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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7 of the Most Bizarre Ways to Die
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While most of us hope death comes with dignity and being surrounded by loved ones, there’s really no telling what fate may have in store. If you manage to avoid some of the most common causes of expiration—heart disease and cancer are statistically the most likely causes to interrupt your existence—there’s an endless series of lesser-known maladies and tragedies that could conceivably cause you to miss the upcoming final season of Game of Thrones.

1. DEATH BY NASAL IRRIGATION POT

A woman uses a peti pot to clear her sinuses
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Neti pots, which are used to irrigate the sinuses of allergy sufferers, resemble teapots with a spout that allows water to be poured into one nostril and come out the other. Usually, the worst case scenario when using one is that you’ll make a huge mess and wind up with a sink full of snot-tinged water. But for two people in Louisiana in 2011, the pot facilitated the transmission of a brain-eating amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri. It’s believed the organism was transmitted by contaminated tap water contained in their residences, which they both used to fill their neti pots.

The amoeba, which is typically found in warm freshwater lakes, causes fatal brain swelling and carries a mortality rate of more than 97 percent—though infection is actually very rare. The fact that the deceased delivered it directly into their sinuses is what led to the fatal outcome. “Normally, it’s totally harmless, doing its own thing in the mud, eating whatever it finds there, going about its business, not bugging anybody,” Dan Riskin, biologist and expert on the Animal Planet series Monsters Inside Me, told Mental Floss last year. That changes when water harboring N. fowleri is violently shoved up someone's nose. That’s why you should never use anything but sterile water in your neti pots.

2. CHOKING IN A COCKROACH EATING CONTEST

Cockroaches are piled on top of one another
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Endurance and eating contests bring their share of peril. There was the case of the woman who died from dangerously low sodium levels after drinking too much water and holding in her urine for a 2007 radio promotion. Gastronomic athletes have died in an attempt to break hot dog eating records. But nothing compares to choking to death on cockroaches. According to CNN, 32-year-old Edward Archbold entered a bug-eating competition in 2012 that was sponsored by a Florida reptile shop. Archbold wolfed down a series of cockroaches and worms, only to find his airway blocked by the influx of their masticated body parts. The medical examiner ruled he asphyxiated on the bugs.

3. GRAPPLING WITH A VENDING MACHINE

A vending machine that offers a variety of options
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Weighing anywhere from 500 to nearly 900 pounds when empty, and even more when fully stocked, vending machines are the closest thing we have to the falling anvils of the cartoon world. When a machine eats bills or fails to dispense Doritos, some people can become agitated enough to think that rocking the unit is a good idea. It isn’t. An estimated 1700 injuries occur each year as a result of tussling with these monuments to snack storage, with roughly four deaths attributable to the duels.

4. POOPING TOO HARD

A man strains while using the toilet
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A fiber-rich diet and sensible cheese consumption should keep most people from enduring a most ignoble end. Straining to pass hard stool can result in something called defecation syncope, or poop-fainting. By holding your breath while bearing down to expel waste, the body’s blood flow is reduced. If you already have compromised arterial blood flow, the low blood pressure can trigger fainting or a heart attack. The University of Miami described two such cases in a 2017 paper. In postoperative hospital care, two patients experienced fatal cardiac events following excessive toilet straining.

5. DEATH BY LAUGHTER

A man laughs hysterically
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Some of us truly can suffer consequences during Home Improvement marathons, though not in the way you’d expect. A 2013 paper published in the British Medical Journal offered a litany of possible consequences from laughing, from the minor (fainting) to cardiac events as a result of preexisting conditions. Infamously, a bricklayer named Alex Mitchell died in 1975 after getting the giggles while watching a BBC sketch show titled The Goodies. Mitchell had Long QT syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder that can be worsened by the exertion of laughing. He went into cardiac arrest and died. His wife, Nessie, wrote the show's producers, thanking them for making her husband’s final moments happy ones.

6. KILLED BY A ROBOT

A robot arm holds up a wrench
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As technology improves, it seems inevitable that a robot will eventually stand trial for murder just as Isaac Asimov predicted. When that day comes, we may look upon late Kawasaki factory worker Kenji Urada as an early casualty. In 1981, Urada attempted to repair a robot at one of the company’s plants in Akashi, Japan. Urada failed to heed protocol, jumping over a fence rather than opening it—which would have triggered the machine to shut down. Instead, one of its massive arms pinned Urada to a nearby machine that cut up engine gears. Workers tried to intervene, but Urada was killed. A similar incident occurred in 2015, when a robot at a Volkswagen plant in Germany grabbed an employee instead of a vehicle part and crushed him to death.

7. FELLED BY AN ATOMIC WEDGIE

A man has his underwear yanked out of his pants
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For anyone who has never attended public school, a “wedgie” is committed when an assailant takes a fistful of a victim’s underwear and yanks, causing the garment to become lodged in the buttocks. While uncomfortable, it rarely proves fatal. An exception came in 2013, when a McLoud, Oklahoma man named Brad Lee Davis had a physical confrontation with his stepfather, Denver Lee St. Clair. After a struggle, Davis took St. Clair’s underwear and pulled it up and over his head, causing the elastic waistband to stretch tightly around his neck. The constriction caused his airway to become blocked, and he expired. Davis accepted a plea deal in 2015. “I did a horrible thing when I gave him that wedgie,” he lamented to authorities. Davis received a 30-year sentence.

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When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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