Oregon Vortex: Paved Road All The Way
By Mark Cowan
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the Grey Eagle Mining
Company built a gold assay office just up the hill from where the
placer mine tailings were slowly shoving Sardine Creek westward. Gold
Hill, Oregon, was aptly named. Within twenty years the building stood
abandoned. Intense rain triggered a mud slide that carried the building
down the hill and left it lying twisted and tilted up against a large
maple tree. Visiting it today, you might notice what remarkable shape
it's in, despite a hundred years of insults and countless visitors.
There's a reason for that.
this century the commercial potential of a twisted and tilted fun-house
was recognized by forward thinking entrepreneurs. All it took was some
judicious preparation, possibly the embellishment of oft-told Indian
legends, and dropping a mysterious circular sphere of inexplicable
influence dead center on the "Fabulous Oregon Vortex," which included
the newly-minted "House of Mystery" (1). This roadside tourist
attraction opened for business around 1930, and has been raking them in
you say, "surely there is something more to such a long-standing
attraction then mere illusion?" If the terrain within the 165-foot
circular area possesses paranormal phenomena, they weren't apparent
last September (1997) when three members of Oregonians for Science and Reason (O4SR), Ted Clay, a skeptic from Ashland, and Josh Reese and myself, both from Salem, visited the site.
Your Height Change...Guaranteed!
don't just stumble on the Oregon Vortex, they've already heard of it.
They're watching for the signs along Interstate 5. They want to
believe. And the tour guide's polished patter suggests, reinforces and
directs every eye to the quite reliable - and completely explicable -
effects lying within "the famous circular area."
first impressive effect upon entering is an eight-foot concrete walkway
where two tourists take their positions at either end, next to
seven-foot wooden standards. The walkway is aligned to local magnetic
north (2). The hill slopes to the south all around, while the trees,
basically, don't stand upright. There's no view of any horizon, but a
handy plumb bob on a wire chain indicates which way is up.
as the two visitors, one on each end of the plank, exchange position,
an apparently remarkable thing occurs: the person moving north to south
seemingly grows, while the one moving south to north appears to shrink.
Noticeably. The crowd is amazed.
guide demonstrates the effect with a metal pole that also grows and
shrinks - the southern standard appears taller than the northern,
although they are the same size as measured by the pole. The guide
explains this is not just an illusion; the pole, as well as the people,
actually grow and shrink as they move. But do they? Our first
exhibit is a digital double exposure (3) of OfR president Josh Reese
standing at both ends of this prime illusion. Note the south end of the
House of Mystery behind the left-hand (shorter) Josh, and the covered
viewing area behind the right-hand (taller) Josh.
Figure 1: Josh Reese checks his height.
you say, "Josh looks just about the same height at both ends to me."
Darn! The tour guide assured us the height change was visible from
either side. And she said that setting up a camera on a tripod (4) at
the centerline of the walkway between the poles was the one right way
to prove it wasn't an illusion. As a matter of fact, she said, "The
only instrument we know that will measure the height change is a
maybe Josh is a special case, being so thoroughly skeptical and all.
Let's try a few more participants. Here we show digital boxes of us
lined up back-to- back, so we can see exactly how much each changes.
Figure 2: Bill Pfeifer, Josh Reese, Ted Clay, and the author (l-r).
Pfeifer, a semi-skeptical recruit from Vancouver, actually demonstrates
a change in the expected direction of 1.4%, or about an inch. Ted, a
super-skeptic from Ashland, heads the other way, as did I, both at
-0.8% (half an inch). As before, Josh maintains an even keel at -0.3%
or about a fifth of an inch. The average of the four tests is a meager
-0.1% (less than a tenth of an inch - actually below our level of
what's going on here? Why did Bill get taller? Did Bill get taller? And
why would the super-skeptics exhibit an anti- height change? (5)
tour guide lays out quite clearly what's supposed to happen. What's
more, when you observe the illusion, it's obvious. By the time you
stand on the walkway, you know what's going to happen.
no great leap to suspect that most people unconsciously respond to the
guide's suggestions - and skeptics will unconsciously act against that
expectation. This may explain other examples of paranormal phenomena
that reverse their effect when skeptics get involved. Or, it could mean
that the Vortex is an intelligent energy field that senses the mental
expectations of those who enter its domain...
Well, even the House of Mystery's proprietors don't claim that.
Stand Up For Ponzo
you tour the mining shack (see below) and endure obvious questions like
"Did the assay office weigh the gold wrong on account of the Vortex?",
you get to an even stronger height-change point, about twenty feet
north of the supposed center of the Vortex. Here the plank runs east to
west (6). Our tour guide volunteered me to try it, then offered to use
my camera as well! Who could resist? And surely it's a fine illusion
(see Figure 3), for the unseen volunteer who traded places with me
said, "Yeah, that's substantial!" as the entire tour group cheered.
you must understand, can convey only one part of the illusion. It's
only when you step onto the platform that the true flavor comes home.
I'd been here some twenty years earlier and taken photographs from just
about the same spot as in Figure 3. They actually showed a small but
consistent height change - and convinced me there might be something to
it. What I didn't know then, was that one's ability to estimate the
centerline of the plank is thrown off by the same effect that creates
the illusion itself (7). That's why we used the tape measure to set up
the camera this time.
what was worse, twenty years ago I didn't realize that when one gets on
a level platform in the middle of sloping terrain with no horizons (you
can see from the picture that everything tilts considerably), one's
sense of what is level is altered slightly, in a way that corresponds
to the slope! You can easily prove this for yourself (8).
Figure 3: The twin authors; palatial House of Mystery.
it means here is that my left-hand self in the photo (when not mugging
for the camera) would be looking at my right-hand self's chin and think
he was seeing level, while my other self would be looking at my
forehead and think he was seeing level. This is what convinced
me beyond a shadow of a doubt twenty years ago that the Vortex must be
real. Never mind that the same effect happens on any sloping hillside
you care to erect a level plank on. I didn't know that then.
return to the illusion, what the enthusiastic crowd sees matches the
plank walker's experience perfectly - but for completely different
reasons (9). Which brings us to Ponzo and his diabolical illusion:
Figure 4: The Ponzo Illusion: Are We Not Clones?
you say, "they're the same size!" Gotcha! Cover up the converging lines
(or click on the twins to get a full-size version you can print out) to
see through this particular deception. Those little homunculi look like
identical twins - only the one on the left never skipped breakfast and
is actually six percent larger! Is that a lot? You bet. If the right
one were six-foot tall, the one on the left would be six-foot-four! And
by a curious coincidence, that four inches is exactly the amount of the height change claimed by the Vortex.
illusion, moreover, doesn't depend on orientation - and being at a site
where there is a three-dimensional, animated illusion that you can walk
around and inspect from all angles is a very powerful convincer (10).
Okay, you can sit down now.
They'll Lean That Way Forever...
Oops. Get back up. The next claim made for the Vortex is that visitors
tend to incline towards magnetic north. Considering the orientation of
the place, what this means in practice is they "lean uphill." And it
doesn't take long to convince yourself that people naturally tend to
This, after all, is only sensible behavior for a tall, bipedal animal that is trying to avoid falling.
You'll Feel the Difference!
guide repeatedly emphasized that the height change was physical. This
is why the Vortex is unique. People, literally, grow and shrink. Alas,
the only real growing and shrinking I saw was our guide stretching and
shrinking to enhance the demos.
blind people," she said, "are able to come inside the area and
experience a height change." Of course this claim plays on the
widespread belief that blind people possess keener physical senses. And
blind people would have no sense of the sloping terrain that fools us
this simple experiment: touch a spot on a wall at shoulder level then
drop your arm, close your eyes, spin around, and touch that same spot
again. You'll see when you open your eyes that your sense of absolute
position is not that good. Unlike that for relative position, as
witnessed by doing the "touch your fingertips" drunk test. But
"sensing" a height change by remembering your relative position is a
deep well for credulity. And if your eyes are open, you'll use those
faulty sight-lines mentioned before.
There being no non-subjective way to test this claim, we just let it lie.
Our House is a Very Fine House
House of Mystery is a must-see part of the tour, since you go through
it to reach the second height illusion. The house's trip down the
hillside long ago left it bereft of upright walls and its floor slopes
alarmingly (much like a hotel at the coast where I spent an uneasy
night). This, of course, throws off your sense of equilibrium
considerably. I caught only one bout of vertigo that caused everything
to spin for about half a second - but a few greenish-hued folks made
beelines for the exits.
operators have packed the house with various simple illusions that play
on this disorientation: a golf ball track where the ball rolls
"uphill," a pendulum that swings too far in one direction, a level
platform upon which people lean like the Tower of Pisa, a broom that
mysteriously balances on its worn bristles (just like the one in my
only thing really mysterious was why the house has lasted this long.
Perhaps it has to do with lying directly atop the center of the
Vortex's mysterious field.
Or wood preservative.
I Get a Peaceful Queasy Feeling
years ago when I first came to the Vortex I felt a distinct thickness
of the head. This didn't happen the second time, and I now believe the
original effect was due to suggestion, possibly from sources I didn't
even remember at the time. No one in our party, no one in our tour
group either, reported any such effect. Josh, blindfolded, ears
plugged, could sense neither the "knife-edge" of the Vortex (11) after
he'd been spun around nor the curious children who watched his
steadfast, if indirect, pursuit of higher truth.
is claimed the Indians shunned the site, (12) calling it the "Forbidden
Ground," but perhaps the numerous tourists have carried off all the bad
karma by now. It is also claimed that animals avoid the area, but the
potbellied pig at the site, who's smart enough to roll his apples down
into the creek before devouring them, showed no distress as he wandered
across the Vortex's edges. At one point a visitor commented about the
absence of birds, but shortly a piercing birdcall was heard, as if in
Josh and I stopped about a mile down the road on our way back to I-5 and listened a while for birds there. We didn't hear any.
Out Standing In Their Field
the oddest part of the Oregon Vortex is the explanation supposedly left
by Scottish physicist John Litster (though he's not listed in any Who's
Who of Scientists that I could find). Maybe he wouldn't want to be.
judging by the Notes and Data he left, he wasn't too keen on the
standard physics of the 1940s. Purportedly he did thousands of
experiments, concluded the world wasn't ready for what he'd learned,
and burned all his notes before he died. In 1953 he claimed there were
at least seven of these Vortices hanging around (13), the nearest some
44 miles away at a summit in the Siskiyous.
Which means there's room for more of these roadside attractions. And
they'd all be just as authentic, if maybe a bit harder to reach. But
wait...nobody knows where they are...or how to find them again. And he
burned all his other notes..
But there really isn't all that much in Litster's notes to refute.
his pursuit of what appears to be a personal Unified Field Theory (14),
Litster invented something he called a "Terraline," which he alone
could detect. The Terralines follow the Earth's surface and create a
superposition of some higher dimension (the Vortex) upon the normal
three or four dimensions we generally acknowledge. Litster posits these
57 inch-wide Terralines run north-south and east-west only while
carrying some kind of energy - one that doesn't expose film and passes
easily through thick lead, but not through faint traces of gold (in
auriferous quartz). This is a curious form of energy indeed.
seems that either the Vortex somehow displaces these Terralines (as a
half- dozen of them pass through it), or the displacement or kinking of
these Terralines make the Vortex in the first place. The energy
involved in them is supposedly strong enough to warp molecular
structures by gross amounts, forcing people to involuntarily lean
and/or sway. Yet it evades any direct measurement.
claimed these powerful Terralines oscillate back and forth with a
period of 22 seconds across a distance of 14-1/4 inches. At various
points the two lines inevitably cross, and poured concrete circular
slabs, like Paul Bunyan's tiddlywinks, identify these points.
Supposedly, anybody "standing relaxed on one of these markers...will
sway with a rotary movement...caused by the alternating movement of the
north-south and east-west Terralines" (15). Dowsing rods are supposed
to be able to detect these crossings, as are compasses (even though the
lines are specifically termed non-magnetic).
So do you? Do they?
didn't. But I've noticed a relaxed person sways like that naturally.
Bill said he could get the copper rods to work - but only when he went
into a meditative state. In a skeptical frame of mind they wouldn't
work, so he concluded the effect was entirely subjective and could be
neither proved nor disproved. I had to agree, having had that
experience before in other searches for anomalous phenomenon.
otherwise well-behaved compasses went non-subjectively nuts when we
brought them near the concrete markers. For good reason it turned out:
strong magnets have apparently been buried within them (see Figure 5)
deception was previously noted by Jerry Andrus, and it raises questions
about the value of any paranormal claims made for the Vortex.
Figure 5: Terralines or buried magnets?
purported "height change" is fully explained by a number of
interlocking and additive causes: skewed sight lines by sloping
terrain, misjudgment of the plank's centerline, the Ponzo illusion, and
visitors' expectations which are enhanced by suggestion and directed by
the emphatic tour guide.
far as I could tell, everyone who goes there observes the height
change, although not every one tries it for themself. Everyone who
tours the House of Mystery seems amused by the show. In this, the
Oregon Vortex succeeds. Most of the annual 20,000 to 30,000 visitors
enjoy themselves, tell their friends, show off their photos - and never
figure it out.
you want to conduct experiments, the proprietors let you; as a matter
of fact, they encourage you. Ted's suggestions, including a human
carousel for the height change, were met with delight and "I'll write
you a three-day pass!"
believe it is this attitude of "We want to find out what's going on
too" that convinces the vast majority of visitors that the phenomena
are genuine. "Of course," visitors think, "they wouldn't do this if
something wasn't really happening!" From a skeptical perspective,
however, there is a problem. The operators readily acknowledge the
plank illusion is not unique to the site, yet they claim their change
is genuinely physical, not an illusion. And they claim instruments
can't detect this physical change because the instruments are all
subject to the same distortions (except, of course, the camera).
for a minute. If there were such a change, a real physical change that
is, how could it possibly be felt? What would happen to human beings
traveling through a region of space wherein, for some reason, their
atoms got smaller (and they weren't, of course, killed in the process
by, say, protein disassembly). Let's even do it the way Litster
suggested (17) and squash the poor atoms along only one axis (although
the promoters claim the change is in all three directions).
allows one to determine physical dimension and position? Why, obviously
kinesthetic feedback, generated by the nerves innervating your
musculoskeletal systems. But if everything were squashed uniformly in
any given direction, how could one detect it? The detector has shrunk
by the same amount as what is to be detected!
her introduction the guide said, "The closest thing to answers that we
have to explain what's going on down here are just theories...educated
Educated? One wonders where.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
Litster. John. (1953). "Notes and Data Relative to the Phenomena at the
Area of the House of Mystery." 4th edition. Booklet available on site.
2. It is never explained why the direction magnetic north is important,
as the Vortex is supposed to be non-magnetic (Ibid. pp. 3-4), and the
guide said that nearer the center (inside the House) any direction will
work for the height change.
All photos were taken with a rectilinear 24mm lens on 35mm film; the
prints were digitized for measurement. No manipulation of scale was
ever performed. The final resolution in the tripod mounted photos is
5.2 pixels/inch at the subjects.
4. The accuracy of our camera placement was better than 1/4" over eight
feet. Since our digitized subjects averaged some 370 pixels in height,
and the height alteration induced by camera error was less than 1 part
in 384, our test is more than accurate enough to establish the reality
of the three to four inches, or 5%, height changes that are claimed.
5. The camera would have to be misplaced by 3/4 of an inch to produce
the 0.8% change. And it would have to have been moved in-between shots
as well. It wasn't.
6. Although it was taken by the tour guide, this composited photo shows
zero height change. This location appears virtually the same in a photo
from the fifties in the booklet. The only thing missing is a porch the
House of Mystery used to have. These photos (Litster, pp. 12, 13, 29)
illustrate an obvious and measurable 5-8% height change. Although a
claim is made (p. 13) that the photos were taken on the centerline of
the plank, it is obvious that the camera position was skewed towards
the right - as visitors are still encouraged to do because of a fence
placed north of this plank.
In an informal test last fall at the Oregonians for Science and Reason
potluck, Jerry Andrus set up this plank illusion on the DeNoma's
sloping front field. Several people made a stab at guessing the
centerline. We were all off by four to six inches and, significantly,
all errors fell on the same side, downhill. Recently retesting this, I
set up on my sloping driveway a six-foot plank illusion with
sixteen-inch model subjects. No matter how careful I was, over three
tries from seven feet away, I was off by nearly three inches - also all
downhill. This would result in a 1.5 inch height difference for a
six-foot subject. An amount quite easily seen or measured in a
photograph and which would, therefore, "prove" the illusion was real.
8. The easiest way is to set up the plank test is with a volunteer, but sighting along a level will probably work as well.
9. Hyman, Ray. (1994) "It's all an illusion! And here's how it's done." Skeptical Inquirer 18(3):314-318.
10. I'm preparing a two-dimensional animated version of this illusion
where the figures exchange their positions endlessly. A preliminary
version of this is quite intriguing - it's almost everything the Vortex
is - save the $6.50 admission.
11. Litster, pp. 3-4.
12. Cooper, Ernie and Irene Cooper. (1986) The House of Mystery. Free brochure available at the site
13. Litster (p.4).
14. Litster (p.1) discussing his ideas of the Continuum, and how the vortex-form is ubiquitous in nature.
15. On a sign posted to a log where the dowsing rods are kept.
16. This shows roughly a four by six inch field of white paper sprinkled with iron filings directly atop one of the markers.
17. Litster (p.18).
Build Your Own Vortex!
Introducing the Animated Ponzo Illusion!
. . . The blue homunculus is 6% taller than its red twin . . .
It's Easy! It's Fun! Amaze Your Friends!
You say you got DSS and there's still nothing on since X-Files went into reruns?
Feeling a bit down in the dumps since the Psychic Friends won all the lotteries?
Well, cheer up-have we got a project for you! But it'll take a while...
that odd bit of property Uncle Lem left you near Rose Lodge? The one
with the dinky creek and that "vacation home" you hardly ever use? Get
out the old plat map, see if you can inscribe a 165.375 foot circle
inside it. You can? Hot-dog-you're in business!
there with a compass. Does it slope towards magnetic north? No? Rent
yourself a Cat and make it so, leaving some big trees near the center.
Atmosphere, you know. Move the house closer to the road while you're at
it, maybe clear a parking lot too-a big parking lot. And tilt the trees
a bit, too. Be artistic.
drive a stake in the exact center of the property. Mark out the big
circle. This will be the Vortex. Don't worry too much about
accuracy-it's the feel we're going for here.
up is your own version of the House of Mystery-maybe call it the Shack
of Silliness. Trademark infringement, you know. You'll need to build
this from scratch, so tear down an old barn for lumber and get your
kids to help put it up, right in the center. Really don't worry about
accuracy here. As a matter of fact, don't even supervise them.
yourself a mess of young madronna trees at the Experimental Forest
surplus sale. Plant them all around near the edge of the Vortex, and
tie the limbs back so they'll grow looking strangely...circular. In
twenty years nobody'll ever figure out how it happened-and you'll be
retired in Fuji.
to the present. Redecorate Uncle Lem's shack into an authentic rustic
curiosity shop, with a cash register near the south window. Fence the
place all along the road. Build a couple of pole-barn viewing sheds,
put in steps, some lines of bricks at the lower edge of the circle,
pour a concrete slab or two, throw up some uprights.
for the hard part-waiting ten years for the trees and moss to grow.
Meanwhile, fabricate legends, plant rumors, hire yourself a dead
scientist to hatch some kind of crackpot explanation, and finally print
it all up in an authentic looking booklet with old-timey photos you
doctor on your PC until they look right.
the time draws near, so the next thing to do is invite skeptical
scrutiny. Nobody'll remember how it turns out-just that the serious
types were interested! You sure can't buy publicity like that. And
around about now the new highway to the Grand Ronde casino should be
in, so plant your signs, throw open the doors, and say:
"That'll be seven-fifty, please!"
Last Modified 27jan98 by Mark Cowan,
who is solely responsible for the contents, theoretically, at least.