The 17th Door Haunted Experience made its debut in Southern California in 2015. Located in The Marketplace in Tustin, California, this extreme haunt took just about everyone by surprise on multiple levels – from its incredible set design to the sheer physical size and complexity of its operation.
Created by husband and wife team Robbie and Heather Luther, The 17th Door is a haunt unlike we’ve ever experienced here in Southern California. The fact that it’s nestled unassumingly in an upscale strip mall in a sleepy suburban master-planned community makes it even more of an anomaly.
When we first met the Luthers, there was a moment of disbelief that such a nice, totally laid-back “Orange County” couple could be behind something so reportedly twisted and sinister. As they explained some of the scenarios that would be explored throughout the sprawling haunt such as college rape, alcohol abuse, sex, and drug addiction, silent alarms went off in my head. Holy Crap! They’re religious freaks! This is an O.C. Hell House! A short while longer with them and some well-crafted F-bombs from Robbie set that cramp-inducing fear aside. It was clear that the Luthers are simply new haunters that have a wealth of resources available to them and the creative vision and drive to really, really jack people up by playing up extremely uncomfortable themes and crossing the line wherever they can.
The story of The 17th Door is fairly straightforward – a young woman’s hellish terror trip through college where she gets mixed up with the wrong crowd and battles her own demons – including overeating; as a result, many of the monsters in 17th Door take on the form of humanoids with pig faces.
Along the way, guests encounter really unsettling scenes and interactive elements that push the boundaries of what haunt fans typically experience in other attractions. There’s no need to go down a bullet list (because we don’t know what is or isn’t appearing in 2016 when The 17th Door returns), but I’ll say there were multiple scenes in which guests came into contact with real dead animals – something that several of our vegan friends really had serious issues with; that’s a whole other discussion that I would have never even thought about if we hadn’t experienced it with them.
One aspect of The 17th Door that I do want to mention isn’t coming back – and has the distinction of being the single most horrific thing I have ever experienced in a haunt in the 20+ years that I have had Theme Park Adventure. As we entered one of the attraction’s rooms, the lighting was very dim. In the far corner, a doctor stood hunched over the naked corpse of a woman doing vile things to her as we approached. Walking into the room, the air was heavy with an earthen, acrid odor; my mind spun wildly trying to place the foul smell. It definitely wasn’t synthetic – it was beyond that. Real. Organic. The floor was dark and spongy. Once we began interacting with the deranged doctor, our heads spun as the reality hit – the room was filled with giant cockroaches. Thousands upon thousands of them. Dead, crushed, caked on our shoes in a black tar-like goo. The doctor made one of our group hold out his hand – and proceeded to smash a huge roach in it; guts created a sticky white mess in the palm of the victim’s hand, and as the flickering light went out overhead, the doctor reached into a cabinet filled with roaches and flung them at us; in the darkness, we could feel the insects raining down on us. It was panic-inducing, and took every ounce of strength I had to suppress my fight-or-flight instinct. Honestly, it was the single worst freak-out moment I have ever had in a haunt, and it was just as bad as it sounds. It literally was so bad, that I didn’t know if I would do 17th Door more than once in 2015. That particular scene will not return in 2016, so if you missed it… consider yourself lucky.
The 17th Door is operationally, very clever and efficient. Each scene lasts 90 seconds before a buzzer goes off and a green light appears above each of the attraction’s 17 doors – allowing guests to move to the next room. Very smart. Fantastic capacity. The entire system was designed and built by Robbie – it’s all incredibly professional and unique.
Throughout The 17th Door, the set design is ridiculous; it looks like something you’d find in a maze at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights or Knott’s Scary Farm, not a start-up haunt from a couple that has never produced anything like this before. Right off the bat, The 17th Door aesthetically looks like it’s been doing this for years. Huge props and kudos to the Luthers and their build team – there is nothing lacking scenic-wise when it comes to this haunt.
Looks alone don’t make a haunt successful. When you boil it all down to what the most important element is, more often than not, it’s completely up to live talent to make or break a haunted attraction. In the case of The 17th Door, the talent is spot-on, blurring the line between jump scares and true theater. For their 2015 season, the Luthers were blessed with some veteran talent from other local haunts that guided and taught the rest of the team how to be the very best monsters they could be – or whatever their roles happened to be. In the end, the talent at The 17th Door was exceptional. Under the leadership and direction of Chris Foglesong, Robbie and Heather had a crack team of fantastic talent that really carried the event and nailed it hard.
Where The 17th Door gets very complicated is when you try to fit it into a predetermined idea of what a haunt is. While it employs standard haunted house scare techniques, The 17th Door is an oddity that really plays on real-world horrors – rape, drug overdose, suicide – heavy topics that likely have touched the lives of many guests going through the attraction. It has to push some serious buttons for people. That said, the lines to get in – most nights selling out – are enormous. The tell-tale sign that the Luthers are doing something right, and that the public wants more, more, more. There are debates – should things such as binge eating and purging, rape, or teen suicide be depicted in a haunted house for entertainment? It’s a hot topic, of course, and one that makes The 17th Door even more of an exotic animal. That’s one thing that makes Halloween and associated attractions so interesting – there really are no “out of bounds” topics. Some haunts depict graveyards with ghouls and skeletons; others demonic possession. Perhaps you’re being chased by backwater hicks that want to have at your “pretty little mouth”. Or maybe you’re stuck in a brothel with zombie prostitutes that are looking for love in all the wrong places. The sky’s the limit with haunts and terror attractions. Who are we to judge what The 17th Door implements as part of its story? True, there are physical gags in place such as shock pads that a lot of people also don’t like; we’re not particularly fond of being shocked in haunts. That said, no one is forcing anyone to attend The 17th Door or any other haunt for that matter. You make the decision. You sign the waiver. You take the risk and venture in.
The 17th Door is raw. It is not like anything you’ve seen before. It takes chances. It throws daggers. It offends. It entertains. It is pure Halloween spectacle without a “Halloween theme”. It doesn’t pull punches. Its owners are perfectionists, always wanting to push the envelope and challenge themselves. It’s disgusting. It’s a journey. It’s bizarre and offensive. It’s extreme and gritty. You may come out fine. You may come out soaking wet or filthy.
Whatever it is – people flock to it. The 17th Door is probably the biggest success story of Halloween 2015. It was the haunt that suddenly came out of nowhere and dominated the SoCal scene, bringing curious fans from far and near to see what it was all about for themselves. One thing is for certain – most of those folks are coming back in 2016… and they’re bringing friends. Whatever Heather, Robbie and the team have in store, we can only imagine.
We’ll be there.
- Rick West