The Oregon Vortex

Okay, how many of you have heard of the Oregon Vortex?

It’s my own fault for watching crappy psuedo-science shows at all, I know, first snake handling, now this, but they brought up the Oregon Vortex, and James and I laughed delightedly and turned up the volume, because we’ve both been there. Literally. It’s a place.

To explain, the Oregon Vortex is this down-at-the-heels tourist trap in southern Oregon, which is supposedly built on a conjunction of leylines or an ancient physicist burial ground or something. The laws of physics are supposed to get funky. You can buy levels in the gift shop to test this, and in fact, all the guides carry little levels so that they can show you that something is perfectly flat while two people standing on it are mysteriously different heights depending on where they stand. I wouldn’t trust a level I bought at the gift shop, let alone one around the neck of the Voretex Minion, but it was an unexpected detour on the road trip, so I’d left my level at home, along with my cheetah repellent and plaster-cast making kit.

The centerpiece of the Vortex is a house which is supposed to defy the laws of physics. Balls roll uphill, brooms stand up at extreme angles, etc, etc.

It’s almost complete bunk. The house is a masterpiece of optical illusions, and was commissioned by a “self-taught physicist” (pronounced “crackpot”) who probably didn’t know much about leylines, but knew one helluva architect. Things are set up so that you’re standing at an angle the entire time, at a different angle than the one that, say, the ball is rolling at. Mouldings will be cleverly cut behind it so that they will appear to go uphill. If you watch the people, you can see them give the ball an initial push to get it rolling uphill, then plain ‘ol physics will return it on the downhill slope. The whole thing is pretty much done by skewing your frame of reference and providing lots of false referents–you expect door frames to be straight, so by slanting them all, and putting you at a slightly different slant, you’re completely off-kilter. The tricks with the levels actually serve to reinforce this–they say “Look, this is really straight, but it looks slanted!” but because of the delivery, you think this is weird. It isn’t–it really is straight, but the reason it looks slanted is because the roof is thirty degrees off level and you’re standing at a fifteen degree angle with banisters everywhere that just confuse the issue worse.

The guy who designed the house knew a lot about how people percieve things, and did a damn good job. My hat is off there. And, in fact, you can build a “mystery house” anywhere, and it’ll do the same tricks, a point which they admitted in the books in the gift shop. There’s various “houses of mystery” scattered around the country, and they all do the same trick.


The thing that keeps me from dismissing the Oregon vortex as 100% crapola was an odd firsthand experience which is going to sound idiotic, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. They have these rocks. And you stand on this rock and, I swear by my copy of the Origin of Species, after a few seconds, you start swaying. And the longer you stand there, the more rapidly you sway, a truly peculiar sensation that I can’t really describe, except that you’re swaying in a circle and your brain is asking your legs “‘Scuse me, guys, but why are you doing this?” “We don’t know, boss. It just seemed like the thing to do.”

Sounds dumb, I know. But it was very odd.

However, because I am a good little beady-eyed rationalist, I will offer this caveat–there are signs saying that if you stand on the rock, something happens. Subconscious muscular tensing because I expected something to happen? It could be. I like to think of myself as being as suggestible as a brick, but I could’ve done. It’s been a decade now, so I can’t recall how specific the sign was. It may be like dowsing and I may simply have fallen for the schtick hook, line, and sinker–I’d need a coupla double blind studies before I’d be willing to claim that there is a real, measureable phenomenon that doesn’t arise from my squishy gray matter.

Nevertheless, if you’re ever in Southern Oregon, the Oregon Vortex is so absurd and wonderful as pure loopy Americana, I recommend it highly. And go stand on the rocks.

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