This Horror Movie Is Based on a True Story. Sort Of.

Posted January 27, 2018 3:35 p.m. EST

The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is incredibly whimsical or intensely eerie, depending on how you view such things, with stairs leading to the ceiling and doors that open to nowhere. The grand estate was the home of Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune, who, according to legend, had workers ceaselessly laboring on the house for decades, from 1884 until her death in 1922. She undertook the project at the behest of a New England seer to delay her own demise, one version of the story goes, or to calm the spirits of the thousands of souls killed throughout the ages by Winchester rifles, as another version has it.

The tale has all the makings of a good horror flick: a mysterious medium; a weird, possibly haunted house; a reclusive heiress who may or may not have been insane; ghosts. Best of all, the story is true — or is it?

In “Winchester,” which opens Friday, directors Peter and Michael Spierig (“Predestination,” “Jigsaw”) have taken the Northern California tale at its spooky word, filling the mansion with levitating rifles, rocking chairs that move by themselves, and the specters of an army of long-dead war veterans and murder victims. Then there’s Helen Mirren, dressed head to toe in mourning black, as the mysterious Winchester. Cue the fin de siècle jump scare.

Studio marketers are playing up the “true story” angle on trailers and posters and news releases, hoping to make the already scary story even more so. But the studio also added the label because it couldn’t assume that people outside Northern California would even have heard of Sarah Winchester and her house.

“Winchester” is the latest in a grand line of horror films to trade on such supposed veracity. “Based on a true story,” the trailers to these films trumpet, or “inspired by actual events.” The 1979 “The Amityville Horror” was based on a supposed haunting from 1975 (“You will believe,” the trailer intoned). The macabre exploits of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin murderer who fashioned furniture and clothing out of human body parts, inspired films from “Psycho” to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (“What happened is true,” one film poster read) to “The Silence of the Lambs.”

And the practice shows no sign of abating. Last year, there were “Amityville: The Awakening” (“inspired by true events”), the 18th in the series, and the UFO thriller “Phoenix Forgotten” (“based on shocking untold true events”); “Conjuring 3” is still to come. But these are horror films. Do we need them to be authentic as well?

“If you can establish that there’s a true story, or that there are factual elements being woven into the story, then you’ve taken a big step in inducing a creepy mood in your audience,” said Stephen Prince, a cinema studies professor at Virginia Tech and editor of “The Horror Film,” a collection of essays about the genre.

But how true to life can a horror film be, particularly ones, like “Winchester,” that are filled with spirits and apparitions? And who would believe these claims in the first place?

“The audience for horror films is a very self-selected audience, in a way that’s not true for a lot of other genres,” Prince said. “People who go to these films are ready to believe.”

Interestingly enough, the “true story” of Sarah Winchester, the one that keeps crowds flocking to the San Jose tourist attraction, was in doubt long before the Spierig brothers had their go at it. Sure, there was a real Sarah Winchester, and she did build a house in San Jose, but much of what people think they know about the woman and her house involves spook stories cooked up by journalists of her day, said Winchester biographer Mary Jo Ignoffo, author of “Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune.”

The stairs to the ceiling and the doors that lead nowhere? The result of earthquake damage left unrepaired after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. All those rooms? A reflection of Winchester’s interest in architecture and interior design — she came from a long line of woodworkers — not her belief in spiritualists or the supernatural. Her supposed “gun guilt”?

“There’s no evidence for that,” Ignoffo said. “Nobody felt guilty about guns at the turn of the 20th century. Everybody used them and needed them.”

“The fundamental lie is that the building of the house went on 24/7,” Ignoffo continued. “She didn’t even live in the house for the last 15 years of her life.”

None of which will lessen a viewer’s enjoyment of the film — nor should it, particularly when it comes to horror movies. “I think with horror, ‘based on a true story’ is much more loosely applied,” said Jonathan Vankin, author of “Based on a True Story: Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorite Movies.”

And with horror films about ghosts and paranormal sightings, you’re often getting what people say they saw, amplified by all the appropriate special effects. “So there are really two levels of reality there,” he said. “It becomes very meta. So yes, it’s a ‘true story,’ but maybe one with an unreliable narrator.”

Even so, the filmmakers read all they could about the house and its owner, consulted historical documents and period photographs, and visited the home five times. (While exterior shots were filmed in San Jose, much of the film was made on a set in Australia, where the directors are based.) Among the completely true elements included in the film are the home’s weird switchback staircase and the very unspooky reason for it. Winchester had rheumatoid arthritis, and the low-stepped stairs functioned as something of a ramp.

While the film and the biography couldn’t be less alike, both reach similar conclusions about Winchester: She was considerably more heroic, and considerably less nuts, than she has sometimes been painted. In Ignoffo’s book, Winchester is a savvy businesswoman; a beloved employer; and a generous sister, aunt and philanthropist. In “Winchester,” she’s a tough heroine out to protect her family and home from evil spirits and greedy company executives alike.

If the film often strays from the truth for the sake of a good scare — there’s no record that Winchester was ever attacked by a boy possessed by the ghost of a murderous Confederate soldier, for example — that’s fine with its creators. “Ultimately you’re not making a documentary,” Michael Spierig said. “You’re making a piece of entertainment.”