The 17th Door, Tustin, California
Coming off their sensational, break-out debut last year, The 17th Door has once again opened its doors to the wretched Gluttire University to follow the sophomore year of tragic Paula, who has chosen to return to continue her dream of becoming a doctor despite a horror-filled freshman year so traumatic that it drove her to attempt suicide and be committed into a psychiatric ward.
The 17th Door is a "waiver maze" haunt, which means guests sign a legal release acknowledging that they may be touched and can witness or be in contact with a medley of elements and subject matter that is too extreme or controversial for traditional haunted attractions like Knott's, Universal, and the like. Though not as intense as near-torture factories like McKamey Manor in San Diego or the Blackout experiences of years past in Los Angeles and New York, this haunt in Tustin does dive heavily and harshly into some pretty mature subject matter, including eating disorders, suicide, substsance abuse, sexual assault, gun violence, and more.
The 17th Door distinguishes itself from other haunts--which pull from traditional horror fantasy themes for design inspiration--by drawing horror from reality. Topics like domestic abuse, sexual assault, alcohol addiction, bulimia, and suicide are truly terrible and frightening occurrences that happen to people everyday. By no means are these glorified or condoned, but they do serve as material that informs the narrative of this haunted attraction. With The 17th Door, the above issues are personified into demonic creatures or disturbing individuals and surrounded by gritty, unwholesome, viscerally uncomfortable environments. These are laid out in the form of a series of scenes and transition rooms that guests "pulse" through in a timed manner, utilizing a pretty ingenious and synchronized system of door, speaker, lighting, and theatrical controls connected to a central monitoring station. Guests move through a 30-60 second scene, then into a transition room to wait for the next scene, then enter through to the following scene, creating a constant pacing element that helps the actors gain rhythm and controls the 34+ minute experience.
Last Friday was The 17th Door's media night, and Westcoaster was on hand see what new changes creators Robbie and Heather Luther and their talented team of designers, builders, make-up artists, and monsters had dreamed up and constructed. Here's a spoiler-free overview of what we witnessed.
Though it is not necessary to have gone through last year's attraction, guests who did visit The 17th Door in 2015 will find greater appreciation of certain details, storyline elements, references, and design moves in this year's iteration:
In short, year one introduced the audience to Paula, a young, incoming college freshman with aspirations of becoming a doctor and also hoping to escape the demons of her past. Through the course of last year's maze, guests learned that Paula had been overweight in high school and had developed bulimia in order to lose weight and escape the taunts of vicious bullies. Unfortunately, the psychological trauma followed her into Gluttire University, manifesting themselves as grotesque pig-like demons. Paula's freshman year saw her fall into alcoholism, drug use, and promiscuity as she struggled to feel accepted and eliminate what she saw were her numerous physical flaws. Her lifestyle mistakes led to a downward spiral that included being the victim of rape, which eventually prompted her to attempt suicide. The maze ended with an unconscious Paula in intensive care and committed to a mental institution.
As was the case last year, before the evening opening, media members were allowed to tour several of the rooms with full show lighting, effects, and characters. Though the scenes of the haunted attraction were not acted out, we were able to get a sense of what might happen in some of these rooms. Fortunately, though these photos technically reveal some of what's inside this year's 17th Door attraction, they don't really spoil anything.
Electric Supply Room
Guests who attended last year's 17th Door may recognize this room as the drug lab. This year, it has been re-purposed into a dingy electrical room, complete with a fully functional Tesla coil and a horrific creature with a penchant for playing games.
Between each scene room were transition rooms that served as waiting spaces for each group of 6-8 people (the supposed maximum is ten, though this seems very optimistic). Some of these rooms had moments to continue the narrative, while others were simply opportunities to provide startle scares.
An added wrinkle to this year's storyline involves the revelation that Paula is pregnant. Though her boyfriend, Brad, fervently denies being the father, Paula insists that he "knows what he did." The reference to domestic abuse and sexual assault is one of many heavy-handed topics that the 17th Door addresses head-on.
Last year, the transition rooms were mostly unfinished, featuring painted out exposed 2x4's. A second year has allowed even these interstitial spaces to be fully finished, and though they don't feature the same intricate detailing as the show rooms, they are still pretty well furnished.
One of developments in this year story takes guests back in time for a glimpse of parts of Paula's childhood. This introduces a character called The Father, a truly creepy religious figure who plays a central part in Paula's residual psychological problems and emotional trauma. Past and present are connected by an visit through the Gluttire University chapel, where a rather uncomfortable scene unfolds.
Last year's 17th Door definitely featured a high gross factor, with certain show elements designed to elicit visceral effects that played on disgust and potential phobia. This year's iteration is no different, and a scene in the hospital provides a perfect setting to expose guests to a bit of ickiness.
This year's 17th Door also examines how Paula deals with her child after he is born. Within the confines of Paula's wretched life, this presents additional stress and its own set of challenges and fears. Inside Paula's apartment, guests see how Paula copes with caring for a child that was also the result of sexual assault.
Finally, the Basement provides another clue to Paula's past. The Father in the chapel makes an appearance here too, and he is just as unnerving. Even more unnerving is the screen set-up, which is reused from one of last year's rooms but somehow manages to make guests feel even more dirty than it did last year.
Without spoiling what happens, I will say that I loved this year's 17th Door experience. The storyline continued the complex and bluntly horrific themes and happenings introduced last year, adding depth to Paula's backstory and further intensifying her downward spiral. It was great to see some of last year's rooms redesigned and used in ways both similar and different. The mini-escape room was pretty interesting and absolutely required teamwork to solve. Another room featured an actual ride simulator element mixed with a bit of theater. Only two of the rooms were unchanged from last year, and one of those rooms has actually been enhanced to be even more extravagant (and as a result, more absurd and fun). For those who attended last year, yes, I'm talking about that room--the one that engulfs guests in an avalanche of terrifying silliness.
If there is criticism that can be leveled at The 17th Door, it is that the haunt does rely on a certain amount of shock and gross factor. For me, this was nothing that turned me off (and in fact actually contributed to some of the few moments that actually "scared" me), but I can understand others who may have such features sour their overall experience. Last year, there was an entire room littered with dead cockroaches all over the ground, and one unlucky guest in each group had a live roach crushed in his or her hand or thrown at him or her. It was enough legitimately terrify Theme Park Adventure's own unscare-able Rick West. Although there is nothing like that this year, the maze does contain its share of physically uncomfortable and possibly momentarily painful moments, which may cross some people's threshold for spooky fun. For example, as mentioned before, religious folks may find the chapel scene offensive. And finally, there are both live and dead animals used in this haunt, which may impact the decision of animal advocates or vegans to experience this haunt. But the Luthers have taken every imaginable precaution to warn of these potential encounters to any visitors, prior to their entering the maze.
It is also important to know that guests always have the option to skip a room or experience, should they wish. The 17th Door has a safe word, "Mercy," that can be used to bypass a single room or the entire rest of the maze. Last year, 3822 "mercies" were uttered, totaling about 15% of guests who entered. Again, though this maze is public admission, it is not for the faint of heart. There is no age limit, but the haunt does recommend 16+, and some might even argue that 18+ is more appropriate.
(And remember: if something offends you, then don't patronize it; but don't start a protest that calls for the removal of said offensive thing, because offense is 100% subjective.)
That disclaimer said, I personally thought that this year's 17th Door was yet another fantastic, immersive, cerebral, and gut-wrenching offering. It's hard to compare this to last year's version, because some of the novelty of last year's shock value inherently disappeared with a second visit through. But the experience is intense, and ending definitely packs an "OMG, I can't believe that happened" moment.
The Luthers have made a lot of improvements to this year's maze, increased efficiency in operations, upped the technology and detail, and crafted even richer environments to tell their story. The 17th Door is also partnering with Boneyard Effects--known for being the make-up artists for Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, further increasing show quality. And at the end of the day, it is incredible that these now-second-time haunters have been able to create such a successful and high level haunted attraction with literally no haunt experience prior to 2015. Their commitment and passion are clearly on display and should be applauded.
I highly recommend The 17th Door as one of the top haunts once again for 2016. Accepting that the disclaimer issues outlined above are not deal breakers, I think that haunt fans will appreciate the twisted, alarming, terrifying domain of Gluttire University. And I can't wait to see what year three has in store!
The 17th Door runs select nights through Halloween night. Tickets start at $22.00 and vary based on demand pricing per day, with front of line options also available in the form of VIP and "Speed Pass" tickets. Fans can also purchase T-shirts, key chains, and photos as souvenirs. Buy tickets and get more information at http://www.the17thdoor.com.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.