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Santa Cruz Mystery Shack

By: Karen Sentor

Mystery ShackYou'll find it in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Up a winding road and down a rugged driveway sits an unremarkable-looking hillside which is supposedly an axis of rogue forces, a 150-foot diameter circle where they laws of gravity, perspective and physics are thrown for a curve, resulting in amazing effects and perplexed guests. Featured in national magazines and TV shows, it attracts locals and tourists alike and sends everyone home with some interesting photographs and one of those ubiquitous yellow bumper stickers.
Welcome to the Mystery Spot, open year-round to welcome the believers and befuddle the skeptics. Although the Spot isn't a regular destination for locals, it regularly hosts over 1000 people a day, most of which are visitors from the other side of the planet. Like the Boardwalk, it serves as a defining tourist attraction of this town, brimming with local character and history. But while the stories of other Santa Cruz landmarks may be well known, the history of the Mystery Spot is well, a mystery. They tell its "story" at the Spot, but the tale they tell, like the tricks they use, is simply part of the show.
And yes, they are tricks, classic optical illusions that have been used for almost a hundred years. Tricks that have been legally patented, thoroughly studied, and professionally duplicated in labs and the other dozen or so nearly-identical Spots scattered around the country. Gravity never really changes direction at these Spots; the balls still roll downhill, you just can't tell which way is down if you don't have vertical and horizontal references. A few years ago local elementary school student Benjamin Dorfan came up with a clever way to measure the direction of gravity at the Mystery Spot: he compared the angle the sun rays against a plum bob during a particular time of day at both the Mystery Spot and a control site. The angles ended up being identical and Dorfan got a science fair award for his efforts.

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In 1998 the Mystery Spot also captured the academic attention of UC Berkeley psychology professor William Prinzmetal. "Our investigation" he writes, "was initiated by an interesting illusion that occurs in a real-world setting and distorts the apparent height of individuals." With the help of Arthur Shimamura, he made careful measurements around some of the illusions and duplicated the results in his lab. Prinzemetal has since written several papers on the nature of perception and the workings of optical illusions. To Bruce Rosenblum, a UCSC Professor of Physics, the fact of the illusions does not make the Mystery Spot less enjoyable. "It's like a magic show," he said "you don't have any less fun because you know the magician's tricking you. That's where the fun comes from."
The first "Tilt House" (the amusement industry name for such attractions) was built in 1904 and patented in 1905 by Arthur B. Griffen. It was a simple concept, a normal-looking house with an angled interior which made it difficult for guests to navigate through, as gravity worked against their visual cues. The basic concept was elaborated upon in various stages in the 1920s, each version adding more (and more sophisticated) visual illusions including balls and water going "uphill".
The Mystery Spot is a slightly different variation, which takes the house and many of the tricks outdoors (and adds a few more complicated illusions) to pass it off as a natural phenomenon. The first such "natural" Spot in the country still exists up north as the Oregon Vortex. John Litster, who built the Vortex and opened it in 1930, would amaze people by leading them through a helter-skelter cabin where balls would roll uphill and people would look shorter or taller. Although the Oregon Vortex administration insists their anomalies are real, Litster should be given credit for inventing this unique brand of tourist attraction and perfecting many of the tricks that were copied by subsequent sites.

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Sometime in the late 1930's George Prather visited the Oregon Vortex. Prather was a Santa Cruz resident, a skilled showman, a self-proclaimed hypnotist and an inventor who received 5 U.S patents while living here. Prather must have seen right through The Vortex and realized the potential of recreating the attraction back home. All he would need was some land and hired labor. He got both from the Newcomb family.
"Originally, we wanted to get the level ground below here for a summer home or mountain cabin, but the gentleman we were buying it from would not sell the level ground unless we purchased a strip across the entire south end of his property, including this hillside." (From the sign at the entrance of the Mystery Spot.)
In 1905, the Newcomb family immigrated to Santa Cruz to escape the harsh winters of Nebraska. DeEtte Newcomb arrived first with her young boys Wendell, Ward and Leighton, while her husband, Worthy, sold off their assets in the Midwest. In their early years there, Worthy bought scores of land around the area, including Front Street property and 90 acres off of Branciforte Drive. He got on the board of the Free Market council (Santa Cruz's turn of the century Farmer's Market) while DeEtte helped restore Evergreen Cemetery and erected the marble gates at the entrance engraved with a tribute to their two young children who had died in Nebraska.
Leighton Newcomb, after his parents' deaths, slowly lost his share of the family fortune through the hard times of the Depression and a series of misfortunes and business failures. By 1940 his family (with wife Verdee and sons Craig, Don and Vance) needed money and had land to sell. The Newcombs attended Christian Church of Santa Cruz with Mrs. Nellie Prather, who may have known about their financial problems and charitably urged her husband to buy part of Leighton's property off Branicforte for his tourist attraction. On October 21st, 1940, county records show a sale from Leighton Newcomb to George Prather consisting of 3 acres, the property that became the Mystery Spot.
"Finally, we bought the entire piece, mainly to get the level ground, and as we were helping the surveyor along the north line, we noted the compass to vary a small amount on the transit and spoke to him about it at that time. He said we might get that variation along a barbed wire fence or some mineral in the ground and let it pass at that."

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Prather built everything in a calculated way to alter perception. He built crooked fences to obscure the vertical reference of the forest and buried magnetized pieced of metal to mess with compasses. The oldest of the three Newcomb boys, Craig (who still refers to Prather as "a genius") was hired to assist with the heavy labor. He helped dig the well and build the office, fences, and the cabin. The Mystery Spot's famed cabin was actually constructed level on the hillside and then carefully lowered to an angle with a jack.
When the Mystery Spot opened for tours in late 1940, Prather himself was the only guide. Shortly afterwards he hired Don Newcomb as another guide at a salary of one penny for each guest he took through. His brother Vance later became a guide as well, making a total crew of three. Prather was very secretive about the mechanics of the illusions, and while the Newcomb boys figured out how some of them worked they never revealed anything to the guests. Prather poured his talents into creating a show as good as the illusions themselves; Vance Newcomb remembers they "were very carefully taught the spiel so as to lead the folks along' as we went up the hill deeper into the Mystery Spot to make it sound as if there really was a phenomenon causing the strange gravity, etc."
"We began to check from that... until we found we had this spot of ground here. About one hundred fifty feet in diameter, that so far, we have not found any instrument absolutely correct over."
One person who was not impressed by Prather's efforts was John Litster of the Oregon Vortex. Shortly after the Mystery Spot opened he showed up in Santa Cruz, lawyers in tow, and threatened to sue. Prather called Litster's bluff, knowing that if the suit had gone to court Lister would have to prove how, exactly, Prather could have "stolen" what both men publicly claimed to be natural anomalies. The mechanics of the outdoor illusions would have been recorded in court, and violation of the previous patents on "tilt houses" could have gotten both parties in trouble.

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At the onset of World War Two, attendance at the Mystery Spot plummeted and the Newcombs left for the shipyards and battlefields. In the face of the low income, Prather sold the Mystery Spot to the McCray family, which ran it for a few years. However, the wartime tourism wasn't any better for the McCrays than it had been for Prather, and when they defaulted on their loan he got the property back. Eventually the war came to an end and the visitors started coming again, but the Newcombs never returned as guides. Their family eventually sold the rest of the 90 acres to cover Leighton's debts. The Spot stayed in the Prather family until a few years ago when Bruce Prather, George's son, sold it to the Smith family, who own it to this day.
Perhaps the biggest mystery behind the Mystery Spot is why none of its owners have ever admitted that it's a show. The claim that the Mystery Spot is really a natural phenomenon may be entertaining for the tourists, but covering up the real history (and true nature) of the place is detrimental to the Mystery Spot as a local and historical landmark. Disavowing the illusions denies the genius that went into creating them. Repeating the false story of its "discovery" obscures the real history behind the site. The Mystery Spot is an important part of Santa Cruz's history, culture and tourist economy; it's time to acknowledge the people who were behind its creation, and appreciate the Spot for what it actually is.

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This Article ©2003 Karen Sentor - Used With Permission.
Postcard images and brochure - Rick Davis Collection - Used With Permission.