The science behind spook hills
October 29, 2009 10:24 AM   Subscribe

""Anti-Gravity Hills" (also known as "Gravity Hills", "Spook Hills", or "Magnetic Hills") are natural places where cars put into neutral are seen to move uphill on a slightly sloping road, apparently defying the law of gravity. Typically, the "spooky" stretch of road is rather short (50-90 m), only a few meters wide, and surrounded by a natural hill landscape, without nearby buildings. Such places are found in several countries all around the world, and have been tourist attractions for decades. They should not be confused with the "Mystery Spots" [previously] found in amusement parks. These are generally tilted cabins, purposely built as such; a person walking inside feels disoriented, getting a very strong impression of standing at an angle in a perfectly normal room." CSICOP and Discovery News explain the phenomenon, and here's the paper on which the CSICOP article was based (PDF).
posted by cog_nate (41 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Before I even dig into the links - awesome post! I grew up near a Gravity Hill in NJ.
posted by Miko at 10:30 AM on October 29, 2009

Ha! I went to the one in Baltimore when I was maybe six. I had magnets with me and was unable to notice any change in their pull, and my compass didn't do anything. I was primarily annoyed that the hill was not, in fact, magnetic, and not pulling our VW Rabbit along. I fumed about that for days.
posted by adipocere at 10:32 AM on October 29, 2009

I greatly enjoyed visiting the Magnetic Hill in Moncton, New Brunswick. Despite being 25+ years old and having a Masters Degree in Science™ from MIT, I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on.
posted by Nelson at 10:35 AM on October 29, 2009

Wow, I've never heard of these but there's a term in cycling called "false flats" where you think a hill climb is over and it's flat up top, but it's actually a 1% uphill that messes with your head (because the landscape looks flat). You can feel any minor difference on a bike but I'm surprised some are so pronounced it works in a car. Pretty cool.
posted by mathowie at 10:35 AM on October 29, 2009

We had one of these in San Antonio, complete with a similar ghost story! The railroad tracks.
posted by Gilbert at 10:36 AM on October 29, 2009

I grew up near one in Greenfield, MA but very strangely I've never been to it. I really should go one of these days.
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:38 AM on October 29, 2009

The answer to this mystery is found using a simple tool. When the inclination of several such roads has been measured using spirit levels, the actual slope of the surface has consistently been found to be opposite to the apparent one.

Today, I learned that the bubble level is also known as a spirit level, and silly terminology foiled my snark again.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:41 AM on October 29, 2009

Electric Brae
posted by the cuban at 10:42 AM on October 29, 2009

Huh, I thought everyone already knew these were optical illusions. The desktop model is cool, though.
posted by DU at 10:42 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had way more fun at the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz than I should have

I bought a t-shirt!
posted by The Whelk at 10:43 AM on October 29, 2009

Years ago I visited the Magnetic Hill in Moncton, New Brunswick. I followed the instructions and drove up the hill to the end of the road, placed the car in neutral, and started to roll backwards down the hill. WTF? I did it a couple more times before I realized my "downhill" was supposed to be their "uphill". The water in the ditch agreed with my "downhill".
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:45 AM on October 29, 2009

City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City is a gravity hill. And beautiful! And so much fun for biking!
posted by aniola at 10:47 AM on October 29, 2009

I'm glad this was all about putting forth plausible explanations rather than trying to perpetuate a mystery. Lately I've been finding myself getting all Andy Rooney about the decline of real science in our culture and the growth of pseudoscience and the tendency for people to believe all kinds of bullshit.

In that PDF many of the photographs show telephone poles . I couldn't help thinking that someone should measure them to see how plumb they are and figure if maybe the utility workers fell victim to the illusion.
posted by crapmatic at 10:48 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz is great for two reasons. For one, it's neat to observe what happens when your visual system and sense of balance are screwed with by optical illusions.

For another, it's a great reminder of how genuinely stupid many people can sound when confronted with something outside their day-to-day experience. People just do not get it.
posted by gurple at 10:49 AM on October 29, 2009

There's one of these at the edge of a town near me, coincidentally the setting of the movie The Blair Witch Project.

At some point after that movie was released, a large speed bump was put right in the middle of the Gravity Hill due to the complaints of nearby residents about all of the cars stopping and trying the hill out.
posted by imjustsaying at 11:01 AM on October 29, 2009

No, no, it's capillary action. The cars are being pulled up the same way water is pulled up by paper towel. This means that if you have enough paper towel, you can lift a car.
posted by "Elbows" O'Donoghue at 11:10 AM on October 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

Thanks for the post. I've been meaning to check out the one in Harvard, MA ever since I first heard about it.
posted by bondcliff at 11:15 AM on October 29, 2009

I grew up near the hill featured in the "Discovery News" link, and I've been there. It really does work. I've always wanted to go back there with a level...
posted by ixohoxi at 11:23 AM on October 29, 2009

I've always wanted to go back there with a level...

One of the links points this out too, but: A level proves nothing. If gravity is messed up, it's going to affect a level.

These guys tested it from afar using surveying tools. I'd prefer to draw a triangle and measure the curvature of spacetime directly, but whatevs.
posted by DU at 11:31 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's one near my house in Burlington, Ontario, they never managed to market it as well as the one in Moncton, but every so often I see someone stopped or placing a ball on the road to see which way it rolls.
posted by phirleh at 11:31 AM on October 29, 2009

Here's one near where I grew up... Spook Hill
posted by matty at 11:36 AM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

New Jersey's Many Gravity Roads via Weird NJ.
posted by Miko at 11:37 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a gravity hill in my hometown that was a pretty popular late-night visit when I was in high school. Unfortunately, it's in a gated community now.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 11:40 AM on October 29, 2009 in PA. Has a billboard on the PA Turnpike, too. We also went to another one near New Hope, PA.
posted by fixedgear at 11:41 AM on October 29, 2009

When the inclination of several such roads has been measured using spirit levels...

I'm with you, Filthy... I thought spirit levels were something to which only OT-4's had access.
posted by rokusan at 11:43 AM on October 29, 2009

This is one of the coolest optical illusions I've seen in a while.
posted by lholladay at 11:43 AM on October 29, 2009

A level proves nothing. If gravity is messed up, it's going to affect a level.

If it were possible for gravity to be messed up enough that a car rolls uphill in a small, localised area, there'd be a damn sight more disruption than "Cool, this car rolls the wrong way!". Dead trees wouldn't fall over and water would pool there when it rained and not run away through the ditches either side of some of these roads...

An awful lot of people REALLY want to believe in some AMAZING MYSTERY it seems...
posted by Brockles at 11:48 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Okokok, I'm going to guess without reading the article -

Conveyor belts, right?

The plane takes off.
posted by Pronoiac at 11:53 AM on October 29, 2009

Is it sad that my eyes light up every time I see my obscure, little home province of New Brunswick mentioned on MetaFilter? Even when it's referring to the province's biggest and silliest tourist trap? Probably... probably yes.
posted by picea at 12:00 PM on October 29, 2009

Nice to see the wikipedia page on spirit levels referenced in here. I did some work on that page ages ago.
posted by Frasermoo at 12:07 PM on October 29, 2009

I think that I almost died in Gravity Hill in Antioch, CA.

I grew up in an East Bay suburb that borders Berkeley. It was a nice enough community, but by the time we were seniors in high school, we were just itching for excitement that we couldn't find in the impromptu parties in the Safeway parking lot, where we'd sometimes kill time on Friday nights.

I had a friend named Sander who always had some weird, fun plan, some place that needed exploring. Sander knew where the home of psychotropic pioneer Alexander Shulgin was, and where the Purple People, who we thought were cultists, lived. You could always count on this guy to think up some great scheme.

One fall day in our senior year of high school, Sander told me and a couple of buddies about a weird place out in the sticks in Antioch where you could put your car in neutral at the base of a little hill and it would inexplicably drift up the incline. It worked, he said, because a schoolbus full of kids had flipped over out there in the 70s, killing them all. The kids would supposedly grab your fender and drag you uphill.

Right. Sure, Sander, we thought. But whatever, it beat playing Goldeneye for the billionth time (NOT GOLDENEYE-IST), so we decided to head out there. We drove for about 45 minutes, following the directions he'd printed out on Mapquest, and we get to downtown Antioch. And then Sander reveals--he actually has no idea where we're going. He knows it's in Antioch, and he's planning on asking locals for directions. Collective groan goes up from the car. Goddamn it, Sander. Whatever, fine. We pull into a gas station. It's abandoned except for the tiny, ancient woman at the register behind bulletproof glass. Sander asks, "Hi, listen, this might be an odd question, but do you know how to get to Gravity Hill?" She eyes us, and thinks for a second. "You boys want to know how to get to Gravity Hill? I'll tell you how to get to Gravity Hill." And she steps out of the booth and gives us turn-by turn directions.

It spooked us--why'd she get out? Are the conversations recorded, and she didn't want to be on tape telling us how to get to the haunted spot? But we get back in the car and drive, leaving the downtown and through a cookie cutter housing development. And then we come to a road, I think it was Rural Route 23, where she told us to take a turn.

The street lights cut out immediately. We're in some kind of field--no buildings, just the two-lane road winding through gently sloping hills. We see just two other cars, driving very very fast, way up ahead. They dissappear from sight almost instantly, obscured by the hills. By the time we get out of the car at the base of one hill to try the magic, we're terrified. Everyone gets out of the car, put it in neutral and . . . . nothing happens. Car doesn't budge.

Goddamn it, Sander, why the hell are we all the way out in some field in Antioch? He starts apologizing and saying how it was a good time anyway, and the rest of us are griping and yammering about what a waste of time this is, and then I ask my then-girlfriend to pull over so I can get out and pee before the long ride home. She stops by what looks like a decrepit barn and kills the engine. I walk over to the side of the building, marveling at how quiet it is out there, and I realize that the doors are open and, since the roof has rotted and rusted away, that I can see inside pretty clearly. There's heaps of rusted, twisted metal and graffiti--mostly swastikas and lots of other nasty shit.

And then I hear the cars again. I turn around, dick in my hands, and Sander has his head out the window, hollering at me to get back in the car get in the car GET IN THE CAR! I don't know what's happening but I can see the two sets of headlights, now somehow behind us, barreling down on our parked car at around 80 miles an hour. I leap back in, my girlfriend peels out and we shoot into the heart of Gravity Hill.

The cars behind us are honking, swerving, and gaining fast. They're driving like maniacs and we have no idea what the fuck is going on. We're all screaming for some reason. The lead car, a beat-up pickup, swerves into the left lane, acelerates, and pulls up next to us. A Confederate flag, flying from the top of the cab, is whipping in the wind. In the passenger seat, a guy leans out of his seat, his torso hanging out the window. He's wearing a Jason mask and yelling. Queue another round of screams. Car two is maybe six inches behind us, flashing its lights and trying its damndest to hit our car.

Jason mask leans out the window, and then we see that he has a baseball bat, and that he's winding up to hit the car. As he swings, girlfriend swerves right, onto the shoulder, and narrowly avoids getting her rear view mirror taken off. He takes another four or five whacks at the car, and each time his driver swerves the truck over to get him closer to us. To be clear--he was not trying to "scare" us, he was trying to fucking break the windshield so we'd crash.

We're doing almost 100, boxed in by Jason to our left, his backup behind us, and the shoulder on the right. Everyone's screaming instructions and I haven't even finished peeing and we're going to die.

And then.

They're gone. We've come to a road with streetlights, back in the prefab development. We drive back downtown, park, and all start bawling. Sander agrees to drive home; my girlfriend is basically catatonic.

The next day Sander showed me some articles he'd found about skinhead meth labs out in that area, and dudes getting violent on people who stumbled across their shit. So Jason and co. were probably trying to scare us away from their operations. That day was, without question, the sweetest day of my life. I had been sure we were going to die that night in a 90mph three-car smash-up, and the simple act of waking up the morning after was like a dream. It was awesome.


Happy Halloween!
posted by andromache at 12:36 PM on October 29, 2009 [45 favorites]

We have/had a gravity hill at a park here in Nashville...of course, Metro couldn't have people having the gall to come visit one of their best parks for this feature, so they promptly blocked off the road to all wheeled traffic.

I did, however, get to check it out as a teenager...and yeah, it messed with my/my date's head.
posted by rhythim at 12:49 PM on October 29, 2009

New Jersey's Many Gravity Roads via Weird NJ.

I have never heard of these, and I was on Route 29 between Lambertville and Trenton on Tuesday night! Now I have to go back and try this out.
posted by amro at 12:54 PM on October 29, 2009

When traveling in New Zealand with my mom, we came across a sign for Puzzling World, and, as we were sick of driving on the wrong side of the road at the time, figured we'd stop in at a roadside attraction for an hour or so.

There is a house in there tilted at 15 degrees. Your sense of up and down soon finds itself fighting with your sense of vision, as you watch water run "uphill" in an open pipe, among other things.

Knowing what was going on didn't really help much, and in the end we had to watch our balance when we left the house. Totally worth it, quite disorienting.

(The rest of the place is really fantastic as well. We ended up killing most of the afternoon and getting to our hotel quite late. I'd go again if I didn't live on the other side of the world.)
posted by Hactar at 1:10 PM on October 29, 2009

imjustsaying: There's one of these at the edge of a town near me, coincidentally the setting of the movie The Blair Witch Project.

I used to live in the Ferry and went there from time to time to check it out. I figured out what was going on when I brought a level with me.

It's funny how that got popular after Blair Witch, even though there was nothing about it in the movies. I'm sorry they put a speed bump there. That sucks.
posted by clarknova at 1:20 PM on October 29, 2009

Frasermoo: Nice to see the wikipedia page on spirit levels referenced in here. I did some work on that page ages ago.

You might want to edit the entry for clarity. The wiki says that ethanol is used for its very low viscosity. However you can see here that ethanol actually has a slightly higher viscosity than water for all temperatures above 0 C. One of the main reasons for using ethanol is that it doesn't freeze at outdoor temperatures. Alcohol also has a significantly lower surface tension than water which means that when you shake it up and let it sit, multiple air bubbles coalesce into one more easily.
posted by JackFlash at 1:27 PM on October 29, 2009

Really fascinating. I've never actually visited one and just figured they were urban legends.
posted by Roman Graves at 4:57 PM on October 29, 2009

Jack Flash: You might want to edit the entry for clarity.

I'm no expert, I just had a pop at it one lonely night. Feel free to get in there and make it better. That's what it's all about.
posted by Frasermoo at 5:06 PM on October 29, 2009

Trust those spoilsports at CSICOP to lay down a bubble level on an antigravity hill! Pfft, logic!
posted by ErikaB at 6:49 PM on October 29, 2009

Ha! Matty, my family stopped at your Spook Hill on a road trip.

Did you go to Spook Hill Elementary when you were a kid? It seemed so cool to me that there was a school named after it.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:27 PM on October 29, 2009

We have a couple of these around here (Rome, Italy), too - one each of the natural and man-made variety.

The natural one seems to be exactly like the Spook Hills you have in the US; it's just outside Frascati, a hill town a little south of Rome in the Alban Hills. I had always thought the phenomenon was due to the excellent Castelli Romani white wine they make there.

The man-made one is in a 16th century theme park at Bomarzo, a comfortable day's outing distance north of Rome. Among many other weird and wonderful exhibits, there's the Tilted House (there's a photo on the Wikipedia page). The first time I went, I couldn't understand why people who came out of it were staggering around as though they were on the deck of a whaler in a storm. After I'd gone in myself, I understood: it really screws up your head for a while.
posted by aqsakal at 10:53 PM on November 5, 2009

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