How The Winchester Directors Armed Haunted House Horror

clarke mirren winchester
CBS Films

Winchester directors the Spierig Brothers discuss their new haunted house movie and the unique role guns and the Winchester rifle play in both scaring audiences and the history of violence in the United States.

Tabloid legend holds that Sarah Winchester, of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company dynasty, endlessly added new rooms to her mansion to placate the ghosts of those killed by her company’s firearms. The result is a sprawling architectural oddity in San Jose, Calif., and one hell of a ghost story. The new movie Winchester, out Friday, builds on this legend, transforming the skeleton of Winchester’s life story into a rip-roaring haunted house movie.

Winchester begins with Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a washed-up, opium fiend psychologist hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company board to evaluate Sarah Winchester’s (Helen Mirren) sanity. They hope to wrest control of the company from the widow, but Price soon discovers that the ghosts haunting the Winchester mansion are anything but figments of her imagination.

“We shot a piece of the film at the real house. You get a really eerie feeling there and I think it’s because the house is so beautiful and expansive, it kind of sucks you in,” Michael Spierig, one half of the Spierig Brothers directing duo, told Newsweek. “We shot pieces at night. It’s a pretty scary place. Your mind can go crazy at night.”

Winchester is an old-school haunted house movie, keenly aware of the legacy set in the 60s and 70s, with a through line running from House on Haunted Hill and The Innocents, the lush and gruesome era of Hammer Horror, up through The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and The Conjuring.

“We love that those movies try and capture stuff in camera. CGI apparitions aren’t very scary and they don’t feel tactile. We shot as much as we could for real,” Michael said.

There’s one area where Winchester is anything but traditional: the rifles. Guns are not common horror fare. Slashers prefer knives. Zombies aren’t range trained (except Bud, from Day of the Dead). And ghosts typically pick spectral over steel bore terror. But Winchester has guns at the center of its haunts and scares. Set in a country with more guns than people, with over 38,000 gun deaths per year, Winchester tangles its horrors up with the overwhelming violence central to the social turmoil of the United States in 2018.

“You are talking about a hundred years ago,” Peter Spierig said. “There wasn’t the level of automatic weapons, that just didn’t exist.”

Still, there are scenes in Winchester with obvious modern-day resonances, including a workplace massacre and moments that evoke school shootings and other forms of gun violence.

“We certainly were aware of those things when we were doing it. When we were putting the gun in the hands of an 11-year-old child,” Peter said. “It’s an important part of the storytelling, and the audience will see that it’s also reflecting things happening in the moment.”

Both Spierig brothers emphasized that while Winchester is self-conscious of its historical moment, guns play a narrative, rather than polemical, role in the movie. “Guns are the catalyst for Sarah Winchester’s conflict,” Michael said. “A woman plagued by people who were killed at the hands of her rifles is a powerful place to build a story from, especially because she’s profited from it so much and was able to explore her world and fantasy via this instrument of death. Guns are scary.”

“Sarah is haunted by these things,” Peter said. “So what is the cost of that, and what does it mean to have created something like that?”

“That’s something we injected into the film, but it’s not front and center. It’s not a heavy-handed message movie,” Michael said. “Because if you do that in a horror movie or a haunted house movie, you can piss off and alienate your audience.”

The movie’s surprising thoughtfulness about the weapon at the center of its ghost story extends beyond modern gun violence and ties into the entire history of the United States. In Winchester, the titular rifle is both an instrument of historical violence and a symbol of technological progress. “The idea of loading a musket was replaced with the clicking of a lever,” Peter said. “It shaped the way wars could be fought. Muskets first, then 12-13 shot rifles? It’s no competition.”

Walking the halls of the Winchester mansion are the ghosts of Civil War soldiers, slaughtered Native Americans and executed slaves. “You’re talking the gun that won the West, the gun with which a lot of Native Americans were murdered.” Michael said. The rifle becomes the grinding process of American Progress, in all its self-mythologizing and destruction.

Winchester is out in theaters now. Check out Newsweek’s gaming and geek culture site, Player.One, for our full review.