Joshua Werner – Building a Mystery House
Building a Mystery House
By Jay S. Jacobs
The world has always been fascinated by enigmatic, potentially haunted houses. One of the sites that has long intrigued people is the legendary Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.
The Winchester House was built by Sarah Winchester, an heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, a business that made a fortune by making rifles. The Mystery House was built in 1896, and it was constantly under construction until Sarah Winchester’s death in 1922. Rooms were built and destroyed, seemingly random touches like staircases which go nowhere or doors that open into rooms a story below the door have fascinated people for generations.
Sarah Winchester was a very private woman, so no one knows her motivation in this constant building and rebuilding. Therefore, many theories as to her purposes have been hypothesized. It has long been theorized that she about guilt and was haunted by the spirits of people who were killed by her family’s weapons. Some people think she was crazy. Others believe that it was an altruistic move on her part – she was bringing employment to many local workers.
In the years since her death, the Winchester Mystery House has gained an international reputation as being haunted. For years it has been open as a museum, with the house’s supernatural reputation as a huge selling point. The house has inspired books, movies (most recently Winchester a few years ago), television (Stephen King’s miniseries Rose Red was loosely based on the Winchester House) and countless other stories.
Now, it is about to become a comic book series. Announced at the recent San Diego Comic-Con @ Home, Source Point Press has announced that writer Joshua Werner and artist Dustin Irvin are putting pen and ink to paper to tell the fascinating history of the Winchester House.
Right after his appearance at the virtual Comic-Con, we caught up with The Winchester Mystery House writer Werner to discuss the haunting and his new comic rendition of the story.
Why do you think that the Winchester Mystery House has intrigued people for so many years?
I think a big part of what draws everybody in – to this day – is the number of unknowns. Sarah Winchester was such a private person. There were almost no blueprints or documents that recorded the process of building this incredible house. It leaves so much to question. The press, even back in the heyday, were really interested in her and wanted answers about what it was she was doing. So much of the community was employed by her. Even then she wasn't giving answers. A lot of the lore that surrounds the house is speculation. A lot of the information that we have about her activities actually comes secondhand from some of the neighbors and people in the community. One of the books that I read was really interesting. A lot of the information in the book was coming from someone who knew some of the people who were employed by her and was constantly digging for information.
That must be interesting.
In the end, we just really don't know why she did some of the things that she did and made some of the choices that she did. Because of what we know about her past and her loss and her grief and some of the speculation about spiritualism, which was so popular at the time, it gets exciting as we start to fill in the blanks of what it was [that] she was attempting to do. That's the part where fiction comes in and lends a really good hand to offering up potential explanations for some of these things.
You are telling a fictional story, but it is based on real people and real places. Is that a difficult thing to balance – telling a story that is your own, and yet being true to the people and places behind it?
It is. It is a big, big challenge. There's so little known about some of the employees. Then there is some information that we do have that either doesn't lend itself to the story, or I almost feel is still kind of private. It’s still kind of theirs. There are relatives, descendants of people who are in this comic that are alive today. If one of them were to pick something up, I want to respect all their wishes.
Some of the things that we did is we changed a lot of names. We based characters on people and what we knew about them. Then we take a bit of a fictitious leap from there. I'm so fascinated in the real history, and the real relationships, that I try really hard to be true to everything I've been able to learn about everyone, including Sarah’s niece, and her foreman, all the way to her carriage driver. They're all magnificent people who loved her and protected her and were on her side. It's really endearing. Unfortunately, what this has left me with is a cast of really great characters that doesn't leave a lot of room for conflict. (laughs) She treated the workers so well that there weren't really a whole lot of issues. Because of that, it makes it difficult sometimes to write in some of the conflicts. But we found some ways.
Just on a basic level, why do you think that haunted houses and spirits are fascinating to people? I've always found them much scarier than most other type of horror genres.
Same. There is something about that type of fiction that I feel is just this much more real to us. This much closer to us. When we read about things like monsters and creatures and even cryptids that supposedly have been seen, it doesn't feel like it can harm us in the same way that the supernatural can. Ghosts are something that everyone feels is just a thin veil away from them at any given moment, should they be in the right position in the right time and right place. Because of that, this idea of haunted houses and the stories that we have, especially here in America goes back to early days and tying into so much history, it is so rich and so fascinating. Everyone wants to have that experience. They want to have any confirmation for themselves that the supernatural is real. So many people have had experiences at the Winchester Mystery House that it's been influential in pop culture. It's the basis of so many other great stories.
I think the first time that I heard of it was when Stephen King did that miniseries Rose Red that was based on Winchester. It's also been used for movies and books and many other things. What do you think a comic book series can add to that?
Great question. A lot of a lot of people say, “Well, the Winchester movie really told us a lot of the history and the lore.” With a comic book series, we're able to move throughout time – throughout the history of this building. The movie stepped in at the very end when the house was pretty much done. She was already elderly. We don't really get to see what things were happening along the way. What supernatural things were happening along the way? How they might have affected the construction or the crew working on it. Who had experiences in the house? So much of our documented history about the house comes after Sarah's death – after the building was stopped. It's like, these things happened on certain tours, or these things happened to the new owners, or whatever the case.
Yes, lots of stories through the years.
A comic book really allows us to move through time episodically and show everyone what things were like the very beginning. We can give them that year one feel, what was the priorities for the construction and why. If it's true that she needed a séance room to go to every single night to get her instructions on what to build the following day. It makes sense to think that that would be one of the very first rooms to be built, which is the subject of the first issue, called “The Heart of the House.” Building this room that will act as the heart of the actual house, in a very both metaphoric and literal way. The idea that the house now comes to life and becomes an entity in this comic series of its own, and the séance room is the heart of it. There's so much more that we can do. There are no budget restrictions, the sky's the limit. We can continue this throughout time. Volume One is three issues. Issue one takes place at the very beginning. Then issues two and three are 10 years later.
This doesn't even get us close to the massive earthquake that nearly destroyed the entire house and trapped Sarah in her bedroom. There's so much more of her life and story to tell. Next year, we can come back with the Volume Two, and we can continue this. It's just the perfect medium for such a thing. Hopefully, it also really inspires people to go dig in and look. Do some research of their own. There's so many things and theories about the house that aren't explored in a single story. While I love the Winchester film, it really takes all the low hanging fruit as far as the reasons for things. The ghosts and what they're doing and why they're there. The comic book allows me a little more time to explore other avenues beyond just that scratching the surface like the film did. Dive deeper into her as a human being and some of the things that she did. She was incredibly charitable and generous. I find opportunities to work that into the story. It's very, very cool. I feel like it could go quite a while.
You mentioned in your talk for Comic Con that you often go on the virtual tour of the house [online]. How many times have you done that and how many times have you been able to actually go to the house and tour it?
I’ve probably done the virtual tour about a dozen times. I do a self-guided version. Basically I see if I can figure out my way around. After 12 attempts, I have not been able to figure out my way around. (laughs) I personally have not physically been to the house yet, but I will be there soon. In a couple of weeks actually, we're going to be having an event there that we haven't announced the details of yet. I'm really, really excited about it and going to take a ton of pictures too. I've known about the house and wanted to visit it for a long time – much longer than this comic book has been in the works. I'm absolutely thrilled.
Like you said, the, one of the fascinating things about the house is it seems so random. I mean, it's not like she was just doing one type of building. There are staircases that go nowhere. There are doors that lead to nowhere. It's almost like stream of consciousness architecture. What are some of the architectural quirks that you've run across in the house that fascinate you, even through the virtual tours?
One of the most fascinating things to me is there is a room that has a window on the floor. Just on the floor. It's a full window. It looks like a mistake. If you took one wrong step, you would fall through it. There are some things you can argue your way out of, like: oh, okay, they reworked and rebuilt this part of the room that the stairs stop there, because they closed it off later and they put a wall up. But a window on the floor is not really something you can explain away. And I'm very happy to have worked that window into the story. A lot of the quirks actually get worked into this story. The staircase that goes nowhere and just ends at a ceiling that is worked into the story. I go about offering explanations for them in the story, which are fictitious ones. It's very, very fun to speculate, especially when you have supernatural elements to work with.
I can imagine.
I'm really excited for people to get to that point in the story. There's a lot of interesting unfinished rooms, too, where it seems like priorities were ever shifting. One of the cool things about the séance room itself is that it was always said that Sarah was seen entering and never seen exiting. If you go to that room, there are three different doors. There's the one that she would enter through. There is a second door on the inside. But if you were to open it, you would fall to the floor beneath, into a sink in the kitchen. Then the way that she was known to have exited was a secret door. It's inside of a cabinet. It looks like a big cabinet, you open it, there's a little step up. It's a secret exit, which is very, very cool. But to this day, the room that it exits to, is completely unfinished and bare. There's not even walls up, it's just wood. It always intrigued me that if this is truly a route that she would take frequently, you'd think it would be a priority to do something with that room.
You’d think so….
It makes you wonder if she was so secretive about certain spots in the house – certain rooms and certain secret passages – that she kept some of those secrets from the crew themselves. There were constantly multiple construction crews coming and going. So, it makes sense that there were probably certain things in the house that were worked on very quietly with a very small crew and were probably top secret. [That] is another thing that I talked about a little bit in the comic book series – putting your trust in the foreman and having him work on secret projects amidst all the others. I find that just utterly fascinating.
Nobody knows really what Sarah’s motives were. Just through your research and your imagination as a storyteller, have you come up with some theories about what she was thinking about and why she did all these things?
I think she was brilliant. I think she was completely sane. I know a lot of people toss around ideas of her being crazy or doing everything out of fear. Is it possible that she was into spiritualism? Is it possible she saw a medium? Is it possible she believed in a curse? Yes, absolutely. I think the reason for that is spiritualism was so popular at that time. it was post-Civil War. Everyone had lost someone. Everyone was looking for answers and ways to contact people. That created a business in America. There were a lot of people trying to prey on those grieving. So, I do think that's possible.
Yes, definitely possible.
I also think that she has so much hidden symbolism in this house. She enjoyed literature and puzzles. While it hasn't been proven, she did spend a lot of time in Europe before she moved to California. She spent a significant amount of time in France. She comes from a line of Freemasons. In France, at the time, women were allowed to be Freemasons, which is not allowed in America. So I really do think that during that time she spent time with the Freemasons, became a Freemason. I think that she hid a lot of symbolism in the house as she was constructing it. Maybe there are secrets of that house that only Freemasons could unlock. Or it's a puzzle that no one will ever unlock. But I do believe that it's not random. I think that there was so much rapid growth and change that some of it may appear random to us now. But I do think she knew what she was doing. Even if it was nothing other than satisfying her own interests and keeping people employed with her wealth. If nothing else, that's a pretty nice way to use it.
With such as fascinating setting, I know that the artwork is very important. How did you and Dustin go about making sure that the house’s oddball grandeur is captured visually?
We've spent so much time communicating on that. In the scripts, I have reference imagery called out for almost every scene. There's a note to Dustin, like, “Okay, I've got these pictures for you, you go to this folder.” A lot of the time that is spent doing the digital virtual walkthroughs is so that I can take screenshots of certain rooms and get a sense of where a scene will take place in the house. That has been invaluable. Trying to just sort through random photos – even in essence that were provided to me by the licensor – is overwhelming to say the least. So to get a sense of a place in the house that we can actually set a scene makes things so much easier.
Yes, I see that.
It makes it easier on Dustin, but I will admit that anybody who knows the house really well [is] going to probably call it call me out on a few things here and there. I wouldn't say corners were cut, but essentially things that make it easier to get from point A to point B in a manner in time that is helpful to the story. Someone's proximity to the front door when a guest has arrived when they were in this room – [that] may be altered to make sure that they can get to the door in a timely manner and not take 45 minutes to walk through the house. (laughs) Things like that.
It’s a bit of poetic license.
But I do highlight specific rooms that are all real in the house so that people can see these backgrounds and go “Hey, wow, this makes me want to go on the tour.” Then go on the tour, bring their comic with them and go, “I'm in the room. This is the room where this happened.” On top of that, I also send Dustin a lot of close-up imagery of really particular objects. Things that I think would be really cool to highlight in the comic book series, such as inventions and things that she included in the house. There's a scene that takes place in the maid's quarters. There is an invention there where there's a call box essentially throughout the house. Sarah Winchester, when she needs help, and needs a maid to find her, she can go to one of those rooms, push a button. Then down in the maid’s quarters, a number would drop down onto this big panel on the wall and they would say, “Oh, she's in room 27.” All of them would know exactly what room that was. They could go and attend to her. Which is got to be a lot easier than her wandering through a labyrinth yelling because she needs something. It's something nice, really close-up detailed photos.
Of course the [Winchester Mystery] House [Museum] has been fantastic. If I ever need something specific, all I have to do is ask and they can get me images of it. That's been really useful for Dustin. Luckily, he really cares about accuracy. Sometimes if I forget to give him the imagery, he'll do the research on his own to make sure that something's accurate. Or he'll follow up with me and make sure I get him whatever he needs, so that he's not doing any guesswork or making up any visual elements.
Obviously, we had a crazy year in this past year. You can't just have people come into the office. Was everything that you did pretty much done virtually, or how did you guys work that?
Yes. I'm in Michigan, and Dustin is in Texas. I have worked with Dustin from a publishing standpoint before, as our director here. Dustin previously worked on a comic book called The Seance Room, which is also about ghosts and haunted mansions. [That] is why I thought he was perfect for this project. I got to know him that way, by contacting him, going back and forth, working with files on that comic book. He was my first choice for who I would want to work with on this book. But everything that we do is over the phone, or through zoom, or through FaceTime. I've never actually met him in person. But I hope to. I want to do some shows in Texas where we can both sign together, I think that would be really fun.
Terrific. Now speaking of virtual things, what was it like to be part of the virtual Comic-Con? Have you ever been to a normal Comic-Con before?
Yes, we have. We have done San Diego Comic-Con a couple times in person. I was on a panel for the virtual one they did last year as well. That was a little bit different. It was a group setting where we talked with multiple publishers. For this one, I felt like this was a really great opportunity to introduce people to the book and have this be their first big look at it. So it was really important to me that we take time in making this the best it could be. I didn't want this to just be a recording of a zoom call between Dustin and I talking. So getting some footage of the house [added to it]. Very cool footage, including an aerial shot. To open it up with getting Walter Magnuson, the general manager of the Winchester House, to film inside the house an introduction for us. Then editing it all together. Editing my portions and Dustin's portions together. Editing in shots of him drawing. Even editing in old footage of me just talking to my phone being excited when I got a piece of art. I really wanted it to feel like a mini documentary, more so than a panel. I hope that came across to those who watched it and I hope they enjoyed it. We were so happy to partner with Comic-Con on that. They are very excited about this IP and very easy to work with on it too. Maybe next year, we'll have something even cooler for it as well.
Okay, one last question – when and where will the comic series be available?
Right now, issue one is available to pre order in your local comic bookstore. It's in Previews catalog. It's also available to preorder at sourcepointpress.com, which is the publisher website. It will be in stores October 27. Then it will be one month in between each issue after that. The last Wednesday of November will be issue two, the last Wednesday of December will be issue three. Then there will be a break and a Volume One trade paperback. Then if everything goes well which, so far, I think it's going to go great, we'll be doing a second volume next year. We can take the story a little bit further down the road and dive in even deeper.
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 1, 2021.
Photo #1 ©2021 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.
Artworks #2-5 ©2021. Courtesy of Source Point Press. All rights reserved.