The Stephen King Mini-Series on ABC Inspired by A Real-Life Ghost Story!
by Troy Taylor

On Sunday, January 27, 2002 ABC-Television brought to life another terrifying vision from the imagination of author Stephen King. In his original television screenplay, he introduced viewers to a haunted house called Rose Red, a chilling mansion with dark secrets and a bloodcurdling past. Many viewers of the mini-series will believe this is simply another story from the mind of the master or horror... never realizing that the story of Rose Red was inspired by a real-life haunted house or that the locations where the movie was filmed is actually haunted!

Courtesy of ABC.com

The six-hour miniseries centers around a house called Rose Red, a turn-of-the-century Seattle mansion that has long been abandoned, but according to local lore, continues to add rooms onto itself. Intrigued by the story, a college professor named Joyce Reardon (played by Nancy Travis) enlists a group of psychics to spend the weekend in the house as a research project. They soon find themselves not only face-to-face with the mansion’s restless spirits but also trapped in a maze of rooms that constantly change locations, dead-end hallways and stairways that lead to nowhere.

Although the house Rose Red is not real, Stephen King has created an entire “history” for the house. The story goes that the house once belonged to a Seattle millionaire and that his wife, Ellen Rimbauer, haunts the mansion after being told that she would live forever as long as construction on Rose Red was never completed.

If the story sounds somewhat familiar to ghost buffs, there’s a reason for that. In an interview with TV Guide, King admits that the story was inspired by the Winchester Mansion in San Jose, California. He first saw the story of the house in one of the “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” comics when he was a kid and remembered it for years after. “According to ’Believe it or Not’”, King recalled, “Oliver Winchester, who invented the famous repeating rifle that won the west, left a daughter-in-law with a belief in Spiritualism when he went to his reward. At one seance, Sarah Winchester asked the medium, ’When will I die?’ .... the medium replied, ’When your house is done’.”

Courtesy of Thornewood Castle
Author Stephen King

As most readers know, the Winchester house was never really completed and construction continued on it around the clock until Sarah Winchester died. She continued to add rooms, hallways and entire wings, claiming to receive blueprints and ideas from the spirits on a nightly basis. (Click Here to see the entire story of the Winchester House) During the preparations to shoot Rose Red, King and a crew from the production company actually visited the Winchester House in hopes that they might be able to do the filming at that location. Unfortunately, they found that most of the rooms were too small to do any creative filming there.

After reading about the Winchester House, the story of a “never-ending mansion” stuck with King and he thought that it might make a good idea for a novel. He became intrigued by the idea of a house that was actually bigger on the inside that the outside. Originally, the idea became part of a screenplay that King started working on in conjunction with Steven Spielberg. They wanted to make the ultimate haunted house film or as they referred to it.. “the scariest haunted house movie ever made”. As Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House came up several times in the their conversations, King decided to expand upon his idea of the never-ending house and combine it with ideas from Jackson’s novel. In the book, a professor who is interested in the paranormal brings in a group of psychics to investigate a haunted house. (The book was filmed in 1963 with great results as The Haunting and then again with tragic results a few years ago by Steven Spielberg) King decided that his professor would be more than just an academic with an interest in ghosts and wrote his character of Joyce Reardon as a kind of “Captain Ahab”, searching for the ultimate psychic experience rather than a white whale.

King also decided to make his ghosts more than simply the product of the mind and turned to the classic themes of the restless dead, and true ghost stories, to flesh out the script. The house itself actually becomes a character in the film, taking on a monstrous life of its own. And like Sarah Winchester’s mansion, it is never quite finished and at one point, the characters hear the sounds of otherworldly hammering and sawing as the house continues to build itself!

Thornewood Castle, where much of Rose Red was filmed.
(Courtesy of Thornewood Castle)

The “Real” Rose Red
Although filming could not be done at King’s original choice for a setting, the Winchester House, there was apparently no shortage of ghosts at the house that was eventually chosen to portray Rose Red in the film. Much of the location work was down at a house called Thornewood Castle near Tacoma, Washington. It is a real house (today used as a bed-and-breakfast) and according to owners Deanna and Wayne Robinson, a place where the ghosts are not just the product of Hollywood!

And this was not the first time that a Stephen King film was shot at an actual haunted location! In 1997, ABC-Television also premiered Stephen King’s underrated mini-series of his book The Shining. For this production, shooting was done at the hotel that actually inspired King’s original book, the Stanley, a stately old hotel located near Estes Park, Colorado. In the early 1970’s, King and his wife spent the night at the hotel thanks to bad weather. He had been working on a book idea about a family trapped at a haunted amusement park, but it was going nowhere. Then one day, he saw a sign in the mountains that warned of roads becoming impassable after October because of the snow. The story of The Shining was moved to the mythical Overlook Hotel after King checked into the place just as it was closing down for the season. The empty hallways and deserted guest areas inspired him to write a man who goes mad after agreeing to act as a caretaker in a haunted hotel for the winter.

The Stanley was built in 1909 as a getaway for wealthy Denver socialites and according to local lore and staff members of the place, a few of these former guests have apparently never checked out! Tales were told not only by hotel workers but also by cast and crew members for the ABC production about doorknobs that turned by themselves, doors that opened and closed, phantom footsteps and even mysterious sounds that occasionally interrupted the filming.

Director Mick Garris later recalled: “One of our costume people went to bed one night. Five minutes after he hit the sack, something sat down on the bed next to him.” And the star of the film, Steven Weber, who played Jack Torrance, also heard a number of strange stories from the crew. “When you have big, beefy grips come down too breakfast and say, ‘Man, something walked through me last night!’”, he said, “you know they are not kidding!”

And Thornewood Castle, which became Rose Red for the new film, apparently has stories of its own. The English Tudor, gothic-style mansion was built in 1911 for Chester Thorne, one of the founders of Tacoma. He was fascinated with the grandeur of the old English estate and decided to recreate it in the Pacific Northwest. It took three years to complete and was constructed from concrete, brick and steel. Many of the materials, including the brick, oak paneling, an oak staircase and even stained glass were imported from an actual castle in Europe. The artifacts traveled by ship around Cape Horn and then up the coast to Tacoma. The cost of construction for the house in 1911 was around $1 million and would be 30 times that amount today.

Over the years, the house has collected its own supernatural lore. While there is no word of ghostly happenings during the filming of the movie, there have long been stories of brides-to-be who claim to see the apparition of a woman in a mirror as they prepare for their wedding. Staff members have also felt presences and have gotten their own glimpses of the spectral inhabitants.

Did the real-life inspirations for the film create a ghostly ambience that makes Rose Red “the scariest haunted house movie ever made”? We’ll let the viewer and reader judge that for themselves but we do hope that you’ll take note of art once again imitating life in this new take on haunted houses. Truth, as they say, is often even stranger (and sometimes more frightening) than fiction!

Click Here to See More about Thornewood Castle!

© Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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