LAKE WALES — I marked the beginning of October with a ghoulish quest.
After a 90-minute drive to the Polk County town Lake Wales, I wound through a housing development, over a set of railroad tracks and around a school named for a legend: Spook Hill Elementary, whose letter Os are drawn to resemble a set of eerie eyeballs. The mascot, Casper the Friendly Ghost, foreshadowed the mystery around the corner.
Spook Hill is a relic of Florida’s pre-Disney roadside attraction days, and remains one of the state’s last free tourist traps from that era. In a quiet neighborhood, a one-way road lined with moss-draped oak trees leads up to a soaring incline. A sign arches above a painted white line on the road, spelling out the name in dripping, spectral letters: SPOOK HILL.
I am a lover of fanfare, Halloween and, unfortunately for a Floridian, hills. My favorite pastime is speeding over St. Petersburg’s Thrill Hill, which creates the same feeling in your tummy as a roller coaster drop. Then I heard about Spook Hill, a gravity hill that, according to lore, gives you an eerie sensation of being pulled backward uphill.
Public opinion on this particular spot is mixed. There are numerous 5-star reviews for Spook Hill online. “Free, fast, and silly,” one said.
It seems like there’s just as many 2- and 1-star entries. One Google reviewer put it: “We weren’t spooked LOL.”
I was determined to figure out how to feel the same otherworldly sensation that the 5-star visitors reported.
The legend of this place, as told by a sign at the base of the hill, probably wouldn’t pass muster with its current wording in 2021. An illustrated ghost grins next to the words, pointing at them with a puffy white finger.
The gist is this: Long ago, an enormous alligator terrorized a Seminole tribe near Lake Wales. After a fierce final battle, both the warrior tribe leader, Chief Culcowellax, and the gator perished. Pioneers later called it Spook Hill.
“Is it the gator seeking revenge, or the chief protecting his land???,” the sign ponders. “Stop car on white line, place in neutral and let it roll back.”
I pulled up to the imposing hill and stopped at the white line at the bottom. Yes, the bottom. Before things get steep and exciting. I put the car in neutral and took my foot off the brake.
Is ... this it?
I didn’t feel like anything was dragging me upward. I was just leisurely cruising backward.
I returned to the white line to try again. This time, I fixed my gaze in front of me. Before I rolled back that far, I peeked in the rearview and saw my car aimed toward a tree. I adjusted the wheel. By then, another car was approaching behind me.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Clearly, this was not my time to be spooked. I’d try again later.
I drove up the hill, away from the attraction, feeling confused. As I scaled the sharp incline, I felt suspense building, like my car was a roller coaster cart slowly inching up to the first peak. Except the anticipation was misplaced. I already visited the attraction, so to speak. I imagined explaining to my boss that I’d made a three-hour round trip for ... nothing.
I must have missed something. So, I set out to solve this mystery. Why was Spook Hill here anyway? And how the heck do you get it to work?
A local tradition
People often ask Jennifer D’hollander what Spook Hill is all about. But the executive director of the Lake Wales History Museum doesn’t want to give away too much of the secret.
“The whole idea is, are you really moving backwards? Or is it an optical illusion?” D’hollander said. “It’s for the visitor to decide for themselves.”
Spook Hill emerged during the mid-20th century, D’hollander explained, when travel by car was a popular way to vacation across the country.
The local chamber probably added Spook Hill after nearby landmark Bok Tower Gardens was built and dedicated in the late 1920s, said Tina Peak, library director at Lake Wales Public Library. The group felt the need to “kick up the game” and make Lake Wales a whole destination.
“I was born here, so I’m kind of underwhelmed,” Peak said with a laugh. “It’s one of those quirky little early Florida tourist attractions that people still love, and one of the few that you can still go to that doesn’t cost you anything.”
Kristina Nichols, who works with Peak as a library assistant, was also born and raised in Lake Wales. She attended Spook Hill Elementary, where students sing about their mascot, Casper the Friendly Ghost, in the school’s fight song. The smiling phantom is also shown holding books on school T-shirts, which Spook Hill visitors sometimes ask to purchase as souvenirs.
Now 30, Nichols remembers using pencils with ghost-shaped erasers and watching cars tackle the hill from her perch on the playground. Every year before Halloween, the school threw a fall festival and costume parade in honor of Casper’s birthday.
The week Nichols got her driver’s license, she visited Spook Hill.
“It never worked for me,” she said.
Spook Hill lore
The library collects the many newspaper clippings and documents that have told the story of Spook Hill over the years. Looking through the clips, you can see how much the legend has shifted.
In 2018, Max Adriel Imberman, a historic preservationist at the Florida Division of Historical Resources, submitted an application to get Spook Hill listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He said that steep hill in front of the white line where motorists begin is what blocks the view of the horizon. Hence, the optical illusion.
He wrote that the oldest recorded image of the site as a tourist attraction was taken in 1953. The next two decades would be the hill’s greatest period of local prominence.
The original sign in that photograph, which contains language that is today considered outdated and offensive, relayed a legend from the local chamber of commerce:
“The story relates of how the old Negro parked his car at the foot of this hill. He headed for the Lake. The song froze on his lips as he glanced back at his Jalopy. Slowly his old car was backing up-hill — the motor was not running — ‘Them’s Spooks,’ he was quoted as saying before he fainted. That is how Spook Hill came to be named.”
A different legend stars a cranky pirate ghost named Captain Gimme Sarsaparilla.
“Captain Gimme Sarsaparilla was a bloody pirate captain who roamed the seas in the early 16th century,” reads a clip from the 1950s-era issue of the Daily Highlander. “It is reported that Tampa’s Jose Gasparilla was just an ordinary freebooter in comparison — a poor relation — second or third cousin — of the terrible Captain Gimme.”
The story said Gimme retired from plundering in beautiful Lake Wales. His trusted aid, Teniente Vanilla, was buried at the foot of the hill. When Captain Gimme perished, his resting place was Davy Jones’ locker, at the bottom of North Lake Wales.
The newspaper clipping said that the captain was awakened after a man stopped his car at the foot of the hill. A car weighs the same as 16 people, conjuring the swashbuckling lyric, “16 men on a dead man’s chest.” Therefore, cruising over Vanilla’s resting place inspired the spirit of Captain Gimme to rise from the lake and shove the man’s car up the hill.
A 1964 Orlando Sentinel clipping in the library’s collection explained Spook Hill Elementary lore. When the school first opened, principal James W. Cooper struggled to get transcripts for transferring students. Apparently, other institutions saw the name and thought they were being pranked.
Cooper was responsible for bringing in Casper as the mascot. He wrote to Harvey Comics asking to use it for the school.
“Alfred Harvey, president, gladly granted permission, characterizing Casper as ‘friendly, helpful and good … a fine example of today’s youth.’”
In 1992, investigators from the Center for Paranormal Studies in Silver Springs came to Lake Wales. They bundled Spook Hill in the same trip as a visit to a nearby haunted home. They detected no electromagnetic activity at the attraction.
“Normal science apparently was enough to convince the trio that an optical illusion probably is responsible for cars that appear to roll upward,” read a report in The Ledger.
Perhaps Henry Ferguson, a visitor in the 1990s, told it to The Ledger best.
“I’m not excited, and I’m not scared, but it is something strange,” he said.
In search of spooks
By the time I finished my research and headed back to Spook Hill, the sky was drizzly and pale. Dare I say: It looked spooky.
Maybe if I could watch others visit, I could pick up on the secret. I ordered a sandwich to go on the way over, bracing myself for a long stakeout. But the line was two cars long when I reached Spook Hill.
I watched the first, a gray sedan, gradually approach the line before stopping and rolling back. They braked just before the sign. Then, the car drove forward to leave, driving even slower as they reached the top of the hill.
I imagined the person inside milking the last bit of Spook Hill, peeking back at the sign in the rearview mirror, wondering, “Was that it?”
“I was you,” I said through a mouthful of my chicken BLT.
Next, a red Ford Focus approached the sign. Two people were inside.
The woman in the passenger seat held up her phone to film. The driver threw his hands in the air. When they rolled back, he didn’t stop until well after they moved past the ghost sign.
Brian Eason, 52, and Olivia Grace Miller, 49, were visiting from Bradenton. They started their day at Bok Tower and ended at Spook Hill. Unlike most of the people I’d spoken with, this couple loved it.
“I’m giving her the whole Lake Wales experience,” Eason said.
Eason shared a few pointers before heading back for one more attempt. As his car rolled back, he flashed a big grin and a thumbs up. Then they left.
My turn. This time, I put my car in neutral and then peeled my hands from the wheel, hoisting them up above my ears. Instead of just releasing the brake, I took my foot completely off the pedal.
I stared straight ahead. Not looking up at the top of the hill. Not peering back. I imagined the massive gator, Chief Culcowellax, Captain Gimme Sarsaparilla all tugging my Hyundai Elantra by its rear wheels.
The further back I rolled, the more the road looked like it was curving up. It felt like I was being yanked back, rising higher and higher as I got closer to the sign and finally rolled past it. The key, it seems, is letting your car roll back far enough.
I tried it again. Then again. It wasn’t a wild joy ride. But I felt a thrill in finally understanding the sensation, and I needed to attempt it more to believe it.
On my fifth go, I heard a car driving on the road behind me. My cue to finally leave Spook Hill.
It was someone else’s turn to solve the mystery.