When you’re a paranormal researcher, you can accidentally spend all of your free time investigating the history of famously haunted places and debunking the claims they have historic hauntings. It’s true the stories behind many well known ghost tourism hot spots are the product of some very creative minds stretching the truth (*cough* 30 East Drive *cough*). Yet ultimately, debunking these stories can be a pointless task because the people who pay to attend ghost hunting nights don’t really care if the ghost story is real.
However, a recent Twitter exchange made me want to risk preaching the the choir and write about the story of Sarah Winchester. The way in which her legacy has forever been spookified by ghost tourism and media fascinates me. It resulted in the 2018 movie Winchester, starring Helen Mirren as the mysterious Sarah Winchester herself. If you’re interested in the paranormal, you probably already know how Sarah Winchester built the Winchester Mystery House in such a way as to confuse wandering spirits of those who had been killed by the very rifles her fortune hailed from. There was construction on the building around the clock, with new rooms being added all of the time. Sarah was “obsessed” with the number 13, and the gun paranoia of hers resulted in weird staircases, doors leading to nowhere and more.
Only, none of this is true. Back in January of 2018, the NY Times ran a piece which explored this fascination with Winchester in more detail. Winchester biographer, Mary Jo Ignoffo attributes the ghostly stories as ‘cooked up by journalists of her day’. It is damage from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which resulted in doors and staircases leading to nowhere and other such oddities. As for the guilty conscience about all the gun death ghosts, Ignoffo says this was a little hard to believe. “There’s no evidence for that … nobody felt guilty about guns at the turn of the 20th century. Everybody used them and needed them.”
When I looked into the Winchester story a number of years ago, the thing that really struck me was the fact that Sarah Winchester sounded like a woman in mourning rather than some “mad” woman. She had lost a baby and her husband, was known to wear dark clothing, so she was less haunted by ghosts and more haunted by the bereavement she had suffered.
These nuggets of truth wont stop people from enjoying the spooky movie said to be ‘based on a true story’, and it won’t stop the ghost curious from taking tours of the infamous house, or from believing the ghost stories associated with it. Maybe even experiencing ghostly activity while there! However, this says more about them than it can ever say about Sarah Winchester and is a good example of why you can’t always believe what you’re told about haunted houses. People should tread carefully when undertaking ghost hunts at such places because the ghost stories that you hunt are often the rehashed stories of people who suffered tragedy and you run the risk of being someone who takes joy from that exploitation. The Sarah Winchester story reminds me of the poor souls who were imprisoned at Shepton Mallet Prison here in the UK and now live on, apparently, as ghastly apparitions. My visit there with Danny Robins of Haunted podcast left me feeling less than amused at the tackiness of it all.
Use your unscientific ghost hunting devices, your psychics and your ouija boards all you like, but know that you risk walking away from these venues with a reinforced belief in ghosts which is based on ‘a true story’ that isn’t so true after all.