Christophe Vaille is a professional writer, editor, and historian.
“You won’t believe your eyes!” This common saying is tossed about in our culture to hype everything from commercial products to feats of athletic prowess to the point where many of us simply sigh and roll our eyes and mutter, “Whatever.” There’s a place on Sardine Creek in Gold Hill, Oregon, however, that will have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief.
Local legend maintained that prior to Euro-American settlement in the 19th century, the indigenous people of the area treated this spot in Gold Hill as “forbidden land,” and supposedly, travelers passing through this location claimed their horses refused to enter it. As to the veracity of these early claims, it’s difficult to determine. However, the popular story recounts that a gold assay office (an office used for the purpose of measuring the purity of precious metals) was built in the area in 1904 by the Old Grey Eagle Mining Company. At some point in the following decade, the building slid from its foundations and came to rest at an odd angle, and was subsequently abandoned.
In 1914 a prospector, William McCullough, rediscovered the ruined building, and the remains of the old mining company outpost. While exploring the location, McCullough was shocked to find that within a certain radius of the ruins his perception of the physical world was altered. Astounded by this phenomenon, McCullough convinced his friend, geologist and engineer John Litster, to travel from Scotland to the United States to research the site.
Eventually, Litster and his wife, Mildred, gained title to the strange tract of land. Litster spent decades researching what he believed was a paranormal phenomena—a 165-foot magnetic radius which was purported to bend light, defy gravity, and alter mass. Litster’s theory was that the property existed amidst a spherical force-field that resided half below ground and half above the surface—hence, the characterization as a vortex—and that this “vortex” was responsible for the mysterious distortions of perception.
Litster promoted the location as a “mystery spot,” and opened it up as a roadside attraction for the public. The ruined building on the property was named the “House of Mystery.” As early as 1938, journalist Herbert Lundy described the popularity of the Oregon Vortex in the Oregonian newspaper. In 1944 Litster himself recorded his observations and research in a study titled, “Notes and Data Relative to the Phenomenon at the Area of the House of Mystery.”
Following the death of Litster in 1959, his wife sold the Oregon Vortex property to Irene and Ernie Cooper. The Cooper family continues to operate the attraction to this day—with Maria (their daughter), and Mark (grandson) maintaining the famous venue which is still open to the public.
Over the years skeptics have attempted to debunk the House of Mystery and the Oregon Vortex. Among these skeptics are former magician and illusionist, James Randi, who attempted to deconstruct the science of it all via photography and mathematics, and insists that the strange distortions of perception are purely the result of optical illusions.
Two researchers from UC Berkeley conducted a study at the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot (which features similar effects as the Oregon Vortex), and published their conclusions in Psychological Science in 1998. They suggested that a process called “Orientation Framing” was in play at the location in which the brain’s visual processing was affected due to spatial frames of reference being askew in comparison to how things are normally arranged. Russ Donnelly, an emeritus professor of physics from the University of Oregon also concurred, convinced that the Oregon Vortex was some sort of optical illusion.
As owner/operator of the Oregon Vortex/House of Mystery, Maria Cooper, agrees that what visitors experience is indeed an optical illusion, but she insists that there’s more at play than mere optics. She points out that depending on one’s location on the property, one’s height appears to grow and shrink, a variance that doesn’t always track consistently with the proposed scientific explanations.
In addition to height change, in which the heights of two people appear to change depending upon where they stand, water appears to flow uphill, and brooms can be observed to stand on end. So famous has the Oregon Vortex become, that popular media has also joined in the fun.
During the second season of the SyFy reality show, Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, the investigators couldn’t quite agree on the height change phenomenon, but eventually agreed that it must be an optical illusion. Also, in 1999, the X-Files featured the Oregon Vortex in one of their episodes. The roadside attraction is also the inspiration for the tourist trap and primary setting for the Disney Channel’s original series Gravity Falls.
Ultimately, one must visit the Oregon Vortex/House of Mystery in person. Determine for yourself whether these bizarre, mind-bending effects are pure optical illusion, or the result of a mysterious force beyond explanation. Owner Maria Cooper shared that some people even visit the vortex for relief from back pain.
Whether you leave the Oregon Vortex as a skeptic or believer, likely, you will find the experience a whole lot of fun! Maria admits, “It’s a unique piece of land and we don’t really know what makes it all happen.” For the best effects she has a piece of advice. “It’s strongest when the moon is full.”