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10 Magnetic Hills, Gravity Roads, and Mystery Spots

If you've ever taken a road trip across America, you might be familiar with the hokey tourist attraction known as the mystery spot. Painted roadside signs often with prominently-displayed question marks advertise a local oddity you can pay a small admission price to explore—and maybe check out their gift shop, hay wagon ride, or zip line too.

Tourist traps that they may be, mystery spots date back to the Great Depression, extant pieces of Americana from a bygone era reliant on old-fashioned optical illusion to amaze and intrigue. The draw is the mystery, and the mystery is usually gravity, or the lack of it. Proprietors claim their mystery spots sit atop areas where the normal laws of physics don’t apply, and they invite you to experience the phenomena (usually created by rooms built on a slant) by walking up walls or witnessing water flow uphill.

Explore the science, myth, and kitsch of the mystery spot in these 10 sites around the world.

1. SANTA CRUZ MYSTERY SPOT

Location: Santa Cruz, California

One of the most famous mystery spots in the United States—and one of the best at selling their brand—this mystery spot found in the redwood forests outside Santa Cruz boasts a gravitational anomaly that, in reality, is a trick of perception. Mystery houses are essentially rooms or houses built on slants of at least 20 degrees, engineered so that a person standing in the space orients themselves to the slanted room—and not to ground. Visual cues counter to reality often help convince and disorient, so trees and windows are placed on a slant, and the supposed phenomena is demonstrated by balls rolling up the floor and chairs staying put halfway up a wall.

2. ST. IGNACE MYSTERY SPOT

Location: St. Ignace, Michigan—Upper Peninsula

Mystery spots typically come with their own origin stories, and there seems to be a formula to the history, exemplified by the story told by the owners of the mystery spot at St. Ignace: “In the early 1950s, three surveyors named Clarence, Fred and McCray came from California to explore the Upper Peninsula. They stumbled across an area of land where their surveying equipment didn’t seem to work properly. For instance, no matter how many times they tried to level their tripod, through the use of a plum-bob or level, the plum-bob would always be drawn far to the east, even as the level was reading level.” Look out for tall tales of prospectors, lightheadedness, and instrument failure.

3. COSMOS MYSTERY AREA

Location: Rapid City, South Dakota

The Cosmos Mystery Area varies the narrative behind its attraction slightly, saying it was discovered in 1952 by two college boys looking for a place to build a summer cabin. They decided to set up shop in an old house where they felt the most off balance. The gift shop at the Area sells “the famous crooked Cosmos shot glass.”

4. CONFUSION HILL

Location: Piercy, California

The Campbell Brothers of Confusion Hill add a dash of the mythical to their mystery spot’s lore with claims that the elusive (and extremely fictional) Chipalope (half chipmunk, half antelope) originated at Confusion Hill. According to the Campbells, there was a magical accident that combined two happy male and female antelope and chipmunk couples. Chester the First, as the male was called, gains self-awareness and, realizing how rare he is, decides to hide away from humans’ view—except perhaps on dewy morns at Confusion Hill.

5. MYSTERY HOLE

Location: Ansted, West Virginia

While other mystery spots acknowledge they’re not really pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes, the quaint Mystery Hole of Ansted—which features a gorilla statue on its roof, a Volkswagen Beetle sticking out of a wall, and a series of slanted underground rooms—admirably embraces its tourist trap roots and has no qualms building up the fantastic qualities of its attraction: “One lady said it changed her husband from an old grouch to a nice sweet person, and some have even complained that the admission price is too low and insisted on giving a tip … [Some] have gone away so bewildered that they've headed in the wrong direction and became lost. Very often keys get locked in the cars because the occupants are too anxious to see the MYSTERY HOLE.”

Whoever wrote the description clearly had a great time doing it, almost daring city folk to come by and just have a good time: “This MYSTERY HOLE thing seems to affect different people in different ways depending on whether they cling to the new style education or stray to the plain old C.H.S. (common horse sense) method. We have noticed that the highly educated folks do ask more questions than the lesser educated ones do. Whatever these unidentified effects may be, they are believed not to be a serious threat to those searching for fun and excitement.” Good thing, too.

6. OREGON VORTEX

Location: Gold Hill, Oregon

The Oregon Vortex—home to the House of Mystery that was once a mining company assay office and a curios shop—amps up the pseudo science behind its spot with an explanation that connects the Oregon Vortex to all vortices in the universe and alleges that its force is strongest when the moon is full. Gold Hill also makes the audacious accusation that the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot is a copy of the one at the Oregon Vortex.

7. SPOOK HILL

Richard Elzey, Flickr

Location: Lake Wales, Florida

Spook Hill of Lake Wales, Florida, claims, according to local legend, that its gravity hill (an exterior optical illusion created by the land surrounding a road) was created by the ghost of either a huge gator or a Native American chief who fought each other in an epic battle that formed the lake at that spot.

8. MYSTERIOUS ROAD

Location: Jeju, South Korea

With the horizon obscured from view (making it impossible to gauge an accurate level), trees leaning toward sunlight, and the surrounding land actually going downhill, a slight downward slope can appear as an upward slope at a gravity hill. And that's just what's happening at Dokkaebi Road or Mysterious Road on South Korea’s Jeju Island. Tourists flock to the spot to put their cars in neutral and watch their vehicles roll “uphill.” (The opposite of a gravity hill is known as a “false flat.” Most noted by cyclists, a false flat appears level to the eye but reveals itself as a low-gradient incline.)

9. THE UPHILL-DOWNHILL ROAD OF ARICCIA

Google Street View, via Atlas Obscura

Location: Ariccia, Italy

The magnetic hill at Ariccia outside of Rome offers the same phenomena. Hills like these don’t necessarily come with an outlandish story, since the forces that trick the eye and defy our sense of equilibrium aren’t as visibly manufactured as the sideways-leaning mystery spots. It’s confirmed, however, by the CICAP Lazio (the "Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal" section of Rome), which conducted a scientific analysis of the spot in 2009, that the slight decline is actually a slight incline.

10. MAGNETIC HILL

Location: Black Rock, Australia

The large red magnet sculpture on the side of a public dirt road in rural southern Australia indicates the location of this magnetic hill—one that legend says can trace its discovery all the way back to the 1930s when the site was known as Bruff’s Hill. Former farmer Murray Catford says an acquaintance driving his new motorcar in the area got a flat, put a stone in front of a wheel to prevent the car from rolling, and watched it roll uphill.

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Weird
The Unexplainable Humming Sound Plaguing One Canadian City
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In Windsor, Ontario, a Canadian city just across the border from Detroit, a persistent but irregular hum has become more than just a baffling mystery. It’s frustrating residents, causing them to report declining quality of life and possibly damaging their health. People liken the sound to the idling of a diesel truck or a concert subwoofer, according to The New York Times.

Even experts can’t figure out where the sound is coming from. The Canadian government has studied it. Researchers from the University of Western Ontario and the University of Windsor have studied it. One report from the University of Windsor suggested that it might be coming from blast furnaces on Zug Island, located on the Detroit River, operated by United States Steel. But the company hasn’t been cooperative with activists hoping to get to the bottom of the issue (and ultimately stop it), and the noise hums on.

It’s not just a mass delusion or a conspiracy theory perpetuated by UFO obsessives. Not everyone in Windsor hears the hum, but thousands of people do. There’s a private Facebook page dedicated to discussing it, and people from Windsor call Tracey Ramsey, their Parliament representative, to complain of headaches, mental health issues, and insomnia caused by the noise.

But Windsor isn’t the only town with a mysterious noise problem. The World Hum Map and Database Project, run by a high school teacher in British Columbia, has been collecting and mapping reports of hums since 2012, showing that it truly is a global phenomenon. The persistent, unexplainable sound of a hum, much like the sound of a generator, has affected people across the world, from Scotland to Florida to South Africa. Some of these noises can be traced back to concrete sources, like ultra-low-frequency sound from factories, or in one case, the mating calls of a fish, but most, according to the New Republic’s 2016 investigation of the worldwide phenomena, remain mysteries even after research by universities and government officials. “It’s like chasing a ghost,” University of Windsor professor Colin Novak told the CBC of the study he led on the Windsor hum. The town of Windsor may never find out for sure what the sound is, or how to stop it.

[h/t The New York Times]

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History
How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

A HUMBLE SHOEMAKER

By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.

"MARTIN VAN BUREN MAVIS"

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

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