The Mystery Spot

You’ve seen the bumper stickers. They’re iconic, and they’re everywhere.   Like Wall Drug or South of the Border, The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, which bills itself as a “gravitational anomaly,” is really a mindblowingly successful branding and marketing phenomenon.

Located about 5 miles north of Santa Cruz in a lovely patch of redwood forest, The Mystery Spot is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Most days during the summer it’s recommended that you reserve your tour spot in advance with a $6 online payment. Yelp, Trip Advisor, and the local tourist magazines consistently rate a visit to The Mystery Spot as one of THE things to do in the area. I’ve spotted the bumper stickers all over the world, and since I’ve come to Santa Cruz, I’ve been bombarded by almost hourly sightings of the black and yellow logo. Finding myself with a little midweek freedom, I figured it might be high time to plunk down $6 and find out what the fuss is all about.

The Mystery Spot, a 150 foot circle within which gravity appears to act in bizarre and unique ways, was purportedly “discovered by surveyors” in 1939 when the landowners hired a crew to prepare for the construction of a summer home on a recently logged sidehill. Compasses were consistently inaccurate within the circumference of “the spot,” and workers were experiencing dizziness and exhaustion there. As the story goes, they attempted to build a cabin on the slope regardless of the issues, but it slid downhill to its current location, where it is perched precariously on a steep pitch. It is held there “by the power of the spot’s gravitational field.” The landowners opened the house to tourism in 1940, and it has enthralled hundreds of thousands of visitors ever since, making it a California Historical Landmark.

On the twenty-five minute tour, our young guide convincingly demonstrated the “characteristic seventeen-degree tilt” of the spot through displays of pool balls rolling uphill, people appearing to be shorter or taller relative to each other, and planks looking askew when levels indicated otherwise. Her presentation was peppered with charming – although incredibly cheesy – jokes and heaps of not-very-scientific evidence to preempt any misgivings we might have about the legitimacy of the gravitational anomaly. We were given about five minutes of free reign in the house to take photos and play with the plumb line, staircase, and other props, and a lot of good-natured giggling and Instagram posting ensued. At the end of the tour, three possible explanations for this “gravitational anomaly” were offered: 1. A hole in the ozone layer, 2. A concentration of magma beneath the spot that is rotating in the opposite direction as the earth, and 3. The spot’s location above a fault line which happens to release high amounts of carbon dioxide, affecting visitors’ perceptions. The Mystery Spot’s website offers another explanation as well – it involves aliens and spaceships and metal cones.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of science education to find these explanations laughable, and, while The Mystery Spot’s website calls the place a “gravitational anomaly,” Wikipedia calls it a “visual illusion-based tourist attraction” where “misperceptions of the height and orientation of objects occur.” A great website called Sandlot Science describes how mystery spots (there are at least eight others in the US!) work on us. They obscure from us our view of the horizon, put us in a tilted space, and then alter our frames of reference with deliberately deceptive floor and ceiling slopes, fence lines, and wall angles. The human brain likes to be horizontally and vertically oriented at all times, and, lacking a natural horizon line, will latch onto whatever cues it can find in the artificial environment – even cues that have been manipulated to confuse the senses. According to Sandlot Science, when your body is tilted, you are much more affected by visual distortion, and your inner ear functions less reliably, accounting for the dizziness some folks feel at the site and adding to their disorientation.

While The Mystery Spot might not be a gravitational phenomenon, there’s no question about its status as a marketing powerhouse. Their logo is simple and effective. It is comprised of two bright colors that stick out against a background of redwood trees. There’s no tagline or explanation of what The Mystery Spot is – it’s left a mystery. You can get everything from beer koozies to t-shirts to flip-flops in bright yellow emblazoned with the black text, and the branding is completely consistent across the board. All of their marketing assets, from signs to pamphlets, have a bit of an old-school feel, which, given the Depression-era origins of this and other mystery spot attractions, makes sense. Cheap thrills for families when money was tight. These are all good ingredients a successful marketing strategy. But the real clincher is this: every single person who goes on a tour gets a free bumper sticker – and virtually no one rejects that gift.

In this day and age of marketing advice blogs, strict corporate “style guides,” and “branded free online content,” giving something away that gets your logo out into the world is standard operating procedure. That wasn’t always the case, however. For a long time, giving anything away was seen as a sales no-no, and yet the folks behind The Mystery Spot were doing it. In the process, they quietly planted hundreds of thousands of free ads – guerilla marketing style – all over the United States. This was happening decades before doing so was the centerpiece of a highly-paid branding agency’s strategy. Very prescient, very smart, and evidently, very effective.

IMG_0916That’s the real phenomenon at work at The Mystery Spot. And I, for one, was more than happy to pay $6 to experience it, and to take a silly selfie in front of the mural.

My bumper sticker went right up onto the refrigerator. Who knows, if I become a real Santa Cruz local, it might even make its way onto my car.

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