Legend has it that Sarah Winchester, whose husband invented the Winchester Rifle, believed she was cursed when he and their daughter died in quick succession. To try to make amends, she built an ever-expanding house for the spirits of the people shot by the gun.
As a result, this project saw us managing a delicate balancing act. Our brief was to produce an experience that met the conflicting needs of being immersive for scary movie buffs but also family-friendly and sensitive to the tragic surroundings.
Within this framework, our key challenge was to transport visitors, says Michael Taffe, Director of Operations: “I want it to feel like Sarah Winchester just stepped out for a few minutes and you're visiting her home. You’re experiencing the sights, sounds, smells and everything you would have back in the day.”
There were physical as well as creative challenges. How could we build upon the complex technological set up that had been constantly added to over the years? What was the best way to install cables, speakers and lighting while the site was open to the public? And how would we navigate spiderwebs and coal dust that had been accumulating, possibly since Sarah Winchester’s time in the house?
As well as creating a short-term Halloween experience, we wanted to put in place the building blocks to enhance the everyday tour for the long-term. Jason Reinier, our Sound Designer, explains: “What we had the opportunity to do was create a technological system that animates the house, gives it a voice, and supports the storytelling of guides that host the tours in the house.”
We took a tag-team approach to delivering this experience in time for the holiday. Led by the truly collaborative Director of Operations at Winchester Mystery House, our team sparked ideas off the Hollywood scriptwriter who wrote the story, the internal Operations Team, set designers, tour guides, and even visitors.
Together, we worked out what was possible within the constraints of the current technology and layout, created the experience, garnered feedback, iterated and perfected. We considered the ethics and suitability of everything we created so that it was sensitive to the Winchester story.
We worked (masked and in safety gear) around the normal operating schedule, arriving early before visitors, while other people working on the project were on site late into the evening.
It's great to have a team where I share my creative vision and they get it. They run with it. They really collaborate. Moving it from my mind and on paper to seeing it in reality has just been an amazing process.
– Michael Taffe,
Director of Operations, Winchester Mystery House
While you can learn much about the mansion from the comfort of your home thanks to documentaries like Unsolved Mysteries and Ghost Adventures, and even a 99% Invisible podcast, there's nothing quite like visiting the San Jose mansion and fully immersing yourself in the mystery and spookiness of the legend of Sarah Winchester.
Sound Designer Jason Reinier, who led our work on the project, shares how he approached creating an experience that added yet another layer to the house's extraordinary history and intrigue.
The premise of the guided tour is that a paranormal investigative group came to the house to find signs of ghostly activity and were never seen again. As this evening’s tour group tries to solve the mystery of what happened, things start to go wrong…
We've created experiences at two points along the guided tour to support the story.
In the backstage room where a video is rear-projected on three Tiffany glass doors as a screen, we altered the existing daytime tour video so that it seems as if the AV presentation glitches. Lightning effects sync with the video so that it’s as if the disturbance fills the room. To suggest the feeling of a sinister presence, projection mapping creates shadowy silhouette figures behind the glass in-laid doors. The soundscape features breathing, movement and heartbeats as if the spirits of the house are awakened.
As part of the immersive soundscape in the basement, the long-dormant boiler creaks into action. Unexpected noises such as a squeaky wheelbarrow suggest the presence of ghosts that have been described earlier in the tour. All of the random objects abandoned in the room during 100 years of history slowly come back to life, thanks to an eight-channel soundscape we recorded and produced.
This is delivered through the spatial audio system that we installed and will be used for the long-term. The immersive soundscape is also now part of the updated daytime tour, creating a sense of what it was like to live and work in the fascinating Winchester Mystery House all those years ago. It’s as if you’re just a breath away from Sarah Winchester herself and asking her the truth behind the myths.