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What's Behind One of California's Most Ubiquitous Bumper Stickers?

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A large yellow-and-black sign reads "Welcome to Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz, California U.S.A."
The iconic yellow-and-black sign welcomes visitors to the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, California. (Amanda Font/KQED)

In a redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains, halfway between Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley, you’ll find the Mystery Spot. Even if you’ve never been there, you might be familiar with the iconic yellow bumper stickers that serve as both souvenir and advertisement for this 81-year-old roadside attraction.

More Stories From the California Report Magazine's Hidden Gems Series

Lucky Santa Cruz visitors may even spot a “Mystery Spot car” parked somewhere downtown covered completely in stickers.

In 1939, a man named George Prather bought the land from a lumber company on which the “spot” sits. According to the official lore, he only wished to purchase a flat area at the bottom of a hill, but was told the hill must be part of the deal.

While exploring his newly purchased parcel, Prather began to notice some odd things. He reported feeling very dizzy while standing on the hillside, and he felt that the effort needed to hike it was much greater than he expected.

Prather allegedly took a compass to the hillside, only to find that it pointed in the wrong direction. According to Prather, most of these effects were focused in an area approximately 150 feet in diameter.

Realizing he had an interesting piece of property on his hands, Prather dubbed the place the Mystery Spot and opened it as a roadside attraction in the early 1940s.

Three cars whose bodies are completely covered by yellow bumper stickers (not the windows or lights).
One of the ‘Mystery Spot’ bumper sticker cars that can sometimes be spotted parked in downtown Santa Cruz. (Amanda Font/KQED)

Today, the Mystery Spot runs tours 365 days a year to the spot and through a cabin that helps demonstrate the quirks of the area. The wooden structure leans sharply downhill, but visitors standing in front of it appear to be leaning uphill. The effect is an illusion that they’re standing almost diagonally. Water poured on a board demonstrated to be on an incline runs in opposition to gravity.

Page of a newspaper from 1941 with the headline "Mystery Spot--You Never Saw A Crazier Place--Opens Sunday For Your Amazement!"
An article from the Santa Cruz Sentinel describing the opening of the Mystery Spot. (Courtesy of Newspapers.com)

Walking through the cabin’s rustic interior, the discombobulation intensifies, with visitors sometimes experiencing motion sickness as a result of an unusual shift in perspective. The angle of the cabin allows folks to climb up the walls and stand balanced in seemingly impossible positions. A large weight at the end of a pendulum swings widely when pushed one way, but half the distance when it swings back. People appear to change in height when standing in different areas around the cabin.

How is this possible?

The Mystery Spot’s “official” theories posit that maybe a UFO crashed into the hillside long ago, and the still-running engine is causing a magnetic anomaly. Or, perhaps, there’s a swirling pool of magma somewhere deep below that’s affecting gravity in the area. Or even that some gases are seeping out of cracks in the hillside, causing visitors to hallucinate the whole thing.

The truth, of course, is not any of these wild, magical theories. It’s an optical illusion, though a supremely convincing one. For $8, plus whatever you’re compelled to spend on souvenirs, you’ll get one of the classic bumper stickers and enough mystery to keep you wondering all the way home.

A woman in an orange T-shirt and cargo shorts appears to lean backward in a room.
Mystery Spot tour guide Stella demonstrates her ability to lean at a seemingly impossible angle without falling down. (Amanda Font/KQED)


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