Have you ever had a dream in which you were trying, unsuccessfully, to find your way out of a large house or other building? You feel lost, frustrated, or panicky. You encounter hallways or stairways that lead nowhere, or perhaps circle back upon themselves. Odd passageways or doors all around, yet none seem to get you closer to the outside and the light of day. These types of dreams are not uncommon. They tend to occur when we feel lost or overwhelmed by life’s challenges and the obstacles that stand before us. Such dreams reflect our struggle to make sense of life, to find our path, and to negotiate the maze our own psychology.
In 1884, at the age of 44, Sarah L. Winchester, heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms estate, purchased an unfinished eight-room farmhouse near San Jose, California. For the next 38 years of her mostly reclusive life Ms. Winchester directed an around-the-clock construction project that transformed that farmhouse into a 160 room, multi-leveled Victorian mansion sprawling across six acres of land. This strange house, the Winchester Mystery House, is estimated to have had over 500 rooms, although not all at one time. Finely crafted rooms would be built, then torn down, replaced, or reconfigured during a ceaseless remodeling process that ended only with her death. The final result was a confusing, maze-like house with windows between rooms or placed in the floor, doors that opened into walls, chimneys that stopped short of the roof, staircases that climbed to the ceiling, and host of secret passageways. The current home, now a tourist attraction, has over 10,000 window panes, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, six kitchens, and about 950 doors.
Sarah Winchester’s home resembles those in our dreams where we are lost or struggling to find our way out of a building. In fact, Sarah’s home was essentially an externalized dream. It gave physical form to her psyche and reflects the architecture of her soul. For this reason it is fair to ask what we can learn about the psyche from the Winchester Mystery House.
One important feature of the house is its labyrinthine structure. This reflects the fact that the psyche is like a maze. For example, it has different levels: the conscious and the unconscious, the developed and the archaic, the civilized and the primal. The rooms of our soul house (psyche) reveal different aspects of our personality. Some are open, allowing easy access to certain memories, feelings, and life experiences. Others are closed or even locked. Some are in the attic (a symbol of the intellect) and others in the basement (reservoir of the instincts). Some are well kept and others have been neglected. Many contain potentials, talents, gifts, or other treasures that are waiting to be discovered, embraced, and inhabited. The psyche is complex, perhaps especially to oneself. For all that we think we know about it, it remains, like the universe, a mystery beyond our grasp. Your psychology is a fascinating, labyrinthine puzzle.
Another aspect of the psyche is that it is ever-expanding. Dreams of moving to a new home, building an addition, or discovering new rooms in your house all imply growth, or the opportunity to inhabit a larger sphere of your being. The psyche likes growth. It thirsts for and pursues the development of your gifts and talents, and the expansion of consciousness. Sarah Winchester’s house gives outward physical expression to the inner reality that personal growth is a lifelong process. Amplifying this line of thought, one psychic who explored the house claimed that he could hear the hammering and sawing of a carpentry crew. He hypothesized that Sarah’s house is still being built on “the other side.” Sarah, herself, believed that as long as she continuously built her house she would attain immortality.
The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 damaged significant portions of the Winchester house– especially the front of the house–and trapped Ms. Winchester in one of its rooms. The experience left her psychologically shaken. The damage to her house is said to have caused Sarah to question the wisdom of her enterprise and the amount of money she was spending on it. In dreams, as well as in waking life, earthquakes often symbolize the need for a shift in goals or a change of perspective in our life. Earthquakes destroy what has been built up, especially those structures that are unstable, outworn, or obsolete. Symbolically, they shatter the too-constricting worldview of the ego. Such was the soul-shaking effect of the 1906 earthquake upon Sarah Winchester. Her response was to move to San Francisco and live on a houseboat for the next six years of her life. However, she continued to direct construction by mail and messenger. She had the front of the house re-stabilized and boarded up, and then turned her attention to the back of the house. This may suggest a change in focus from the persona, symbolized by the front, or public face of the house, to the interior, or hidden personality, symbolized by the back of the house. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that this instinctive shift of focus occurred at an inner, psychological level for Sarah. Shaken but probably not transformed, the intended inner change was deflected outward into the physical structure of her increasingly tumorous home.
Eighteen years after the death of her infant daughter and three years after the death of her husband, Sarah Winchester consulted a Boston psychic. She was seeking help for her severe and relentless depression. The psychic informed Sarah that her depression, as well as the deaths of her daughter and husband, were caused by the restless spirits of people who had been killed by the Winchester rifle. She was told that in order to appease these spirits she must build a huge house that would provide lodging for the good spirits and allow her to outsmart and avoid the evil ones. Perhaps the Winchester House was a hostel for disenfranchised spirits. Looked at symbolically, Sarah dwelt so much upon her dead loved ones that her psyche became a home for the dead. In fact, her nightly communion with deceased spirits may suggest that she had become wedded to death and enmeshed with her unconscious. She was deeply attached to and driven by her unconscious, but in an unreflective way. As a result, her adaptation and engagement with outer life was crippled and impaired. Rather than exploring and learning from her nightly architectural visions, she seemed to enact them without reflection. One has the sense that she was never able to move beyond the deaths of her infant daughter and her husband. It is likely that constant building, shopping, and nighttime séances became 24/7 diversions and distractions from loneliness, grief, and an unreasonable shouldering of guilt.
Within Sarah Winchester’s house were three safes, one within another and both of these within a third. The last and smallest safe held the things most dear to Ms. Winchester: a lock of hair from her infant daughter and some of her husband’s personal effects. The core of your psyche also holds what is most valuable in yourself. This includes the deeper values, gifts and calling that form the foundation of your individuality and destiny.
Sarah Winchester’s psyche was projected outward into an ever-changing, ever-expanding structure. Her mansion is filled with many rooms reflective of her many selves, interests, perspectives and potentials. Like the house of your own soul, it also contains the multitude of challenges, questions, opportunities, dead-ends, and breakthroughs that will define your journey through life. It contains the central safe, or treasure chest, that holds all the things you most deeply cherish and value, the motivating core and reason of your being. Your soul house is the only house that goes with you to the other side. The integrity of this house rests upon your willingness to live your life by the blueprints of your deepest self. If you are going to find your way through the labyrinth of your psyche, build the house that builds and gives life to your soul.