The 17th Door, Fullerton, CA
We have moved into the month of October, and for regular folks, that means Halloween season is only now officially underway. But for haunt enthusiasts like us, we’ve been visiting haunted attractions for a couple of weeks now, and today, we swing by The 17th Door, one of the more infamous and “extreme” commercial haunts out there, to see what they’ve cooked up for this year!
The 17th Door was begun in 2015 by Robbie and Heather Luther and a small but incredibly talented and hard-working group of builders and cast members who made headlines for a highly themed, emotionally and mentally charged, edgy and provocative haunted attraction that was so heightened that it required a waiver for guests to participate and featured a safe word (“MERCY!”) for those who found rooms or the entire maze too excessive to continue.
During its 2015 and 2016 runs, the maze followed the tragic protagonist, Paula, during her freshman and sophomore years at the fictional Gluttire University, as she tried to establish a new foundation and escape her abused and traumatic past. But try as she might, her demons from her youth continued to haunt her. And her college experience proved to be even more horrific than her high school years, culminating in her rape by an abusive boyfriend, subsequent birth to an unwanted child, and climactic and shocking murder of her infant son at the end of the second year’s maze.
Last year—coinciding with The 17th Door’s move from its original Tustin location to a new location in Fullerton—Paula found herself in Perpetuum Penitentiary, sentenced to serve time for her ghastly crime. Although the storyline development aspect of The 17th Door was reduced in 2017 (in part because of time constraints with having to build a brand new maze and set in a new location and also because most guests did not hone in as much on the story aspect), the end of the run found Paula still at Perpetuum Penitentiary, unsuccessful in breaking out, trapped and still tormented by her personal demons.
As it turns out, her time at the prison has taken a toll, and this year, Paula has become more unstable and unhinged. She has become bitterly dark and resentful of her confinement, lashing out to those who come near. As part of treatment designed to help her heal and move on from her trauma, Paula has been assigned a therapy doll meant to represent her murdered child. And in a sadistic twist, it has been given the same name as Paula’s slain baby: Lincoln. That that is where guests find Paula as they enter the maze. Formerly a sort of tragic and sympathetic figure, Paula herself has become a bit of a threatening one. How things have changed, entering year four…
We visited Perpetuum Penitentiary this past Saturday to discover the next chapter in Paula’s story, and what a trip it was! This year’s The 17th Door—subtitled Crybaby—returns with a tenser, more riveting, more technically complex, and literally more shocking set of twists and surprises. The maze has been almost entirely redesigned and reconfigured, owing to the Luthers and their crew having had a full year to build and refine their ideas and continue off of last year’s successes.
With the additional time, the level of theming has gone up. Although the Perpetuum Penitentiary aesthetic naturally demands sparser sets and more rugged looking environments that differ from the lush hyperrealism of Gluttire University, it still has some great details, and plenty of technologically complicated implementations to provide new surprises for guests. Several of the rooms are breathtaking in their scope, with one in particular crafted to leave guests feeling the weight of the haunting guilt that eats away at Paula. This room, and several others, also take advantage of some impressive lighting effects to change the room’s appearances through blacklighting and theatrical lighting. Perpetuum Penitentiary may be a gritty and appalling institution, but man does The 17th Door team manage to make it look exquisitely so!
In addition, there’s also a tight-knit cast that has really honed their characters and developed great timing and chemistry. Many of the scare actors at The 17th Door are returning veterans, and other newcomers include talent fro mainstream haunts like Knott’s Scary Farm. Fans of The 17th Door actors brim with psychotic energy. They often seem to come out of nowhere, and at this point, in year 4, have learned to take full advantage of the built-in scare positions provided to them. Fans will recognize several familiar faces, like perennial favorite, Shar Mayer and legendary Knott’s Scary Farm monster Dusty Geezer, playing different roles. And they’ll also encounter a variety of crazed Paulas, sinister prison guards, sadistic inmates, and even the return of the addictively charismatic “Mad Dog” character, who might have been our favorite role from last year.
On the machinations side, this year includes the most intricate systems The 17th Door has ever had to develop and install. The beloved ball pit room of course returns, similar to last year’s setting, but with a new and more anxiety-driving way of placing guests at one with the balls. But there are other cool tinker toys Robbie and his crew have developed. An unstable floor provided an unexpected and utterly fun scare, while another room turns the tables on guests, giving them different roles depending which part of the maze they come in on.
The 17th Door wouldn’t be The 17th Door without plenty of shock value that pushes the envelope beyond what most commercial haunts are willing to do. The venue clearly and openly disclaims the risks guests assume with effects that they may encounter, but I feel it’s worth reiterating these to those who may dismiss the ample warnings.
One good news for enthusiasts like myself is that this year, there are zero water effects. Last year featured a scene where guests had to climb through a “sewer” that began flooding as guests reached the midpoint. It certainly provided some claustrophobic and aquatic terror for some, but water-adverse folks like myself also found it rather annoying.
On the other hand, this change seems to have been balanced out by an increase in shocks supplied at various points in the maze. Some of this comes at random—be the unlucky victim or on the unlucky route, and one may be subjected to a surprising jolt or several. But others in the same group may escape unscathed. It’s the fear and worry about what may come that drives the blood pressure and makes this haunted house more visceral.
For those concerned with some of the gross-out elements present in previous 17th Door iterations, those are somewhat reduced. But there is one room in particular that may very well have gusts retching because of its contents. Fortunately, anyone who wants to mercy out of a room can do so without forfeiting the rest of the maze. And since The 17th Door strives to pull as many mercies as they can (they keep a wall of marks counting all the mercies that have ever been uttered through the attraction’s history).
In addition, as it always has, The 17th Door does tackle some pretty dark subject matter, including adult themes and unnerving content. Torture, rape, murder, and abuse are notable parts of the storyline, and these may be triggers to guests who have had traumatic experiences with these topics in their own lives. There’s also a literal trigger warning—a section of the maze where those sensitive to gun violence may feel especially uncomfortable. And while this may seem to court controversy, The 17th Door has always used the horror of reality to study the psychological manipulation of fear and suspense. Under no circumstances is the exploration of these tenuous themes mean to demean the seriousness of them in real life. But as haunted attractions are apt to do, The 17th Door takes instigators of fright and weaves them in an attraction that is ultimately safe and controlled.
All of that being said, although it does have a bit of a reputation as a shock value (literally) maze, The 17th Door has also made some great improvements in traditional, non-tactile scares as well. There were plenty of great misdirectional startle scares in the rooms and even some unexpected jump scares with both actors and animatronics in the waiting vestibules between each room. Other rooms have been enhanced with a more cinematographic, choreographed feel, bringing the terror of a movie chase scene or a whirring descent into madness to life with calculated and high adrenaline precision. The refinement over last year’s production was clearly evident as we experienced The 17th Door 2018. A big round of kudos goes to the team and cast for synchronizing and perfecting every last detail.
If there was one area where we felt The 17th Door could have enhanced, it would be the progression of Paula’s story. Once again, this year, the narrative journey at Perpetuum Penitentiary is rather limited, and although there were a few rooms that advanced the plot and seemed to even suggest a turning point in Paula’s tale, the ending left matters largely unresolved. Perhaps it was intentional, to whet our appetites for next year. But this is rather minor in the grand scheme of things. Story development is really something that only repeat fans would catch and appreciate, and it doesn’t really directly contribute to the physical experience.
Speaking of physical, for those looking for an extra facet to their horror experience, The 17th Door has brought back its supplementary and upcharge 4D attraction and renamed it The Vixi Ward. The premise is that this technology was developed to study and simulate the neural system in order to treat inmates with psychological disorders. Of course, at Perpetuum Penitentiary, the staff has repurposed it for more sinister designs, and guests are the new guinea pigs.
This year’s experience has some similarities and even returning scenes as last year, but the team has thrown in a few surprises and even a sardonic swerve moment that is tongue-in-cheek. As with last year’s version, guests are strapped into seats set on a motion simulator base. Also as with last year’s version, guests are strapped into seats with a stimulator base—electrical shocks come into play at The Vixi Ward, and the safe word of “MERCY” can be used here as well to prematurely end the experience for individual users.
Overall, The 17th Door has grown yet another step in its sadistically progressive presentation of interactive horror. With even greater quality, depth in theming, and new surprises, it offers an alternative to those who feel that traditional places like Knott’s Universal, Dark Harbor, or Six Flags offer too traditional of scares. I will be honest and say that The 17th Door is not an attraction for everyone. Some people may find the tactile scares more bothersome than fear-inducing, while others may be turned off by the gross-out elements that still persist (though reduced from previous years). But for those who like their haunts a little sharper and more raw, The 17th Door once again thrills and fulfills. We hope to see Paula again soon…
The 17th Door runs through Halloween night, Wednesday, October 31. Tickets and additional information can be found at their official web site.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.