Starting a haunt from scratch isn’t easy.
It takes a lot of hard work, long hours, excessive labor, and much more to put on a haunt for the Halloween season. Especially on top of having full time jobs, kids to take care of, and more. And if this is your first time doing something like this? Well, that makes it even more impressive.
Which is why The 17th Door amazes me.
I started hearing rumblings of them a few months back, when they were slowly making their social media presence known. They posted a few interesting photos on Instragram, and their Facebook page was slowly being filled out, but it was enough to get me intrigued.
I reached out to them, and began to chat with Heather Luther, who invited me out to see some construction of the haunt, and meet her husband, Robbie, who is the mastermind behind it all.
So, I drove to an automotive shop in the middle of Santa Ana in early June, not quite sure what I was in for.
The industrial tone of the neighborhood reminded me a lot of some of other haunt locations. But, I knew this was just where the construction was being done. The haunt itself would be moved to Tustin upon completion.
I sat on my car, enjoying the cool night air, as I waited for Norm to show up. I honestly had zero expectations of what was to come, but I will say that we both walked out of there hours later completely blown away.
Once Norm arrived, Heather greeted us at the door, and led us into the back of the dark shop. They were just wrapping up some shots for a commercial they were shooting on the completed sets. Again, the vibe of the whole place reminded me of a lot of other haunts, and I wondered if we were going to become unknowing test subjects for them to assess some of their scares.
We weren’t, but believe me when I say that was the only disappointment of the evening.
As soon as they were done with the final shot, we walked into the first set they had prepared. It was a fully realized classroom, and within its walls, I absolutely believed it was real. In fact, I was pretty amazed at the level of detail they had put into it, especially for a local haunt. They don’t have Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights money, but they certainly looked like it.
After wandering the room for a bit, both Norm and I with mouths agape, we sat down at some of the desks to grill the Luthers about their haunt backgrounds.
As I mentioned at the head of the article, I was surprised to learn that neither Robbie nor Heather had any experience in the haunt industry before.
“We enjoyed going to them over the last few years,” Robbie said, “But eventually it came to the point where I said ‘Hey…we can do that, too.’” To be fair, he said something like this has been on his mind for about 13 years, and has been collecting props for it for almost as long. He’s not even sure why he wanted to do it, but he felt like 2015 was the year.
It was also surprising to learn that he’s not that big of a horror guy to begin with!
“I had these ideas of how to scare people, in new ways, and then the theme just sort of clicked in my head over sushi one day. And here we are now.”
The 17th Door is going to be a timed experience, and last more than 30 minutes. Both Robbie and Heather made it very clear that it was not going to be a maze haunt. Instead, it will focus heavily on story.
And just what is the story?
Well, guests will follow in the footsteps of a young girl who just graduated high school and is going into medical school. Coming from a troubled past, she’s hoping for a fresh start. Of course, things take a turn for the worse, and that is where the horror comes in.
“There are a lot of themes and bad things that happen at college,” Robbie said. “It really gave us a chance to explore those things in a new light, in a new element.” The story will be told, as their name implies, over the course of 17 rooms, journeying through 17 doors to get through it all.
As the Luthers explained, there are a lot of personal demons that will turn up as physical manifestations during the haunt itself. They are really hoping to push all the angles and really engage every sense we have throughout the course of the story. They were especially proud of the fact that this isn’t just a series of jump scares linked together; there is much more in store as well.
“You’re going to enter the world, and really experience the story,” Heather told us.
“Right,” Robbie agreed. “Some rooms you’ll experience it as it happens to her. Other rooms, you will experience AS her. We’re really pushing the limits of what a haunt can be.”
While we were chatting, Norm was also snapping photos for use in this article. At one point, he went to take a photo of Robbie, who stopped him.
“I prefer to remain an enigma,” he joked. He did, though, allow Norm to take a photo of him encased in shadows, remaining in the dark, both physically and metaphorically. The fact that he wanted to hide his face sent the unspoken message to me that it wasn’t about him; he would rather The 17th Door shine on its own terms.
Trust me when I say that it was working.
We continued to chat as they toured us around the other completed rooms. So far, they had 5 sets in various stages of build, from complete to not quite there yet. They left some standing so they could film in them, but were about to put the classroom into storage so they could make room for more sets. Robbie explained that they were using the story to dictate the setting, as opposed to the other way around, as some haunts do.
He went on to say that he is also creating buffers between rooms, to make sure groups don’t run into each other.
“Nothing ruins an experience faster than running into the back side of complete strangers,” he said. But, he was confident that he could make it work.
“The thing is, since it’s a timed experience, you only have a set amount of time in each room. Then, a buzzer will go off, and it’s time to move onto the next one. We’re hoping to keep the crowd flowing through easily.”
On top of that, it’s a semi-hands-on experience. There will be a waiver to sign, of course, like some other extreme haunts, but it will all be very controlled.
“Trust me, I originally wanted it to be very extreme, but when I thought about it, I realized we’d be shut down in a day. I scaled back a lot, but it’s still pretty hands-on.”
Beside the classroom, there was also a dorm room, a bathroom, a garage, and a sewer-like place. All of it was very ambitious and remarkable, again, especially for a first time haunt. I kept saying how impressed I was with their level of detail and workmanship, and the Luthers seemed taken aback by it.
“Isn’t this how all haunts are?” they asked us. Other haunts would be lucky to have some of the high quality work we found there.
Heather, I found out, was the real Halloween season fan between the two. She has an extreme love of all things scary. She also has a business background, and was wondering how to combine the two. Thankfully, The 17th Door fit that need for her.
“It was basically like, what can I do that I would enjoy, and also show my kids that Mom is working on something awesome at the same time?” she said.
Robbie has had his hands in many businesses over the years, and told us he was taking skills he learned from each of them, and applying them here.
“All those weird skills I honed, I can finally use here,” he said. “I have lots of experience in different things, and they all somehow fit into this well.”
After our tour, Robbie explained some of the other rooms they were about to embark on building. The ideas he had were insane, but if pulled off, will be incredibly impressive when they open to the public. If he pulls off even half of what they told us, we’re in for a real treat.
“Don’t worry, though,” he assured me. “We have back up plans in case some of them don’t work!”
Again, the Luthers were fantastic. Not only were they great people, but they also had an eagerness, and willingness, to learn more about the haunt industry in general. After we chatted for awhile, they began to pick OUR brains about the haunts we’ve been to, and what we knew about the business side. They were completely open to suggestions and ideas on how to make The 17th Door the best it possibly can be. I know I keep saying this, but that impressed me even more.
I really can’t say enough good things about The 17th Door. Robbie and Heather assembled a fantastic team to work with, and over the summer, continued to grow. Auditions have already taken place. The sets are being assembled at their location in Tustin. Dates have been set for their run. And I can honestly tell you that this one of the most anticipated haunts I am attending this year.
What waits behind The 17th Door? I don’t know. But I’m going to have one hell of a time finding out.
To learn more about The 17th Door, and purchase tickets for the Halloween season, visit their website.