The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz — visual trick, ancient magic, or aliens?

When I next take a trip to California, there’s somewhere I HAVE to go. It’s a place in the redwood forests of Santa Cruz that has been baffling and astonishing tourists for decades. A place where the laws of gravity and physics don’t apply…

Behold, the Mystery Spot. It was first discovered in 1939 by George Prather. When climbing a steep hill on the site, his compass started jittering and he felt dizzy, light-headed and top-heavy, as if something was trying to force him off the hill.

Realising he was onto something, Prather purchased the site and decided to build a house on it, which opened to the public in 1940 and was named a historical landmark in 2014.

What’s so weird about Prather’s enigmatic little cabin in the woods? Well, in it, balls roll uphill. Chairs cling to walls without support. Water flows in the wrong direction. People can hang off walls, lean backwards off stairs, or lean forwards so far they can’t see their toes — all without falling over. Even the trees around the house defy gravity, growing at bizarre angles.

The cabin is referred to a “gravity house” on a “gravity hill” or “magnetic hill” (of which there are a number of others). The website for the Mystery Spot calls it a “gravitational anomaly” with “puzzling variations of gravity, perspective and height”.

Insane. Insane, but very real. Question is, what’s causing it?

Just a visual trick?

For centuries gravity hills have bewildered scientists and their half-baked theories left considerable room for doubt and mystery. However, scientists now seem to agree that the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz (and others throughout the world) are optical illusions. Gravity and physics do not behave differently at the Mystery Spot. We just think they do. It’s all to do with the way our brains orient themselves, and the way they use horizontal and vertical cues to establish up and down. When we can’t see the earth’s horizon, we take those cues from our immediate context.

 

Professor of psychology William Prinzmetal says:

“All the visual illusions in the Mystery House derive from the fact that the house is tilted. You know the house is tilted, but you don’t know how much. Everything is tilted. You can’t look outside and get a horizon, so you think that what you see is right. It’s very compelling.”

Prinzmetal goes on to point out that when a floor is slanted, it affects our perception, before saying that “when the perceiver’s body also is tilted, the distorting impact on vision is greatly magnified — up to two or three times.”

He says these principles have been used to improve the flying of aeroplanes. Planes now carry a leveller or “artificial horizon” in the cockpit that pilots use when they can’t see the real one. Pilots are trained to ignore the visual context of the cockpit, which might be tilted, and just focus on the leveller. And some planes have crashed when pilots failed to follow this rule, thinking they were flying level when they were really at an angle.

Too easy an answer?

I’m a writer, not a psychologist or any kind of scientist. I don’t profess to be an expert in anything Mr Prinzmetal has just babbled on about. I’m not even sure I understand what he’s on about.

What I do know is that a lot of people are sceptical of the illusion explanation and aren’t satisfied that the mystery’s been solved. And having watched a couple of videos, it seems that the Mystery Spot’s tour guides are insistent of telling people that the cabin’s strange properties are definitely not mere tricks of the mind, but to do with something else entirely.

So, what else could it be?

Some have speculated that the anomaly was caused by aliens. That aliens secretly brought cones of metal to Earth and buried them beneath the ground as part of a guidance system for their spacecraft. Others have suggested that a spacecraft itself is buried there, giving off radiation that’s messing with gravity. The tour guides tell people that a meteor fell thousands of years ago and left a ‘magic circle’. And others say it’s to do with a ‘magma vortex’, a hole in the ozone layer, or electromagnetic radiation. In fact, a claim has been made that because of an electromagnetic field on the hill, wildlife can’t live near the Mystery Spot. Whatever the cause, many believe that the Mystery Spot remains very aptly named.

As perplexing as the photos and videos of people at the Mystery Spot are, I appreciate that the mind is a complex thing and not easily understood, and that the capacity for confusion and misperception is huge. And of course, nobody’s ever proven any alternative theories about aliens or magic meteors — yet.

Guess I’m going to have to reserve judgment on this one till I see the place for myself. Anyone fancy a road trip to Santa Cruz?

Next week: Million Eyes updates and the best cures for writers’ block

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