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.

Early 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 ever since.

"So," 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!

People 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."

The 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.

Then, 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.

The 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.

"Wait," 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 camera..."

Well, 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).

Bill 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 error).

So 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)

The 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.

It's 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

Once 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.

Photographs, 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.

But 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.

What 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.

To 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?

"Wait," 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.

The 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 lean uphill.

This, after all, is only sensible behavior for a tall, bipedal animal that is trying to avoid falling.

You'll Feel the Difference!

Our 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.

"Completely 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 visually.

Try 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

The 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.

The 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 utility room).

The 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

Twenty 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.

It 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 refutation.

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

Perhaps 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.

For, 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.

Hmm. 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.

In 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.

It 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.

Litster 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?

I 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.

Our 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) (16).

This 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?

Impossible...But True?

The 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.

As 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.

If 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!"

I 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).

Consider 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).

What 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!

In 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 guesses."

Educated? One wonders where.


1. 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.

3. 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.

7. 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...

Remember 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!

Go 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.

Now 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.

Next 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.

Buy 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.

Back 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.

Now 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.

Finally 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.

Copyright (c) 2006 Oregonians for Science and Reason