Every Memorial Day weekend it starts. Cars line up on either side of Branciforte Dr. in Santa Cruz to visit the world famous Mystery Spot. The Mystery Spot is open every day, but Memorial Day marks the open season for Mystery. I live on Branciforte Dr. about half a mile away from this spot. I can always tell when someone is trying to get there. They drive slow, weave a bit, and look lost. They look for any indication that they are near. Their necks crane up at the glorious redwood trees that line the road, perhaps thinking that this spot could appear out of nowhere at any moment. Magic!
It's a phenomenon on many levels. First, this thing has been open since 1940, every day. Second it is hugely popular for Japanese, German, and Indian tourists. Like crazy popular! It seems, in California, you have the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite, Disneyland, and the Mystery Spot. Must see attractions! Third, people really believe that something mysterious and/or alien is going on there. Like really believe!
As I was getting my hair dyed blue this morning, the subject of the Mystery Spot came up. I tried to explain to my hair care professional that it was all an optical illusion. She wouldn't buy it. She didn't want to go there. I tried to explain that the mystery is in your brain and how it perceives what it sees, but I had to stop. It's more fun believing.
But for you, you have a choice. You can either read on and have your spirit crushed or you can go elsewhere. It's all the same to me. My goal here is to try to reduce the traffic jam around my house by just a little bit.
The Mystery Spot is a hoax. It's an old timey roadside attraction that is very well executed and has been for years. Here's the deal. You are told some crazy story at the beginning of your tour about a possible meteor that landed there, or something to do with the gravitational pull of the earth's magma at that certain area. It's never totally explained... it's, well a mystery. Then you walk up a steep hill and go inside a fenced in area. The horizon is totally cut off from your field of view and the structure you see is built on an angle. From this point on, your brain gets scrambled. You see balls roll uphill, you can stand on the wall, people shorter than other people look to be the same height. You can lean over without falling down. When it's all over, you get a bumper sticker. For $5 it's actually a pretty good deal. A little hocus pocus, some laughter at other peoples expense, and a souvenir. I think the tour lasts about 15 minutes.
The Mystery Spot demonstrates the influence of visual context on perception.
Now don't just believe me... there has been some actual scientific study done on this effect. A UCSC psychology professor named Bruce Bridgeman has written an article called "Influence of Visually Induced Expectation on Perceived Motor Effort: A Visual-Proprioceptive Interaction at the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot" for the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review... which sounds fake, but it's not. Here's the abstract for his article:
"It is known that dense objects seem heavier than larger, less dense objects of the same weight. We have investigated a related illusion, in which visual context biases the apparent weight of a single object. The apparatus is a cabin on a steep hillside near Santa Cruz, CA, tilted 17° from vertical. From its ceiling hangs a weight on a chain. The cabin's tilt makes the weight appear suspended at an angle. Pushing the weight toward the visually based vertical is perceived as difficult, whereas pushing it away from the visual vertical is perceived as easy. Seven subjects pushed the weight in both directions, judging required effort on a double-anchored 1–10 scale. All experienced the effort illusion, with no significant subject effect. When subjects' eyes were closed, the effect was smaller but still present. Apparently proprioceptive and skin inputs, equal for both directions, are ignored or underweighted as visually based expectations influence perceived effort."
Gotta love that! Professor Bridgeman takes his classes to the spot for field trips. And UCSC doesn't give out grades...
So there you have it. It's just a shack built on an angle on the side of a steep hill with no view of the horizon so your perception is thrown off. And the owners are super rich. I hope that helps.
For more information, here are some articles and an awesome interview by Jesse Thorn on The Sound of Young America.