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The Oregon Vortex Phenomenon: What's Really Going On?

The area has been featured on The X-Files and was supposedly known as the "Forbidden Grounds" by local Indigenous Americans.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockAug 11 2022, 11:02 UTC
Oregon Vortex House of Mystery, leaning to the right
The vortex, of course, became a tourist trap. Image Credit: Shutterbug Fotos

An area on Sardine Creek in the southern Oregon town of Gold Hill is known, somewhat dramatically, as the Oregon Vortex, where all sorts of physics-denying shenanigans are reported to occur. 

First repurposed as a tourist attraction in the 1930s, the area has the exact kind of spooky background legend you want from a place that was once on The X-Files. For a start, the area was supposedly known as the "Forbidden Grounds" to local Indigenous Americans who wouldn't set foot there, reportedly because their horses apparently refused to enter the area too, instead turning around and head in the opposite direction.

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Among the strange goings-on at the site are people not appearing to stand straight, tending to orient themselves towards north naturally; objects can be seen to roll uphill; and people appearing to be taller when standing in certain locations.

The "scientific information" page for the vortex begins with the explanation that it is "a spherical field of force, half above the ground and half below the ground" and goes uphill (which is to say, vortex downhill) from there. However, others have looked into phenomena at the site and come up with some much more likely rational explanations.

"There's nothing at all 'unexplainable' about the phenomena seen near the town of Gold Hill, Oregon," magician turned skeptic investigator James Randi wrote of the area and accompanying "House of Mystery" – a shack that appears to have sunken into the ground at an angle, which also provides odd optical experiences.

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The easiest of the phenomena to explain is arguably one of the oddest: objects seemingly rolling uphill.

"There are several things that enable us to sense which way is up. The balance mechanism in our inner ears is one system we have, but visual clues are also important and can be overriding," mathematician Philip Gibbs explained on Physics FAQs.

"If the horizon cannot be seen or is not level, then we may be fooled by objects that we expect to be vertical but that really are not. False perspective might also play a role. If trees in a line get larger or smaller with distance, our sense of perspective is thrown off. Objects far away may seem smaller or larger than they really are."

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Alongside the fact that people are inclined to overestimate the steepness of a slope, and you get some pretty genuinely freaky effects, what's known as a "gravity hill".

Similarly, the magical "changing of heights" when standing in different locations can be explained with optical illusions.

"The mysterious 'growing person' phenomenon is the one everyone goes away talking about, because they can carry this one with them in the form of photographs — and would the camera lie? Yes." James Randi wrote

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Again, the explanation is to do with angles and a lack of frame of reference (in this case, the horizon). Be assured that there is a slope involved, and were you to measure your height at each location, it would remain the same. Through some careful angling and a piece of cardboard that, when viewed from the right angle, looks like a rectangle but isn't, Randi was able to achieve the same effect using jars of pickles.

The easiest to explain is people naturally pointing themselves towards north. You may have noticed that on a hill, you tend to orientate yourself to point up the slope. Well, you will be shocked to hear that the incline points towards the north.

"Considering the orientation of the place, what this means in practice is they 'lean uphill'," one investigator into the topic wrote for Oregonians for Science and Reason. "This, after all, is only sensible behavior for a tall, bipedal animal that is trying to avoid falling."


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  • tag
  • pseudoscience,

  • optical illusions,

  • physics,

  • Oregon,

  • weird and wonderful

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