And what lies behind the 17th Door? Your greatest fears - and one of the most anticipated haunted experiences of the Halloween season in Southern California.
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During a recent visit, I found the 17th Door to be the most innovative haunted experience I've ever seen.
Located in a 15,000-square-foot former furniture shop, the 17th Door is wedged between a mattress outlet and a party supply shop in the Tustin Marketplace shopping mall, south of Disneyland in Orange County.
The 17th Door is the demented and twisted “passion project” of husband-and-wife team Robbie and Heather Luther, typical Southern California suburbanites who live with their three young boys in Tustin. Over the years, the couple visited theme park mazes at Knott’s Halloween Haunt and Universal’s Horror Nights - always leaving with aspirations of taking a more immersive approach. Now after a decade of dreaming up ideas, they’ve built their own
"My original plan was to do a haunted house so extreme and awesome that it would get protested by all these groups and then I would get shut down," said Robbie Luther, 36, who does most of the talking for the husband-and-wife team. "Some of my original ideas were pretty far out."
"I actually think it's an advantage that we have never done any haunted houses," Luther said. "People seem to think we have a really unique look. That's just because we've never done it. We just wanted it to look awesome."
Robbie comes from a construction background and oversaw the design of the 17th Door while Heather manages and organizes the business side of the operation. Many of the sets were built at Robbie's warehouse in Santa Ana, where he spent up to 120 hours per week since April working on the 17th Door.
"I'm passionate about building things and pushing the envelope," Luther said. "This is just an awesome canvas to be creative and put on a show."
As the grand opening drew near, Robbie went weeks without leaving the Tustin Marketplace property - spending his days and nights working on the project. It’s no accident
"It makes me sick to my stomach to think of all the work that's gone into this place," he said.
The couple came up with the idea for the 17th Door together - during a date night at a sushi restaurant. The goal: Dream up new ways to terrify, disturb and occasionally offend people. The result is an immersive and intense in-your-face haunted house that harnesses the couple's dark sense of humor.
For the uninitiated, the 17th Door is more intense than Knott's Halloween Haunt or Universal's Horror Nights, but far less extreme than San Diego's McKamey Manor or Blackout in Los Angeles.
Set at a medical college, the 17th Door's well-developed backstory follows a troubled student named Paula who battles a host of demons ranging from drug abuse and an eating disorder to bullying and suicide. Paula's personal demons show up as physical manifestations in the college's classrooms, dormitories, cafeteria, library and locker room. Sometimes Paula is in the room with you and other times you view the scene from Paula's point of view.
The 30-minute experience unfolds in 17 locked rooms that rival movie sets for their intense attention to detail. Visitors will be pulsed through in small groups of approximately eight people and spend about 90 seconds in each room. And there's a good chance you will get wet - either from a putrid toilet or by a monster's tongue.
While each room is locked, the 17th Door is not an escape room maze with clues to solve or keys to find. A safe word - "mercy" - lets visitors immediately exit a locked room with the option of continuing the experience in the next room.
What sets the 17th Door apart from other haunted attractions is the revolutionary yet simple innovations found throughout the 17 rooms.
Born curious, Luther likes to figure things out. And if he can’t, there’s always
Tied into five miles of wiring, the programmable relays on the homemade panel allow Luther to control his visitors like rats trapped in a Pavlovian maze. Every 90 seconds a school bell rings, a green light shines above an exit door and the rats move on to the next torture-filled room. The remarkably simple device lets Luther precisely calculate how many people he can pulse through the 17 rooms per night and pre-schedule visitors' arrival times accordingly.
In between most rooms is a small transition space that features a monitor showing footage from the previous room on a 20-second delay. Next year, Luther hopes to string together the video clips from every room for visitors to take home as a terrifying keepsake.
The attention to detail in every room of the 17th Door is amazing and the level of interaction between the visitors and the 50 actors spread throughout the haunted experience is unrelenting. The set dressing in every scene rivals Universal's Horror Nights with faux finishes that add layers of grime, rust and patina to each lived-in and beat-up room.
No detail is overlooked - from the 40-degree temperatures in the meat locker to the cafeteria stocked with real food to the medicine administered in the hospital ward. The 17th Door eschews such haunted attraction standbys as serpentine mazes and animatronic props.
"I'll only do an animatronic if it does something a human cannot do," Luther said. "If a person can do it, it's going to be better."
So far, the most buzzed-about room has been the confined space known as "Buried Alive." The revolutionary scare is unlike anything I've ever experienced and left me with the sense of drowning.
During my visit, the most original room had to be "Paula's Head," which took visitors inside the protagonist's skull and offered a point-of-view perspective of her drug overdose.
The best scare of the night came behind door No. 3, where Paula's bully resides in his mother's garage. I never saw the scare coming even though we could see ourselves on multiple video screens in the garage.
The "Hospital Morgue" was by far the creepiest scene with live and dead bugs scattered throughout the rank-smelling examination room. Things only got worse when the bugs came in contact with the visitors.
But my favorite room had to be the "Meat Locker," where actual pig carcasses hung from the ceiling in the chilly freezer. The rising tension throughout the scene left me terrified of what would come next.
The only thing I'll say about the 17th and final room is that it lasts three times as long as the other rooms - and generated the loudest and most sustained screams of the night.
Overall, the acting by the monsters was strong and contributed to the compelling story.
What the 17th Door needs to do, though, is set up a reason to care about Paula. We need to meet Paula in the initial orientation classroom, get to know her a bit and feel a connection with the protagonist of the story. We need a reason to root for Paula.
While every story has both peaks and valleys, a few of the 17 rooms lacked enough content to hold our attention for 90 seconds or failed to deliver a satisfying payoff at the end.
Some of the most effective scares came in the transition rooms when visitors let their guard down in between scenes. The best part of the 17th Door was the intimate spaces that left the visitors huddled together with the monsters constantly occupying their personal space. Some rooms were so small that it was difficult to shut the locking door behind us.
Despite the difficulty of building his first haunt, Luther is already making plans for next year's 17th Door. Will Paula develop more personal demons? Drop out of college? Or become a single mother?
"I'm hoping next year the mountain won't be so big," Luther said. "I've got some really great ideas for new experiences that are totally different. I'm excited to do it again just to be able to step up the creativity and innovation."
The 17th Door runs on select nights through Nov. 1, with tickets costing $21 to $35.
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