The Legend of Spook Hill

The weather is getting cooler (finally), and it’s almost time for Halloween–that special day for thinking about all that’s creepy, crawly, scary and mysterious. We think it’s the perfect time to take a look at a curious tourist attraction in Central Florida that doubles as one of the state’s most unusual (super?)natural phenomena, Spook Hill.

Sign advertising Spook Hill in Lake Wales (1953).

Sign advertising Spook Hill in Lake Wales (1953).

Spook Hill is located on 5th Street in Lake Wales, a city in Polk County. For years, signs have invited motorists to stop their car at a white line on what appears to be the bottom of a hill, put their car into neutral, and watch with terror as their car appears to creep its way back up the hill, as if moved by some unseen force.

Ask most folks who study such phenomena and they’ll tell you it’s all an optical illusion, that the unique pattern of changes in elevation along 5th Street plays a trick on your eyes, making it seem as though you’re at the bottom of a hill when you’re actually at the top. But is this really what’s happening?

Many locals have offered much creepier explanations over the years. A popular restaurant in Lake Wales called Barney’s Tavern, for example, was kind enough to publish a leaflet in the 1950s explaining the “real” story behind Spook Hill. According to this legend, it all began when a Spanish pirate named Captain Gimme Sarsparilla decided to hang up his cutlass and retire to Lake Wales. He was joined by fellow pirate Teniente Vanilla, whose surname was an acronym for a much larger mouthful of a name–Vincento Alfredo Nieto Isidoro Lima Llano Alvarez. We’ll stick with “Teniente Vanilla” for the sake of brevity.

Postcard showing a photograph of Barney's Tavern, a popular restaurant in Lake Wales (ca. 1950).

Postcard showing a photograph of Barney’s Tavern, a popular restaurant in Lake Wales (ca. 1950).

According to the good folks at Barney’s, when Vanilla died he was buried at the foot of Spook Hill. Captain Sarsparilla, for whatever reason, ended up nearby at the bottom of the lake for which Lake Wales is named. All was well for a couple of centuries, but then one day in the early years of the automobile age a man decided to park his car right at the bottom of Spook Hill and go fishing. The car–which the crew at Barney’s estimated to be approximately the weight of 16 men–was parked directly over the grave of the long-forgotten Teniente Vanilla. And you know what they say about pirates and 16 men on a dead man’s chest. This was bound not to end well.

Vanilla, his rest now disturbed, was said to have called out to his old friend Captain Sarsparilla, who emerged from his watery tomb in Lake Wales and pushed the unlucky fisherman’s car up the hill and off of the dead pirate’s chest. And–legend says–that’s what will happen to your car as well if you dare to stop at the bottom of Spook Hill as that fisherman once did.

Leaflet describing Spook Hill, sponsored by Barney's Tavern in Lake Wales (1954).

Leaflet describing Spook Hill, sponsored by Barney’s Tavern in Lake Wales (1954).

Now that’s not the only explanation that has been put forward to explain this chilling peculiarity. At some point local tourism promoters put forward a completely different legend involving a struggle between a Native American chieftain and a particularly bothersome alligator. Someone else proposed a theory involving an underground lode acting as a magnet that draws automobiles up the hill.

The makers of this sign at Spook Hill in Lake Wales seem to have some doubts about the legend of Sarsparilla and Vanilla (ca. 1950).

The makers of this sign at Spook Hill in Lake Wales seem to have some doubts about the legend of Sarsparilla and Vanilla (ca. 1950).

So what’s the real story behind Spook Hill? We’ll leave it for you to visit Lake Wales someday and decide for yourself… if you dare!

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One thought on “The Legend of Spook Hill

  1. I had to prove it, got out of the car and, yes, it is an optical illusion, but a good one. A lot of ghostly mysteries are illusions but we still believe.

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