Follow the yellow brick road. Actually, follow the yellow signs.
Drive up a windy road and down a rugged driveway and you’ll find, nestled in a grove of redwoods, Santa Cruz’s very own Mystery Spot.
Mystery Spots, more than a dozen of them across the nation, rose out of the pain caused by the Great Depression. During this time, entertainment was the only sector of the economy experiencing any growth.
These days, the Mystery Spot attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year for some cheap thrills: Pay $5 to take a tour and experience puzzling variations in height, gravity, and perspective along the way.
The Spot itself is a circular area on a steep hill, around 150 feet or 46 meters in diameter.
Santa Cruz’s Mystery Spot, affectionately called “The Bermuda Triangle of the Redwoods” originally opened to the pubic in 1940 by George Prather. In its 70 years, it has attracted people from around the world. Gift shop worker Satya Drew has worked at the Mystery Spot for seven years and has “met people from Yugoslavia, Iceland, Nigeria, and Japan.”
Tour guides, looking official in uniforms similar to those of park rangers, greet visitors with a smile and a prepared monologue detailing some of the Spot’s history. “The hills here are twice as hard to climb here,” they say. “You’ll shrink two inches here.”
“You don’t want to get lost in the Mystery Spot, because you probably won’t get found,” jokes Marcus Lemus, a baby-faced 24-year-old tour guide.
The guides insist that the whole thing is not a charade and that there is something mystical going on here. How do the guides at the Mystery Spot explain the “phenomenal” things that occur?
Lemus has a couple of prepared theories. He says “it could have been built on a fault line or something that’s spinning, or maybe an alien spacecraft made the whole thing.” When Lemus begins to talk about “cones of metal that aliens secretly brought here and buried deep within our earth as guidance systems for their spacecraft,” some tour members look confused and skeptical.
And then the demonstrations begin. Two people stand on opposite sides of a level surface and appear to change heights as they switch places. Cameras flash and the first smiles appear on some of the faces.
After a surprisingly difficult hike up a steep hill, yours reach a dilapidated shed that looks like something out of a horror movie. The shed is oddly angled and without some of its foundation. It supposedly “slid down the hill 70 years ago and randomly came to rest here.” This is another one of the half truths from the guide, but when his No.7 billiard ball starts to roll up a plan, it’s all good.
People are led into the shack and are allowed to play around, snapping countless weird pictures that will undoubtedly land of Facebook the next day. Chairs defy gravity and cling to walls without support, and visitors stand at impossible angles.
“It’s like a playground for adults and kids,” says Steven Jackson, 63. “It’s a lot of optical illusion, but there is a mysterious aspect to it.”
After 15 minutes in the fun house, the tour ends. Given a free Mystery Spot bumper sticker, the group meanders down the hill as another tour climbs by.
The guides are paid to keep saying, “What you are about to see lies well beyond the scope of science.” Reiterating this mantra helps to make the most conservative skeptics willing to at least keep an open mind and enjoy the experience.
After the tour ends, Lemus says candidly, “There are a lot of weird places like this. People want some mystery in their lives.”
The effects at all of our nation’s Mystery Spots are deliberate. They are produced using spatial distortion and misdirection and are designed to boggle the mind and make people consider, even if only for a moment, a metaphysical explanation.
A study done by Berkeley professor William Prizmetal concludes that in order to establish a horizontal and vertical orientation, one must see the earth’s horizon. He writes that “all the illusions in the Mystery House derive from the fact the house is tilted and a closed environment.”
UC Santa Cruz earth sciences professor Slawek Tulaczyk says the Mystery Spot “is neither a real mystery or a sham. It’s a well-done illusion. It’s just like going to a magic show.”
The Mystery Spot exists as a sort of twilight zone where carefully manufactured structures and situations are brilliantly engineered to confuse visitors. It’s easy to get lost in the forested hills that block the ocean-view horizon.
While we can explain scientifically how the optical illusions and special effects at the Mystery Spot are produced, knowing the truth doesn’t necessarily take away from the joy we get out of the experience. If an optical illusion is good enough. The truth won’t ruin it.