Between the Living and the Dead

Uncontainable Ghosts: The Winchester Mystery House

On one street in this world, you can find Winchester Optometry, Winchester Smoke Shop, Winchester Pavilion, Winchester Auto Shop, and more than one Winchester Building. The day I’m on this street it’s in July in California and it’s sunny and hot and clear. I’m not here for these other Winchesters, I’m here for the Winchester Mystery House, sometimes described as “the house that spirits built.” Once isolated, surrounded only by empty fields, I now walk to it from a mall parking deck, passing a bank, something called Splunk, and three dome-shaped movie theaters that are now abandoned and used for additional mall parking. They remind me of another era’s idea of the future, of space. Waiting for the light to change so I can cross Winchester Boulevard, here in the capital of Silicon Valley, I wonder if anyone in my current range of vision is a billionaire, and beside me the Winchester Mystery House looms in the spot where it’s always been but now feels dramatically out of place, anachronistic and strange, an ambiguous monument to something undefined. Perhaps to wealth and guilt and violence and power and the dead and the lingering appeal of novelty tourist traps in the so-called American West.

As the famous story goes, Sarah Winchester, a bereaved widow, grieving mother, and heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms company fortune, as well as its majority shareholder, was informed by a medium in New Haven sometime after her husband’s death in 1881 that she and her fortune and family were cursed, haunted, and that her only hope was to move West and build a home for all those killed by Winchester arms, which, following the Civil War, was a lot of people. She began construction in 1884, with no master plan for the mansion beyond its purpose of appeasing spirits, and according to legend, work on the estate continued ceaselessly until her death in 1922. Once seven stories, but after one of California’s not infrequent but always terrifying natural disasters, the mansion is now only four stories, and open to the public for $39 guided tours, during which visitors can see up close the doors that lead to nowhere, the windows that look into other rooms, and the many tiny stairs of Sarah Winchester. The trees out front are beautiful and so California, Palms and Junipers and Redwoods. As with certain tombs I’ve visited, no photography is allowed inside, although whether out of respect for the dead or concern over ownership of the visual register is unclear.

The house has a very fraught relationship to guns. Built with the wealth produced by weapons sales in and around wartime, perhaps intended as a sort of personal reparation to the dead, but then a personal reparation in the form of a sprawling mansion for a very wealthy woman to live in, the privately owned tourist destination’s stance on guns and the violence they engender is ambiguous. While a tour of the mansion is $39, a visit to the small Winchester Historic Firearms Museum, accessible through the Winchester Mystery House Gift Shop, where mugs and T-shirts bearing illustrations of the mansion as well as toy guns are available for sale, is free. On display there are rifles, bullets, old promotional materials, and perhaps the most unsettling relic, “an Indian portrait created in 1941 at a shooting exhibition given by Adolph Topperwein at the Wabash Gun Club, Wabash, Indiana.” The portrait is a blank silhouette outlined in bullet holes.

There’s a movie about all this. It came out in 2018, starring Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester, and like the house-turned-tourist-attraction in which it was partially filmed, it similarly avoids any clear stance on gun violence. In the movie, Sarah designs and builds each new room in the house for a specific spirit, and then seals them inside using thirteen nails, thus putting lost souls to rest. The board of the Winchester Repeating Arms company hires a doctor to assess Sarah’s mental fitness, having come to suspect it to be defective given her obsession with the dead, and her belief that the dead are near to her, that they communicate with her, that they can and do hold her accountable for that which she owes them, a woman made rich by their suffering. To the board these beliefs mark her as unsound and unfit, and they assure the doctor that he will be generously compensated if he obeys his devotion to reason and officially diagnoses her as insane. The crazy woman who believes in ghosts, the rational man there to save her from those beliefs—or more to the point to disprove them and in so doing humiliate or institutionalize her, vacating her power to return it to men better-suited to maintain the efficient flow of death and capital—these figures are familiar in horror as they are familiar everywhere else.

In this movie, not so surprisingly given the genre, Sarah is right and the ghosts are real. It isn’t necessary to get too deep into the plot—which ranges from the predictable to the baffling, and includes a possessed child, a magical bullet, a wife’s tragic suicide, black veils, nails falling out of walls, and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906—more than to note that the main antagonist of the film, the ghost for whom finishing his “unfinished business” involves terrorizing the Winchester family, is a the spirit of a young white man who fought for the Confederate army, lost his brothers in the war, and then afterwards perpetrates the familiar tragedy of a mass shooting followed by suicide. For him the room is not enough to put him to rest, he demands more violence and more death. As the doctor battles this dead confederate soldier, he is helped by other spirits from the house, including several women, enslaved people—one man still with a chain around his neck even in death—and an Indigenous man with beads on his chest and a bow and arrow.

This is a crucial part of a typical ghost story such as this—the injustice, the “unfinished business” that brings the dead in contact with the living is always a solitary injury, a tale of personal misfortune or tragedy, and not instead a response to systemic oppression and injustice and genocide. Ghosts of this violence may appear in the film, but for them the room Sarah built is sufficient, they are containable, they are contained. At the end of the movie, the story of the wealthy white woman, the rational white male doctor, and the angry white male ghost complete—the only issues the movie concerns itself with rectified—the remaining spirits return to their rooms, their minor roles complete. No transformation is required, and so nothing is transformed.

The Winchester Mystery House is just one example of this version of a ghost story, which so often centers around a building such as this, a castle or a manor, something grand now in decline, something once glittering now abandoned, an old hotel when its glory years are now only legend. These are the homes imagined hospitable for hauntings, where ghosts might easily rattle and moan in the night, women in white, women in black, bloody dukes, Victorian children. But after these centuries of violence, of genocide, of enslavement, of gendered violence and economic violence, of erasure and incarceration and premature death and slow death, the land of the dead is overfull, and ghosts are everywhere, every inch of this earth is haunted.

Against these ghosts we have come to expect from certain stories and certain places marked as haunted—ghosts who return to their rooms at peace in the end, atomized and alone, non-threatening to the world beyond their individualized “unfinished business”—I am interested in those ghosts who demand an end to this world, and the construction of another. I am interested in those ghosts who can never be contained, those spirits that do not long to rest but to transform the world and the lives of all those living upon it, and a debt to the dead that can never be done with, never be paid and so forgotten, an endless communion between the living and the dead, where what was lost is not restored unchanged, but understood as never truly gone, never far and never over. I would like to see how ghosts like that, a relationship with the dead like that, might give a different answer to the question of how to live. In Specters of Marx, Derrida writes:

If it—learning to live—remains to be done, it can happen only between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone. What happens between two, and between all the “two’s” one likes, such as between life and death, can only maintain itself with some ghost, can only talk with or about some ghost. So it would be necessary to learn spirits. Even and especially if this, which is neither substance nor essence, nor existence, is never present as such. The time of “learning to live,” a time without tutelary present, would amount to this… to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, in companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts. To live otherwise, and better. No, not better, but more justly. But with them. No being-with the other, no socius without this with that makes being-with in general more enigmatic than ever for us. And this being-with specters would also be, not only but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations. (xvii)

All this, he goes on to explain, for justice. To reckon with the ghosts like this, to be with and live with them, is necessarily to demand the complete transformation of the systems that maintain the careful functioning of the injustice that so devalued their living and now denies and forgets them in death. To live with these ghosts is to turn upside down the structures of white heteropatriarchal colonial domination that have, while chanting “all lives matter,” circumscribed the land of the living in such a way as to include only a few at the expense of everyone else, forgetting Black lives, Native lives, incarcerated lives, queer lives, migrant lives, the list, forever, goes on. To live with these ghosts of the wronged dead, the wrongly dead, is to stand with the living vulnerable to premature death, treated as if as good as dead already. If we are to pursue justice, it is our obligation to reckon with these ghosts, to become mediums—to remember, to listen to and repeat the names and stories of the dead, to hold more in our minds and hearts than ourselves, to give more than we take, to hold ourselves and the world endlessly accountable for the violence and degradation that led to their deaths, and to resist that which tells us such a relationship to the dead, such a coalition with the dead is impractical, impossible. To stay with the dead who won’t be contained, who don’t want to rest, is to learn to live, and to live more justly.


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