It’s that time of year again. The semester has started at Gluttire University and class is in session. But where does a haunt go when it’s already explored every taboo from spousal abuse to abortion and pedophilia? Well, to jail, of course. Yes, sadly our tragic heroine, Paula, will not be returning for her junior year, having murdered her child in the climactic finale of last year’s event. 17th Door, the controversial haunt that, much like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and women wearing pants, was too extreme for Irvine has found a new home in Fullerton at a location that haunt fans will recognize as the giant compound inhabited by Sinister Pointe’s Halloween and Holiday haunts last year.
Aside from being a spacious venue, the location they’ve chosen fits the theme perfectly, a big bland warehouse surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, as much of a prison as one can get without renting an actual prison and a far more appropriate setting than the middle of a crowded shopping center that they’ve used in previous years. Entering under the imposing signs welcoming you to Perpetuum Penitentiary, you first notice their trademark warning sign, which, along with the required waiver, amounts to submitting to whatever insanity they wish to subject you to. 17th Door has never been among the more extreme haunts with regards to physical abuse, but when it comes to questionable subject matter and gross out tactics, it has few equals.
This was perhaps the biggest surprise this year: the taboo subject matter is all but gone. That’s not to say the Penitentiary is a place for the kids, but aside from the blood and guts, 17th Door doesn’t do any more to push the envelope of good taste than one might expect out of a Knott’s Scary Farm. Coming from explicit infanticide and heavily implied molestation scenes last year, this is quite the change of pace. Perhaps they played it a bit too safe, losing their fearlessly offensive tone that if nothing else got people talking, but personally I think they get by fine without it, allowing their artistry and technical mastery to shine instead of banking on controversy.
In terms of pure engineering, 17th Door may be at the top of the pack, easily outclassing your Halloween Horror Nights and Knott’s Scary Farm both in inventiveness and variety. I hesitate to mention too many here as they really are worth seeing for yourself, utilizing triggers and pneumatics to keep the sense that the environment is responding to every new group that enters. One particularly notable scene has Paula locked up in a tiny cell at the end of a long hallway. That sight alone was a striking image, her dim light at the end of the narrow hall, piled high with bleak cinder blocks. As you make your way to her, avoiding the grasp of the inmates left to wither in the darkness, you see a light erupting behind you, leading to a scene that is equal parts chilling and beautiful and had my entire group talking about just how tremendously it was executed. Oh, and the ball pit from the first year is back with a vengeance, definitely a highlight of the night and one of the more unexpected scares I experienced. Speaking of the ball pit, if anyone finds a man’s size 8 shoe in there, could you send it to HorrorBuzz ℅ Brian Tull? Or keep it and cherish it always as an authentic piece of writer memorabilia, I won’t judge.
17th Door has always bordered on immersive theater to some degree and this year is no different. Your group of 4-8 feels as though they are truly alone and at the mercy of the inmates as their demented characters play out in front of, and on occasion, with you. The quick pace with which your party travels from room to room doesn’t allow for many large performances, with only a handful of characters really getting the spotlight, but when it happens, it’s memorable. Perhaps the most notable of these is the barber you meet early on, an intimidating character with a face wrapped in barbed wire who will try to convince you to get one of his signature haircuts. Here’s a tip: don’t sit in the chair. That’s not much of a spoiler, they explicitly warn you of what will happen if you do, but that didn’t keep members of our party from jumping at the opportunity to get the jailhouse special, much to the amusement of the rest of us. Paula is there as well and gets a few memorable scenes, but isn’t given too much focus as we skip around the narratives of the various inmates.
It’s actually kind of scary this year too, which I couldn’t say for the previous years. Previous incarnations have taken a somewhat disjointed approach, where a scene would play out and then pig monsters in industrial metal garb would come out of nowhere. It felt like the scares were more of an obligation, something that a haunt needs to be a haunt, than an integral part of the experience. This year, the scares are both more cleverly-placed to make them less obvious and the strong use of lighting and effects serves to create a genuinely foreboding atmosphere where you know just enough of what lurks in the shadows to create that sense of dread. The pig theme is gone entirely and the makeup budget generally seems lacking in relation to other years, with most of the characters using simple but well-executed prosthetics and makeup. There are a few characters that get more attention with some of the quality masks from previous years, but instead of the pigs, there are random clowns strewn about, which seem no less arbitrary but more played out conceptually. The set design is constrained by the setting, with most of the rooms being fairly similar combinations of cells and brick walls, but the construction is sturdy throughout, giving the impression you’re in an actual prison rather than a wood and foam play prison and the constant deluge of clever mechanisms and varied ways of exploring the environment, including climbing through tunnels and crawl spaces, make what is one of the longer individual haunts around breeze by, leaving you wanting more.
That brings me to the final aspect of 17th Door I have yet to touch upon, the virtual reality experience. For a $12 upcharge, you enter into a room reminiscent of the ill-fated Fear VR, with electric chairs and VR headsets hanging from hooks. Once you’re seated and fastened in by both a seatbelt and wrist straps, the headset and headphones are placed on your head and you’re given an opportunity to adjust the screen separation to fit your unique head shape. This alone is a big plus for this experience, as it allows you to ensure that the video will be perfectly aligned, eliminating blurriness. The experience was apparently made entirely in-house and while I respect their DIY attitude, I can’t help but wonder if they could have avoided more of the pitfalls a lot of first-time producers of VR content fall into if they had done some outsourcing. The units are some form of mobile VR, which might just be a necessity due to the prohibitive cost of PC VR, but the limitations were certainly on display. The field-of-view is quite small and the edges of the phone visible, which, alongside the omnipresent settings icons over the video, reduce the immersion significantly. The video itself is monoscopic 360, and while the quality was reasonable, the lack of depth and presence of some compression artifacting further diminishes the experience. It does manage to make back some points on the physical sensations, including bursts of air, motion, and liberal use of electrical shock. 17th Door likes to shock people, both literally and metaphorically, but I can’t help but feel like they took it too far as they subject guests to numerous shocks which rank among some of the more painful I’ve experienced. The video itself follows an unnamed inmate in a wheelchair as they are processed in various stages, including a haircut by one of the aforementioned clowns that makes decent use of binaural audio. Overall, it’s short and it hurts, so I wouldn’t recommend paying $12 for it, but if you like pain, you do you.
17th Door in many ways feels like it’s maturing and figuring out what it’s truly good at, namely impressive set pieces and effects work. I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more vulgarity return next year, but they’ve shown they can put on a worthwhile show without it. If they can improve upon the scares further and create more memorable interactions with the characters, then I can see this becoming a cannot miss Halloween tradition. As it is, there are occasional missteps and growing pains still present, but the level of craftsmanship and artistic visual flair makes worth a visit.