Why you should care

Because it’s all an optical illusion. Or is it?

Batshit Crazy Florida: OZY celebrates the quirky people and places of the Sunshine State.Batshit Crazy Florida: OZY celebrates the quirky people and places of the Sunshine State.

About 60 miles east of Tampa in the small town of Lake Wales, there’s a place called Spook Hill that is steeped in legend — it’s an unsettling experience with a tale to match. The gist: It looks and feels like you’re driving uphill when you’re in fact rolling slowly downhill. And if you believe the local lore, it’s all because of an ancient tussle between a man and a big bully of an alligator.

As the lore goes, a legendary Calusa Indian chief, Cufcowellax, who had settled on the nearby Lake Wailes, engaged in a deadly battle with a bull alligator that was harassing the town. Many years later, when pioneer settlers passed through the area — and, later, citrus workers, too — people started reporting that their horses and mules labored as if they were going uphill on what was, in fact, a downhill slope.

On any given day you will find cars pulling to a stop in the middle of the road.

The tale was passed down over time, as curious folks came to test the effect for themselves. Today, a roadside sign marks the attraction, located a few blocks north of the lake, and on any given day you will find cars pulling to a stop in the middle of the road. “Is it the gator seeking revenge or the chief protecting his land?” a line on the sign inquires. As the legend goes, after the territorial alligator dragged another victim into the depths of Lake Wailes, Cufcowellax engaged in an epic fight with the beast, in which they both died, and is said to have turned the entire lake blood-red. And while not everyone knows about this local legend, nearly all residents in Lake Wales have heard of Spook Hill.

When city worker Alison (who declined to give her last name) did Spook Hill with her younger kids, they loved it and it seemed to work. She recalls, “But when I got older and tried it again, it didn’t seem to work anymore.” She describes the experience as feeling like you’re going uphill, when in reality you’re rolling a little bit downhill. “That’s the spectral aspect of it, I guess,” she adds.

In fact, the effect can be explained by an optical illusion that can make it appear like you’re rolling uphill when the opposite is true. But that’s hardly kept the lore of Spook Hill from leaving its mark on the town. In fact, Spook Hill Elementary School, right near the hill, proudly claims Casper (yes, the friendly ghost) as its school mascot.

The experience is enough of a phenomenon to bring people from everywhere to this remote part of Florida to try it for themselves. Tampa-area resident Lili Papia, 29, remembers the experience “being scary” when she tried out Spook Hill as a kid with her mom and a neighbor. “People even arrive here in buses some days,” says Allison. Sometimes people have experienced the effect, she says, while other times they report nothing out of the ordinary.

And that unknown factor of how you’ll react to Spook Hill might be the very thing that makes this batshit-crazy Florida attraction worth checking out with your own two eyes. “Some people are going to be like ‘It’s out of this world,’ and other people will be like ‘meh,’” says Allison. And if you’re hoping for the former? Well, “it probably will be,” she says.

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