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.
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