eyed, waif-like, Bronte-esque figure who nonetheless possesses an iron will in her dedication to her obsession. In this case, that obsession isn’t just with building the house, but with protecting her already-dead husband and daughter, whose souls are likewise trapped in the house that bears their name. Like Poe’s House of Usher, this version of the Winchester House is as much a manifestation of Sarah’s own troubled spirit as it is a place haunted by vengeful ghosts. What’s more, the workers that she hires to construct the house likewise bring ghosts and demons with them: they are all violent men seeking their own form of “penance,” either through hard labor or the forced renunciation of guns and violence, Sarah’s one requirement for employment. One of these men, Warren Peck, has a particularly dark history that is directly related to the Winchester legacy (no spoilers). Together, Sarah and Warren must face their own guilty terrors in the Winchester house, as well as the equally dangerous prospect of allowing themselves to care for someone again. In many ways, this is a redemption story—or at least a longing-for-redemption story–but it’s one that we know is shadowed, not just by the past, but by the succeeding century of even more horrific and world-shattering violence.
Both comics offer nuanced and intriguing insights into the history and cultural valences of the Winchester House. Here’s hoping that the film adds more interesting layers to this compelling story.
Stay tuned for “A Closer Look” posting on House of Penance…