Spook Hill: Mystery or Mundane?
June 25, 2021
The small town of Lake Wales, Florida located in Polk County is the home of an unusual natural phenomena infamously known as Spook Hill. At first glance Spook Hill appears to be a normal stretch of road that passes through a few old rolling hills. When one drives along North Wales Drive they will come across a thickly painted white line. Just above the line is an archway sign that simply states “Spook Hill”. When one drives up to the line, puts their car in neutral, and turns off the engine is when the mystery comes to life. When the car is parked in this state, the car will appear to back up and roll up the hill. Apparently, this appearance of defying gravity does not just apply to vehicles.
In an article from The Tampa Tribune, dated December 17, 1950, states that water poured on Spook Hill appears to flow up the hill and the same goes for round grapefruit. Since the 1950’s Spook Hill has become a popular attraction for tourist and paranormal enthusiasts to experience this phenomenon and it is not the only location where gravity seems to work under a different set of laws; these locations are known as gravity hills or magnetic hills; Mystery Ridge in Rose City, Michigan is another well known location with this apparent anti-gravity phenomena. Spook Hill and many other locations like it have fantastic legends surrounding them and maybe, there is a bit more to these places than meets the eye.
At this moment in time there is a large sign near the foot of Spook Hill that explains the legend of how this unique location came into being and reads as follows:
“Ages ago an Indian town on Lake Wales Lake was plagued with raids by a huge gator. The town’s great warrior chief and the gator were killed in a final battle that created the huge, swampy depression nearby. The chief was buried on its North side; later pioneer haulers coming from the old army trail atop the ridge above found their horses laboring here...at the foot of the ridge...and called it Spook Hill. Is it the gator seeking revenge, or the chief protecting his land?”
This writer has gone back through many historical records in an attempt to verify this legend and was unable to find any great issues with gators at any point in recorded time from this area’s history. In fact, the earliest I could find of this particular legend being reported in the media was in The Tampa Tribune in 1970. However, the earliest media record that I could find of this location being referred to as “Spook Hill” was in 1950 and this article shares a very different legend that explains how the events of this place came to be.
The following information and details are from the article in The Tampa Tribune on December 17, 1950. This is also the same article where it is noted that water and grapefruit is said to be also affected as the cars are; water seems to flow uphill and round fruit or objects roll up the hill. According to what this article states, this phenomenon awakened in 1926, when a man parked his car at the base of the hill to visit the lake. As the man walked towards the lake, he turned around for a moment to look at his car again and became startled at the sight of his vehicle seemingly rolling uphill without him, “...Spooks!”, he declared; hence how Spooks Hill got its name. This event is said to be the ripple that awakened the once restful spirit of a long deceased pirate named Teniente Vanilla.
The state of Florida is no stranger to amazing stories of pirate invasions and the Tampa Bay Area has an annual pirate parade that marks a legendary 19th century invasion of the area led by pirate Captain Jose Gaspar (or by the moniker Gasparilla.) If the legend is true then Captain Gaspar’s family has been raiding the coasts of Florida for centuries. In the 16th century another pirate captain called Gimme Sarsaparilla (said to be a distant cousin of Captain Jose Gaspar) was active in and around the coast of Florida. Legend has it that Teniente Vanilla was Captain Sarsaparilla’s aide. The two pirates decided to dock their ship permanently and retire in Lake Wales, Florida in 1511. The two old Seadogs spent their retirement whale fishing and living a rather comfortable life. In this urban legend Captain Sarsaparilla passed away first and was given a Davy Jones's locker burial at the bottom of North Lake Wales. A short time later Teniente Vanilla also died and was buried at the location of what is now known as Spook Hill.
The theory in 1950 was that the gentleman in 1926 parked his car directly on Teniente Vanilla’s grave, namely on his chest. It is believed that the weight of the car was roughly the weight of 16 dead men; pirates would be particularly nervous to have “16 men on a dead man’s chest”. In distress the spirit of Vanilla, called out to his old friend in life, Captain Sarsaparilla, and the captain’s ghost pushed the car off of Teniente’s chest; now forever disturbing the once peaceful ghosts.
Unusual events do not seem to happen on Spook Hill alone. The area around it appears to have paranormal activity as well. For example in the 1950’s there would be signs that would explain the legend and how/where to place a car to get it to roll up the hill. Well, those signs would disappear without a trace over night. Also, white sailor caps would collect in a circle in North Lake Wales and move around in a circle. Many of the old time locals of that time believed it was the spirit of Captain Sarsaparilla charging around the bottom of the lake.
In the research for this article I was not able to verify the 1926 account of what seems to be the first time the feat of gravity may have been recorded. However, I was able to discover a Tampa Bay Time article from February 20, 1924 that retold an epic clash between two pirate captains from the 1500’s, in what is now the city of Tampa. A Captain Narvaez, was visiting the city and surrounding area for business and pleasure, stopped a pillaging attempt by another more ruthless pirate crew than his own; this crew was lead by a well known and feared man called Captain Sarsaparilla. Captain Narvaez was able to put a stop to Captain Sarsaparilla and his crew’s efforts before any major damage was done at the time. Although I could not find more details about either of these men, it is intriguing to see that there is a chance that some of the old legends surrounding Spook Hill are true.
With all paranormal, supernatural, and fantastic claims such as the ones said about Spook Hill, there are always those around whom wish to prove a more mundane explanation as to why such events take place. Another write up from The Tampa Tribune from July 1, 1956, a skeptical Bricklayer brought his leveler with him to Spook Hill. As he placed his leveler on the painted white line it displayed that the ground was indeed uneven. However, his leveler did not show that the land was leveling up, quite the contrary, it showed that the ground was actually on a decline. That it is merely an optical illusion that cars and other objects are not truly moving up hill; they are really moving down hill as normal and the layout of the land only makes the appearance of steep inclines. This is the scientific explanation given to most gravity hills such as Mystery Ridge in Rose City, Michigan and others scattered all over the country.
Mysterious or Mundane?
Of course, not everyone accepts the optical illusion rationale; as there are other great gravitational mysteries in North American and around the world. One of these most well known of said strange occurrence is the Cosmos Mystery Area of the Black Hills, South Dakota. At this place weight, gravity, and sensations of the body appear to not at all follow the laws of physics. Balls roll up hills, visitors experience a sense of weightlessness, and lack of balance in certain locations around the Cosmos area. What these thousands of visitors experience each year at the Cosmos Mystery Area has never been fully explained. Some wonder if what happens at Black Hill is not unlike what happens at Spooks Hill, Mystery Ridge or the hundreds of other gravity hills around the world. This massive world is our home and us humans do not (and may not) fully understand how and why it works the way it does. We all need each other to work together to gain a better understanding of the universe around us. A bit of hard work, an open mind, and open hearts will perhaps get us to another plane of understanding some day.