Without a doubt, the single most-anticipated new attraction to come online here in Southern California last Halloween was The 17th Door Haunt Experience. Located in Tustin, just minutes away from Disneyland in Orange County, The 17th Door hit the scene hard, taking everyone by surprise by its sheer size, detail and controversial content.
The 17th Door took no prisoners as it thrust thousands of curious guests into the nightmarish world of Paula, a college freshman with lots of emotional baggage. Embarking on her terror trip of bulimia, alcohol and drug abuse, we joined Paula as she made one bad decision after another – and paid for it dearly. Guests fought their way with Paula through solitary confinement, a room filled with live cockroaches, demons in the form of swine-human hybrids, and a myriad of gut-wrenching moments that pushed many to the brink. More than 3,000 visitors at The 17th Door last season tapped out – they cried mercy, because the intensity was simply too much for them to bear.
After a stunning debut resulting in week after week of sold-out nights due to strong press and completely viral world-of-mouth excitement, the questions began… how would owners Robbie and Heather Luther top themselves? After scenes featuring roaches, dead pigs, shock pads, and sexual abuse, what do you even do for an encore?
This past weekend, Theme Park Adventure set out to find some answers and get insight into what will most certainly be one of the hottest Halloween event tickets in town for the 2016 season. Robbie and Heather were waiting for us on the other side – beyond the first door of their sprawling space in The Market Place, with some answers, new revelations, and a sneak peek for TPAers of what they’ve been up to since last fall.
One of the greatest aspects of The 17th Door’s location is that the haunt got to remain intact within The Market Place – a large, master planned retail complex just moments off the 5 Freeway. The ability to remain in their enormous space has allowed the team to focus on 2016 without the headache of tearing everything down and storing it, only to set it all up again; very few haunts here in SoCal have that luxury. However, as Robbie set his sights on what he could add and improve on for this year, one thing was evident – a lot of The 17th Door was about to change.
In fact, fans will be thrilled to learn that about 65% of The 17th Door has been redone for 2016, with just about 20% of every other returning rooms being re-purposed, making for a completely new and terrifying experience. That’s substantial – and it should scare the crap out of you right now! Returning 17th Door fans may recognize certain locales such as Paula’s bedroom – but those moments will be few and far between as the Luthers have completely re-imagined what the experience is going to be.
I’ll alleviate some of your anxiety right now; the cockroaches are not returning to The 17th Door. That said, there will be real, dead animals throughout the experience in jars, etc. just like last year – that isn’t changing, and could be an issue for vegans, which is something that never dawned on me – or the Luthers – until questions and comments began popping up last year when it became known that live insects and animal carcasses were used and guests were coming into contact with all of that.
That actually bridges us to the broader topic of uncomfortable subject matter and content that have some brows raised when it comes to The 17th Door. Obviously, the haunt builds on real-life terrors such as molestation, suicide, and murder. These are things that critics have questioned the Luthers about; some contending that the haunt glorifies that type of thing. Of course, that’s simply not true. In speaking candidly with Heather about the various themes that Paula encounters along her dark journey, she agrees that the subject matter is very uncomfortable. As a mother, even Heather finds a lot of the content in The 17th Door to be very difficult to work with. She articulated the situation perfectly to us as we walked from room to room within the attraction:
When you go to a movie that features a really ugly occurrence – rape, the Holocaust, an act of terrorism – those films aren’t glorifying the act. Those events and themes are in place to tell a story, and to move characters along on their journeys. The 17th Door is the same way; it’s not glorifying bulimia, violence, rape, or drug abuse. What guests encounter when they travel the halls of Gluttire University with Paula, when they step inside her world – that’s real-life terror, you know? Murder, rape, mental illness – these things are much more frightening to some people than ghosts and vampires that don’t exist. That’s the approach that The 17th Door takes, which may seem controversial to some people – and perfectly acceptable to others. For the record, as Theme Park Adventure, we totally get it and buy in to that philosophy; Robbie and Heather aren’t glorifying horrific acts of abuse or violence… they’re using themes that hit very close to home on a human level to conjure emotional response and fear in their guests. Just like movies do. Just like novels do.
Last year, one of the things about The 17th Door that had us shocked was the high level of detail found throughout each of the haunt’s rooms. The Luthers have an incredible team, as well as the funds to create really great scenic elements. That level of excellence has been met and is even higher this year, with many of the rooms looking like movie sets. In particular, there is a chapel scene in The 17th Door that is incredible, complete with severed pig heads adorning the walls as decorations; guests are going to be blown away by this – and likely will find themselves unnerved by what happens there.
If you’re going to be a returning fan this season, here’s another little tidbit for you… The Ball Pit is back! Not only is this unique component back, Robbie has made it an even more robust system and they’ve upped the amount of balls that guests are going to be buried alive under. To fully appreciate this, you need to understand the gag. Guests enter a small room, and are instructed to take a seat on a bench next to one another. Once seated, hundreds of balls – the kind you find in play space ball pits – rain down on you from above, covering you, burying you alive; it is a claustrophobic moment that is very effective, yet completely safe. And then, just like that, trap doors below open, and the balls empty out of the room as quickly as they filled it.
Below, is an image of the mechanism behind the scenes that is the ball reservoir and the custom-designed and built massive vacuum system that sucks up 15,000 plastic balls and readies them to be dropped again – this happens every 90 seconds or so each night. You read that right; 15,000 balls! It’s a serious piece of equipment and pretty mind-blowing that Robbie developed this simply to bury guests alive. It’s so outrageous and genius, that it’s become one of our favorite haunt moments anywhere; knowing what’s transpiring behind the scenes to make it work – all the more reason to admire the hell out of it. Oh, and by the way… taller folks who managed to keep their heads “above water” last year – the Luthers have remedied that this season with more balls; everyone gets buried in 2016!
Guests entering the lobby of The 17th Door will find an all-new lounge area where they can wait and pretend to relax. A new queue has been created as well, which will allow more monsters to interact with guests in line than ever before. Due to limitations put on how the line is maintained outside on the common area of the mall, The 17th Door needs to keep all of its nasty inhabitants inside. Be assured, once you enter the building – you are fair game.
And that’s it! We’ve shed enough light; too much light, perhaps! After walking through The 17th Door in its entirety, I can assure you that Robbie and Heather have gone bigger and better this year – and that fans of the experience will not be disappointed. As for those who certainly will be new this year to the horrors of The 17th Door – fear not… there will be a “safe word”. And, because the Luthers are such kind-hearted people, they have decided that even if someone is so freaked out that they call safety, they may still proceed to the next room to continue the experience. As Heather explained, they don’t want anyone to miss all of the amazing work that’s been put into the haunt over the past year.
Or… they could be evil personified, hiding sadistic streaks a mile long behind their friendly grins and warm welcomes.
Hear that? The bell is ringing.
Class is in.
- Rick West