It’s that time of year again and just as we thought we’d made a clean getaway, Perpetuum Penitentiary reels us back in for another stay, and this time we might not make it out alive. The 17th Door has returned for its 4th year and its central character, Paula, has come a long way in that time. From her first days at the pig demon-infested Gluttire University to her troubled later years culminating in her murdering her infant son and finding herself trapped in the dreary halls of Perpetuum Penitentiary, her life has been on a downward trajectory for some time, but perhaps there is still hope. The renowned Perpetuum psychiatric ward, lead by veteran haunt actress Shar Mayer, has developed a treatment plan for Paula. A therapy doll to assume the role of her dead son, Lincoln, so that she might have a chance to work out her grief and accept her guilt.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, before you can join Paula in the general population, you need to make your way through some special processing. Or at least you do if you decided to purchase access to this year’s new virtual reality experience, Vixi Ward.
An evolution of the previous year’s VR experience which took guests through the standard new inmate processing procedure, Vixi Ward is a special program thought to be long dismantled that operates in secret to brainwash and control particularly problematic inmates. The first difference from the previous year comes before you ever put on the headset. This year there’s an introductory sequence that goes over the background of what Vixi Ward is through a tongue-in-cheek instructional video. From there you’re taken to one of several VR rooms that are similarly decorated to the previous year, with plenty of gauges and dials to make sure everything is 100%* safe, but there are some subtle improvements that become more apparent at the end of the experience.
From a technical perspective, I have many of the same reservations as in the previous year, particularly that the video is still two-dimensional and they’re still using mobile VR headsets with their limited field of view. In fact, most of the video from last year has been recycled and recontextualized to fit the new concept, but in addition to the existing content, there has been additional video added that helps smooth the transition from the virtual back into the real world, which is what elevates the experience this year above its predecessor. All the physical and motion effects have returned with a few more to fit the additional content, including the notorious shocks.
If you did this last year, you know what to expect from the shocks, but suffice it to say, they’re still pretty long and fairly uncomfortable depending on how well you tolerate being shocked. While there are still elements of this portion of the haunt I’m not completely sold on, the combination of a more fleshed out story and a seamless transition into the haunt proper create something more substantial that feels like it contributes to the overall experience. Whether it’s worth the $13 upcharge is still going to depend on how you feel about VR and some of the more visceral aspects of The 17th Door’s approach to crafting fear, I find it much easier to recommend Vixi Ward for those who want to experience this year’s narrative in its entirety.
Regardless of whether you choose to go through the VR experience, you make your way to the visitation room where Paula is waiting to talk to you, to chastise you for taking pleasure in her misery over the years before busting through the gated windows separating the visitors from the inmates.
From there, you make your way to the psych ward where a visibly agitated Paula is introduced to her therapy doll. The 17th Door is no stranger to psychological horror, having a history of tackling particularly controversial topics, but this year, in particular, is focused upon exploring Paula’s guilt and regret for killing her baby. While the previous year took a more ensemble approach with Paula taking a backseat to an assortment of more comical characters like the barber and fan favorite ticking time bomb of toxic masculinity, Mad Dog, she’s taken back much of the spotlight this year. There are some fun new characters and Mad Dog returns in an eye-catching if somewhat diminished role, but at its core, this is Paula’s story. There are some great rooms devoted to exploring her story, including potentially their most visually-striking room to date that plays with scale to create a sort of living surrealist painting featuring disturbing paintings of babies created by the founder of The 17th Door, Robbie Luther. Some of these moments are dedicated to gags and other miscellaneous scenes that don’t do as much to develop the plot, which might disappoint some fans that are more invested in the narrative, but they do a good job of balancing the expectations of that group with creating an approachable entry point for newcomers.
From a design perspective, things are as high quality as ever. A handful of rooms have returned from last year, but they’ve received some major overhauls and the majority are completely new for this year. Many of the props are made in-house and any that are brought in from outside sources are held to that same high standard. The lighting and sturdiness of the materials makes for sets that seem functional and create the sense of being inside of an actual prison overrun by the inmates. This is probably the strongest year in terms of makeup and costuming as well, from the Vixi Ward nurses with their electro-industrial clone aesthetic to the realistic silicone masks. I would also say it’s their best year in terms of scares, with a combination of suspense and strong jump scares making for an intense experience. But what always sets The 17th Door from the competition is the mechanics and engineering. It’s good to go in blind with a lot of this stuff so I won’t say too much in terms of specifics, but the ball pit is back and it is easily the best year for a room that has defined the 17th Door experience from its inception.
The other major thing that sets this apart from your typical haunt is the extreme label. There are the shocks, of course. It’s not The 17th Door without a bit of electricity flowing through your body, but there’s a bit more to it, especially this year. Anyone who came to their holiday event will likely to be relieved to know that there are cockroaches, but you aren’t asked to eat any of them this time. I don’t want to undermine the surprise or novelty of what you should anticipate, but the waiver warns of potential welts and bruises and I can confirm that is not hyperbole.
You can purchase a mercy pendant for an additional $5 to get out of the shocks, at least, but it won’t protect you from everything. I’m a bit conflicted about whether I enjoy this in a haunt, but I will say that there is a certain amount of dread that comes with a visit to The 17th Door that you won’t find with most other haunts. There is legitimate trepidation when they put a canvas bag over your head here because you know they’re not afraid of pushing the limits of what they can subject a general audience to. In that regard, they put themselves in an interesting niche, a sort of middle ground for those that have become desensitized to mainstream haunts but aren’t ready to take that leap to the truly extreme haunts like The Victim Experience. One word of caution, think carefully before volunteering for anything. I did and it was one of the more harrowing experiences I’ve had in my haunt career.
Norm with Albert (Westcoaster.net) and Good ol’ Phil Yates.
Norm and Brian Working out Bunk Assignments.
The 17the Door once again shows why they are among the best with a marked improvement over an already successful formula. I understand that they’re set to continue this story for several more years to come and I have every intention of keeping up with where they go from here.