The story of Sarah Winchester and her unfinished mansion is one that would not exist without the violence of white colonialism.
In San Jose, there stands an extravagant mansion with hundreds of rooms that is still, technically, unfinished. It has secret rooms, hidden passageways, trap doors, windows in the floors, and staircases that lead to nowhere. The construction of this surreal, monstrous structure was commissioned by Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
Following the unexpected deaths of both her infant daughter and husband, Sarah visited a spiritual medium who gave her a grim answer to her existential questions. Sarah would forever be haunted by the vengeful spirits of those who had fallen victim to the Winchester repeating rifle, more popularly known as “The Gun That Won The West.” Slaughtered by the weapon that created the Winchester fortune and helped to ensure Manifest Destiny, the restless spirits seemed to be attacking the Winchester family in retaliation for the destruction that the rifle had caused during the American-Indian Wars.
The spiritual medium convinced Sarah that this haunting was responsible for the deaths of her family, and that it would forever be attached to her. In an effort to deter the angry ghosts, she began to build the San Jose home in 1884 and the building continued until her death in 1922. It was believed that the maze-like layout and sheer size of the mansion would confuse the spirits and therefore protect her from their wrath.
The story of Sarah Winchester and her unfinished mansion is one that would not exist without the violence of white colonialism, but I do not expect that to be contemplated much in the newest sensationalized version of her story, a biopic and horror drama starring Helen Mirren.
“Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built” is set for release Feb. 2. With this feature, Hollywood continues the tradition of sensationalizing and distorting the reality of Native American suffering in order to tell horror stories that center white characters. The same is true of narratives with Black ghosts that use racialized U.S. chattel slavery and antebellum violences. Rarely are the lives or deaths of Black and Native people explored in horror films unless they are done so in this way. These racialized violences are used as nothing more than plot devices, rather than as a means to interrogate and condemn the white supremacy and colonialism that necessitates them.
Stephen King took inspiration from the Winchester mansion for “Rose Red” (2002), a TV miniseries which terrified me as a child. This had an accompanying tale, “The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer” (2003), a prequel written by Ridley Pearson. Both of these deliver a version of the Winchester mystery with the cliché of placing the Rose Red mansion on an Indian Burial Ground and naming that as the source of its haunting.
Jay Anson’s 1977 bestseller, “The Amityville Horror”, is likely the beginning of the Indian Burial Ground motif in contemporary horror. The book posits that the Amityville house is haunted because it stands on ancient Shinnecock Indian land, which is very likely not true since it was the Lenape people who resided in that area. Regardless, the fear that this rumor incited became forever attached to the story of the infamous Dutch colonial with eye-like windows and carried over effortlessly when the book and the story that it’s based on was adapted into the now classic horror production of the same name in 1979.
From there, the concept of white families in places built on or near ancient/sacred Native lands became a fixture in U.S. horror films, which gave them the monolithic name of “Indian Burial Ground.” A year after “The Amityville Horror” came “The Shining” (1980), in which the Overlook Hotel is said to be built on Indian Burial Ground. It is a common misconception, or perhaps a case of the Mandela Effect, that the “Poltergeist” (1982) house stands on Indian Burial Ground, but that is actually in “Poltergeist II” (1986). Stephen King uses the Indian Burial Ground motif yet again in “Pet Sematary” (1989). Even the creepy town in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992) was apparently erected on Indian Burial Ground and is the reason for the significant amount of paranormal happenings there.
There have been many other misunderstood Native American legends and caricatures used as a source of horror in U.S. films, but the Indian Burial Ground remains the most commonly recognized and over-used. But the white settler preoccupation with and fetishization/fear of the apparent mysticism and vengeance of wrongfully dead Native Americans began long before Amityville was “haunted” and Stephen King sat before his typewriter. Philip Freneau, known as the Poet of the American Revolution, wrote “The Indian Burying Ground” in 1787:
“There oft a restless Indian queen
(Pale Shebah, with her braided hair)
And many a barbarous form is seen
To chide the man that lingers there”
The narrative of the haunted Indian Burial Ground whose spirits terrorize white settlers is indicative of the anxiety of the colonizers and the land that they have colonized. Horror films address this fear by continually attempting the destruction of white middle-class families and homeownership, especially in haunted house narratives like “Winchester”. These tales give audiences the opportunity to work through that ever-present anxiety by consuming stories that display white homeowners being haunted by those with rightful ownership to the land, and that typically allow the home owners to ultimately prosper in the end. We might read this cinematic pattern as a means to vicariously relive the colonialist violence that was enacted upon Native peoples to begin with.
Native writer Terri Jean interrogates the U.S. horror film obsession with Native American vengeance and the Indian Burial Ground motif in “Another Indian Burial Ground, Please….” In this piece, Jean presents five theories about why it had persisted for so many years, including the “bad Indian” stereotype that reifies the “savage” mythos and the white fear of perceived Native American “mysticism.” Lastly, there is Theory Five:
“Karma and guilt. Americans know that atrocities were committed and hundreds of nations were obliterated or nearly obliterated. Retribution is feared, and some people may believe that the ghosts of those who died due to this nation’s invasion and European takeover will some day come back to get their revenge.”
There is a morsel of truth in these horror narratives. White settlers are living and thriving in spaces of Native American death and suffering, and there is a palpable fear that the land that was taken through violence will also be restored through the violence doled out by vengeful spirits. If houses like the Winchester mansion are haunted because they are built upon ancient burial grounds and stolen land, then this entire nation is haunted, and we should be rooting for the ghosts.