14 Haunting Facts About the Winchester Mystery House

Despite the Winchester Mystery House's cheerful appearance, this massive California mansion's history is edged with tragedy, mystery ... and maybe some ghosts. Naturally, it has inspired a chilling horror movie, Winchester, which opens in theaters today. But before you go to the movie theater, wander through the curious past of one of America's most infamous homes.

1. THE WINCHESTER HOUSE IS NAMED FOR ITS MISTRESS.

Sarah Lockwood Winchester—the wife of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, whose family created the Winchester rifle that was heralded as "the gun that won the west”—designed and oversaw the construction of the sprawling Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion that bears her name. Construction on the 24,000-square-foot home, which is located at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California, began in 1886.

2. MANY BELIEVE SARAH BUILT WINCHESTER HOUSE OUT OF FEAR.

Overcome with grief in the wake of her husband's death from tuberculosis in 1881, folklore states that Sarah sought out a spiritualist who could commune with the dead. While she was presumably looking for solace or closure, she was instead given a chilling warning.

Through the medium, William told his widow that their tragedies (the couple had only one child, a daughter named Annie, who died at six weeks old) were a result of the blood money the family had made off of the Winchester rifles. He warned that vengeful ghosts would seek her out. In order to protect herself, William said that Sarah must "build a home for [herself] and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon."

Sarah was advised to leave their home in New Haven, Connecticut, behind, and move west, where she was to build a grand home for the spirits. There was just one catch: construction on the house could never stop. "If you continue building, you will live,” the medium warned Sarah. “Stop and you will die."

3. THE HOUSE WAS UNDER CONSTANT CONSTRUCTION FOR 38 YEARS.

Sarah Winchester's bedroom, on the second floor of Winchester House
Sarah Winchester's bedroom

In 1886, Sarah purchased an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose, California, and began building. She employed a crew of carpenters, who split shifts so construction could go on day and night, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 38 years. The work only stopped on September 5, 1922, because the octogenarian mastermind behind the home died of heart failure in her sleep. It's said that upon hearing the news of Sarah's death, the carpenters quit so abruptly they left half-hammered nails protruding from walls.

4. THE HOUSE IS FULL OF ARCHITECTURAL ODDITIES.

Sarah issued many bizarre demands to her builders, including the building of trap doors, secret passages, a skylight in the floor, spider web windows, and staircases that led to nowhere. There are also doors that open to blank walls, and a dangerous door on the second floor that opens out into nothing—save for an alarming drop to the yard far below.

5. AN EARTHQUAKE ONCE RATTLED THE HOUSE AND TRAPPED SARAH.

In 1906, the great San Francisco Earthquake caused three floors of the then seven-story house to cave in. A 1900 postcard of the place shows a tower that was later toppled by the natural disaster. That tower—plus several other rooms destroyed in the disaster—were never rebuilt, but cordoned off. As for Sarah, she was safe but stuck in the Daisy Bedroom, named for the floral motif in its windows. She had to be dug out by her staff, as its entrance was blocked off by rubble.

6. THE HOUSE WAS DESIGNED LIKE A LABYRINTH.

Some say the labyrinth layout was meant to confuse the ghosts, allowing Sarah some peace and a means to escape them. She was the sole architect of this extraordinary home, and no master building plan has ever been uncovered. So Sarah may be the only person who ever truly knew all of its secrets. When movers were called in after her death, one lamented its labyrinthine design that includes many winding hallways. One mover told American Weekly the Winchester House was a place "where downstairs leads neither to the cellar nor upstairs to the roof."

7. SOME SAY THE SYMBOLS IN THE HOUSE POINT NOT TO GHOSTS, BUT FRANCIS BACON.

An alternate theory on the Winchester House's perplexing design declares that Sarah was creating a puzzle full of encryptions inspired by the work of English philosopher Francis Bacon. There's speculation that clues to the house's true meaning are hidden in the ballroom, the Shakespeare windows, and the iron gates. This theory suggests that Sarah was a member of a mystic society like the Rosicrucians, or a secret society like the Freemasons—or possibly both.

8. THERE ARE OTHER THEORIES, INCLUDING THAT SARAH WAS "CRAZY."

Others speculate Sarah was coping with her grief with a flurry of activity, or that she was simply "crazy." However, Winchester Mystery House historian Janan Boehme paints a happier picture, imagining that the continual renovations reminded Sarah of the good times when she and William built their New Haven home together.

"I think Sarah was trying to repeat that experience by doing something they both loved," Boehme told the Los Angeles Times. She also suspects that Sarah was just an ardent—albeit eccentric—philanthropist who used her family fortune to purposefully employ the San Jose community. "She had a social conscience and she did try to give back," Boehme offered, noting the hospital Sarah built in her husband's name. "This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all."

9. ONCE IN WINCHESTER HOUSE, SARAH WAS RECLUSIVE, BUT NOT ALONE.

There is only one known photo of the widow Winchester, which was taken surreptitiously. Though she was reclusive, she was never alone. She had 18 servants, 18 gardeners, and the ever-present construction team working on the grounds. Every morning, Sarah met with the foreman to discuss the always-evolving building plans. And it's said that each night, she visited the Séance Room to speak with the spirits, who weighed in on plans for the house's unusual design.

10. THE HOUSE WAS AS OPULENT AS IT WAS ODD.

The home boasts 950 doors, 10,000 windows, 40 stairways, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, six kitchens, plus a trio of elevators, and once-groundbreaking elements like wool insulation, carbide gaslights, electricity, and an indoor shower, complete with a sewage drainage system.

11. NO ONE IS SURE HOW MANY ROOMS THE HOUSE HELD.

Following Sarah's death, Winchester House was converted into a tourist attraction. But when trying to get a room count, the new owners kept coming up with different numbers. After five years of renovations, they estimated the number of rooms to be about 160, which is the number most often quoted today.

12. SARAH HAD AN OBSESSION WITH THE NUMBER 13.

Among the secrets Sarah took to her grave was why she insisted that so many things relate to the number 13. The Winchester House has many 13-paned windows and 13-paneled ceilings, as well as 13-step stairways. Even her will had 13 parts, and she signed it 13 times. But the pièce de résistance might be the house's 13th bathroom, which contains 13 windows of its own.

13. IT’S A NATIONAL LANDMARK.

The Winchester Mystery House earned landmark status on August 7, 1974. The fascinating mansion is still owned by the family (families?) who purchased it from the Winchester estate in 1922 for $150,000—however, their identity is another Winchester House mystery. But thanks to them, tourists can now explore 110 of the 160-some rooms Sarah dreamed up. The Winchester Mystery House even boasts special tours on Halloween and Fridays the 13th.

14. IT’S REGULARLY CITED AS ONE OF THE MOST HAUNTED PLACES IN AMERICA.

To this day, Winchester House is a destination for believers who hope to have a paranormal encounter of their own. A popular spot for such activity is the corridors of the third floor, where tour guides have claimed to hear footsteps and disembodied voices whisper their names.

In a Reddit AMA, a Winchester House tour guide confirmed that the house’s third floor—only a portion of which is accessible during house tours—is definitely the spookiest part of the house, “because that's where the servants lived, so there's been a lot of reported activity there. Also, when you are on that floor you can never really hear any of the other tours, so you feel pretty isolated.”

The Time Baby Ruth Sued Babe Ruth

Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1920, the Curtiss Candy Company introduced the Baby Ruth candy bar, causing a certain baseball player with a very similar name to take notice. Babe Ruth was having a monstrous year—his 54 home runs in the 1920 season were more than any other team in the American League. If you were going to misappropriate someone’s name for a candy bar, Ruth’s was a logical choice.

Sensing opportunity, the Great Bambino struck back by creating his own Babe Ruth Home Run Bar. Curtiss quickly sued Ruth’s company for trademark infringement. But what happened next was surprising: When the Sultan of Swat accused the company of using his name, Curtiss feigned shock. Its bar was named after “Baby” Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

For years, this has been the oft-repeated explanation, but the argument makes no sense. Cleveland had been out of office for more than two decades and dead for 12 years when the bar debuted. “Baby” Ruth herself had died of diphtheria in 1904, at just 12 years old. Although the country’s most famous baseball star would seem much more likely to have a namesake candy than a former president's departed child, the courts sided with Curtiss.

When Ruth learned of the verdict, he bellowed, “Well, I ain’t eatin’ your damned candy bar anymore!” Somehow, the Baby Ruth bar survived without his support.

What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

iStock
iStock

What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios