Jane Henderson shifts the Ford Aerostar into neutral and waits. Slowly, the minivan starts to roll backward--a couple of hundred feet uphill.
“It’s really spooky,” she says, her mother seated beside her. They are visiting Spook Hill in the humble farming town of Lake Wales, two among thousands who visit annually. Like many, Henderson leaves guessing: “I don’t know if it’s an optical illusion or really real.”
Is it geology? Ghosts? Or both?
Folklore and legend offer more questions than answers. One story is that riders carrying mail between the Florida coasts found their horses breathless on the downhill swing.
No matter. Lake Wales, a town of 11,000 and one of the few places in Florida that even has hills, is on the tourists’ maps. Drivers now follow a one-way road, dutifully stopping at a white line city officials painted on the pavement years ago.
Under a banner touting S-P-O-O-K H-I-L-L, they put vehicles in neutral, hold their collective breath and appear to roll slowly up an incline.
Plenty of visitors have already placed a carpenter’s level near the hill’s halfway point and found an upward slope that cars apparently follow. But there are skeptics.
“It’s an illusion that it’s uphill, when in fact you’re going downhill,” insists Jim Palmer, a doctoral student in geology at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Just because we’re in Florida, he notes, “the laws of physics are not suspended.”
But Ed Ethington, director of the Chamber of Commerce, prefers that pondering not go too deep. Just stop by, he suggests, with the emphasis on stop.
Though Ethington has no exact figures, visitors lay down plenty of cash at restaurants, hotels and a 157-acre botanical garden nearby--not to mention at such special events as this weekend’s “Bikefest Spooktakular,” which, he says, could draw at least 15,000.
When they leave, they’ll carry the mystery beyond even Tampa, 60 miles west. Residents know the reverberations. “When we go way out of the area or even in foreign countries, people say, ‘Oh, that’s where Spook Hill is,’ ” says Ethington.
And guests arrive at G.V. Tillman House B&B; aware of the hill, confirms Kathy Dowling, who owns the inn with husband Jim. “They either try to analyze it and figure it out, or they just think it’s cute,” she says.
School Mascot: Casper the Friendly Ghost
The town polishes the image. In the late 1950s, a principal at Spook Hill Elementary School asked for --and received--permission from Harvey Comics to use a logo. Ever since, youngsters have embraced Casper the Friendly Ghost as their mascot. Now tourists come right to the school’s door to buy T-shirts.
The Friday before Halloween, students celebrate Casper’s birthday with a festival that includes a parade, carnival and hunt for treasure.
Michelle Roberts, a secretary at the school, came to Lake Wales as a 13-year-old Air Force brat. Now 30, she recites the legends about Spook Hill like ABCs:
This is haunted land of a fight between an Indian chief Cufcowellax and a huge bull ‘gator--a struggle so intense that it turned the lake red with blood. It’s where explorer Ponce de Leon still searches for the Fountain of Youth. Or pirates even now divert attention from buried treasure.
You may even find the elderly gentleman who named the hill. Years ago, he parked his car at the foot of the hill, intent on fishing in nearby North Lake Wales. He glanced back, so they say, to see his jalopy, its motor off, slowly backing up the hill. Then he muttered “spooks"--and fell dead.
This all makes sense to Roberts and her three children. “It’s more fun that way,” she says.