The 17th Door, Fullerton, CA
We briefly switch gears in our Halloween season coverage today to look at one of the independent haunts operating this season in Southern California. This one is one of my personal favorites: The 17th Door, a high-intensity haunted attraction that borders the extreme threshold and requires guests to sign a waiver before entering.
This elaborate and very impressive haunt burst onto the scene in 2015 with a meticulously detailed and phobia-triggering maze about a young, troubled teen named Paula who was starting her first year at Gluttire University and hoping to escape her demons. Of course, these demons continued to haunt her, and guests followed her tragic story as she faced real life horrors such as bullying, eating disorders, drug addiction, and even sexual assault--all personified in the form of monstrous beings that terrorized her.
The following year continued Paula's journey into her sophomore year back at Gluttire University. Despite the horrors of her freshman year, she seemed determined to turn a corner, even seemingly optimistic that her newfound pregnancy would bring a change to her life. Alas, Paula could not escape her demons, and the end of last year's haunt saw the shocking witness of Paula smothering her baby ("he just wouldn't stop crying!")--a disturbing and gut-wrenching climax to an intense multi-sensory haunted maze experience.
That brings us to this year. As the natural result of Paula's horrific actions, she has been convicted of murder and sentenced to serve time at Perpetuum Penitentiary, a gritty and brutal prison filled with new manifestations of horror and cruelty. Guests then follow along and meet various characters within the prison and witness Paula's further descent within the terrors of her new confinement.
The new theme is primarily a result of owners Robbie and Heather Luther needing to move the location of the haunt from Tustin, where it had run its first two years, to Fullerton--coincidentally in the exact same location as last year's Sinister Pointe attraction--due to a new incoming tenant in the Tustin retail space. Although the Luthers had considered continuing Paula's story through a full four years at Gluttire, the move provided a chance to re-examine the storyline and experience through a fresh perspective, and they ultimately made the decision to completely scrap the Gluttire University setting and construct a 100% brand new backdrop and maze layout.
This year's 17th Door thus features a lot of departures from the previous years, but also some of the same high intensity scares and immersive terror that has defined the operation. The theatrical and elaborately themed and detailed rooms from Gluttire University and settings from Paula's past have given way to a comparatively spartan aesthetic throughout Perpetuum Penitentiary. This makes some sense, given the new theme is a prison, which would hardly be ornate, but it was also a function of having to construct a completely brand new maze from scratch while also balancing the fabrication of a fully immersive and tactile virtual reality experience that is offered as an upcharge add-on to this year's haunt (more on that later). As a result, there are less cinematic sequences in this year's haunt. Instead, the Luthers have focused on providing a more cerebral walk-through, focusing on the psychological experience of terror and dread and suspense. Don't be mistaken however. As you'll see in the photos in this update, there is still plenty of detailing and theming used to create a dingy and unsettling ambiance. It's just less extravagant than previous years.
The storyline has also taken a bit of a back seat within the duration of the maze. The plot of Paula in prison is established to set the scene for the haunt, and while guests encounter a variety of encounters and some plot points, there is no real movement of the narrative. By the end of the maze, Paula is still in prison--a stark contrast to previous years, where Paula's history and addictions were detailed, and specific experiences in her college life were triggers for subsequent horrors. When I asked Heather about this shift, she explained that although the storyline was something that hardcore fans (like myself) might deeply understand and appreciate, for the vast majority of guests, the plot went right over their heads. So they decided to concentrate more on the guest experience and progression through the maze itself instead of storytelling. I personally would have liked to have seen more development into the story, since it would have really enriched the experience, but given the scope of work the Luthers embarked upon this year, I understand the cutback here.
Also adjusted are the distributions of some of the scare tactics. As previously mentioned, The 17th Door is a waiver maze, which means it is more than the typical "static scare" attraction. The actors can touch the guests (but not the other way around), and guests undergo more extreme and visceral sensations than they would at, say, a Knott's Scary Farm or Halloween Horror Nights. In particular the first two years of The 17th Door quickly established a reputation of utilizing "gross out" tactics as part of its repertoire for frights. Year one featured an infamous "cockroach room" littered with scores of both live and dead cockroaches, and at least one unfortunate member of each group would actually have a real roach crushed into his or her hand by a fiendish monster. Last year took guests into a scene where one had to reach into the uterus of an in-labor Paula, only to pull out a real pig fetus.
These scenes were intended to be revolting. The 17th Door allows guests to scream a safe word ("MERCY!") when they cannot handle a particular scene, and it proudly advertises the number of mercies it provokes each year. And last year and in 2015, such shocking and potentially sickening scenes were designed to test the limits of one's fear and psychological endurance. Fortunately for guests providing their hard-earned money, a "Mercy" could be used to simply skip to the following room if desired--though there certainly were people who opted out of the rest of the maze anyway!
This year's 17th Door noticeably relies much less on tactics of disgust. Whether this has been in response to feedback on the previous years, controversy over some of the use of animals in the maze, or just the Luthers' own decision to make a change, the result should still reassure fans who enjoyed the haunts but had a distaste for the "gross parts." However, in their place, there is a significant increase in scares that use water effects and electrical shock effects. Fortunately, The 17th Door makes every attempt to clearly and repeatedly communicate these expectations in advance. But guests should understand very clearly: there is a very good likelihood they will be shocked in the maze. And there is an absolute certainty that they will get wet--possibly even soaked. Guests are even to leave their mobile phones or anything else they don't want getting wet behind in their cars. If that type of experience is enough to negate the effect of any thrills of the experience, this haunt may not be for such type of people.
For everyone else, this year's 17th Door is an absolute exercise in psychological manipulation. The way each room draws out anticipation of the next scare is exquisite, and often times, the apprehension about what's to come can be worse than the actual experience! In addition to the water and shock effects, there are plenty of traditional scares, including pop-out stairs, startle scares, and psychological discomfort. Scares come at eye level, above eye level, and below. Guests will walk, wade, and crawl. In addition, the actors in each of the rooms are quite fantastic, truly throwing themselves (sometimes literally) into their characters. The absolute favorite of our group was a prison yard fellow named "Mad Dog" who was decidedly unhinged and deranged about working out, but thoroughly entertaining and hilarious--enough to elicit a sports arena-style chant of "MAD DOG!! MAD DOG!!" as we entered. (To the Luthers: The 17th Door needs Mad Dog merchandise. Buttons, pins, key chains, T-shirts, towels... get on it! Mad Dog is a star!)
There are also still some scenes that are practically chilling in how well they simulate a theatrical moment. The long corridor toward's Paula's solitary cell is one--and the methodical advance of a horrendous creature coming to get her (and the guests) is unforgettably haunting! And lest one accuse The 17th Door be overly serious, there are some incredibly fun moments too. An "elevator ride" features a wry, sardonic operator who rolls with the instability of the carriage. A prison warden revels in treating incoming guests like crap. And the perennial favorite--the ball pit--does make an appearance in some regard this year--though I cannot say anything more than that.
Oh, and did I mention that The 17th Door has a ridiculously impressive virtual reality experience this year that is part ride simulator, part immersive 3D video, and part torture chamber? For an extra $12 per person, guests can try The 17th Door VR, which literally requires them to be strapped into seats with a seat belt and restraining wrist straps. The virtual experience complements the actual walk-through attraction, and it too comes equipped with tactile surprises. Each VR room can accommodate up to eight guests across two platforms of four seats each, and the platforms actually tilt and lurch to emphasize select moments of the VR film. And the effects comprise a medley of the sorts one might expect from a "4D" film at a theme park (to the point where guests are allowed to cry "Mercy" if the experience is too intense--and trust me when I say that for some people it will be!).
Most impressively--everything was designed, fabricated, and programmed in-house. Robbie worked on most of the mechanics of the seating system, enlisting the help of a prior year's guest with engineering experience to accent some of the sound and programming work, and The 17th Door team created the rest. The VR movie was made inside the property. Nothing was contracted to an outside company. Given that Robbie had never done anything with VR before, this is further evidence of the genius of the whole operation. The entire team has created a pretty amazing assemblage of themed horror entertainment!
All of the above said and done, for me personally, this year's experience actually ended up a little less intense than I expected. There are a variety of factors to this. I might actually be growing more accustomed to "extreme" haunts than I thought. Or I was fortunate and through luck of the draw passed through a less intense experience. Or I psyched myself out and imagined possibilities far worse than the Luthers truly had planned. Or the attraction played upon the fears and expectations set by previous years to craft something that was worse to anticipate than to actually experience--which plays upon the cerebral emphasis I touched upon previously. Or maybe it was a combination of all of the above.
I'm not complaining, though. The 17th Door continues to be a thoroughly impressive and pretty darn amazing haunted attraction. This year, the addition of the VR experience (which I highly recommend, even though there are moments that can be physically unpleasant), has brought even more variety to the show. And the cast--many members of whom are returning veterans who understand the timing and nuances of the production--is quite fantastic and a joy to just observe. Remember too that the entire production relies upon carefully choreographed and synchronized rotation of scenes through 20+ rooms to keep guest flow consistent and efficient. No other haunted attraction filters guests through in this manner--which maintains an intimacy of each group that isolates them from other groups throughout the maze (the photo op moment at the end did back up last Friday when I attended though).
It's still incredible to think that this is coming from a haunt that not only didn't exist three years ago but had owners who had never done any haunt prior to The 17th Door. So kudos to Robbie, Heather, and the entire 17th Door team for yet another smashing success!
The 17th Door runs on select nights through Halloween. It may not be the type of haunt you would take a casual guests who can be wholly satisified at a Halloween Horror Nights or Dark Harbor or Knott's Scary Farm, but it is definitely great for haunt fans who want just a little bit more edge to their experiences. It's is also nowhere near the more extreme haunts like Blackout or McKamey Manor (then again, practically nothing is like McKamey), for those nervous about the opposite end of the spectrum. But then again, the Luthers are continually pushing the boundaries and making adjustments and improvements to maximize the experience of fear. I personally loved this year's version just as I did the first two, and I can't wait to see what comes next!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.