Let’s start this off with some radical honesty: I hate being scared. And as is the case with most everything wrong in a person’s life, it’s my parents fault.
The first thing they did wrong was allowing me to read Stephen King’s It when I was seven years old. The second screw-up was letting me have a television in my bedroom, which I used to watch the local news right before bed every night. As a child, I thought it was the ultimate in badass to watch TV by myself; as a grownup, and specifically as a grownup who is contemplating having children of my own and therefore reading an unhealthy amount of parenting blogs, I realize this is yet another way in which my trusted elders failed me. The news was probably even more terrifying than It’s sewer clown, to be honest: visions of home invasions, carjackings, kidnappings and random shootings got lodged in my brain, rendering horror films and other seasonal “fun” moot for me.
Wait just one second. Did you say waiver?
Yes. The 17th Door requires all participants to sign a document that absolves them of any and all responsibility should you slip on a pool of blood or become so scared that you vomit up a vital organ (not possible; I looked it up). This is the kind of haunted house where things get, to quote one of their signs, “real”—you can “experience claustrophobia, foul scents, strobe lighting, fog, dizziness, extreme temperatures and loud noises,” and worst of all, the actors can touch you. If there’s anything scarier than that, I don’t want to know.
Located in Tustin, California, a relatively sleepy town not far from Disneyland, The 17th Door is situated in one of those outdoor malls common in suburbia — a Best Buy, an Old Navy, a Christian bookstore, etc. The haunted house itself is in a nondescript beige blob of a building that was probably once held a Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
Upon arrival, my husband, Jonas, jokes about the place being haunted by the ghost of “as seen on TV” products past, and I quietly begin to freak.
Waiting in line, the anticipation is eating away at my resolve to even enter. I contemplate leaving the queue for the majority of my time in it, which is only exacerbated by the loud techno music punctuated with human (?) screams and costumed ghouls wandering through the crowd, slapping paddles against walls and breathing heavily into the hair of strangers. I keep my back to the wall at all times and scan back and forth while simultaneously playing Candy Crush as a distraction tactic. Jonas, who’s usually cool as a not-scared cucumber, insists on nervously chatting at me about things like his new sriracha jelly recipe and what is his favorite taco spot in Los Angeles. I respond only in grunts as I hold my iPhone at eye level so I can pretend to play my game while looking out for any monster that might want to come by and grab me hello.
As for the crowd, it’s mostly teens and young adults; you know, people not yet horrified by the simple act of living, and who must seek their thrills elsewhere. Although the website explicitly warns against open-toed shoes, I see several ladies in gladiator sandals and one lady wearing straight-up stripper heels. I’m talking five-inch high polyurethane monstrosities that I’m 100-percent sure she’s going to die in tonight. Other than that, it’s girls taking selfies, one lady jogging in place, and a guy who keeps telling anyone who will listen, “I hope this makes me throw up.” (After reading online that the 17th Door staff often has to stop the tour regularly to clean up victim’s puke, I believe his wishes might be granted. I also hope this guy isn’t in my group.)
As we approach the front, my stomach tosses and I start picking strands of hair from my head. Jonas bats my hand away and I tell him that if he touches me again, I will divorce him. And I mean it at the moment because that’s the irony of being scared, sometimes it turns you into the monster. Chew on that.
Finally, it is our turn. We are paired up with two other couples (not the vomitor) and sent with another group into a scuzzy classroom where a woman dressed as Satan’s school marm tells us the rules of the house, the most important being: 1) If you say the safe word—mercy—you will be escorted out; 2) It’s gonna be really hot, cold, sweaty, and stinky in there so try to hold it together; and 3) No touching the actors.
But, as you already know, they can touch you.
She also tells us the house is a series of doors that you enter in order, from one to 17. You’re following the journey of Paula, a college freshman at the fictional Gluttire University. Then, we are let loose into a holding room where a woman dressed as a mental hospital escapee who’s also inexplicably in full harlequin face paint greets us. I stand as far away from her as possible before she yells at me to come forward or she’ll make my life a living hell. I have to decide whether to stay or go and it’s Sophie’s Choice, really.
This is when my husband, bless his now-damned soul, pushes me towards her. I spin back to give him a look that says, “If we should both survive this, I will murder you,” before turning around to insane Harly’s hot breath in my face. She proceeds to poke me in the stomach while asking me if I think she’s pretty, to which I respond, “I think you’re pretty! I think you’re pretty!” and then she tells me to stop patronizing her before someone else pops out of the ceiling and pulls my hair. (I am about to learn that pulling, touching, and otherwise caressing hair is basically a major at Gluttire University.) I’m thisclose to saying “mercy” but the green light goes on and we head into the first room.
In the first couple of rooms, we learn more about Gluttire, a perverted hellmouth that’s worse than even Arizona State, no offense, and Paula, who was fat as a kid. Someone is using an instant messaging system to remind her that although she’s skinny now, she was once-fat, and should probably kill herself. (This is to be a continuing theme for poor, once-fat Paula.)
These rooms are very scary and I would recount them in detail but honestly, all I remember is a toenail being removed from a corpse and trying not to cry. In the fourth room, they separate you from your group and make you walk down a dark hallway alone. Although I am cautioned to walk, I run through that thing like Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the ‘88 Summer Olympics. As I book it, I’m simultaneously screaming Jonas’s name repeatedly until a man in a pig mask and bloody surgical scrubs starts mocking me. He puts his pig-face in my human-face and screams, “Jonas! Jonas! JONAS!”
And that’s when things even fuzzier, memory-wise. The next 20 minutes pass in a blur, as I concentrate on making it through each room by softening the focus of my eyes and breathing entirely through my mouth. The one thing I do remember is that there are scenes of sexual trauma that, before going, I was genuinely worried would be upsetting and unnecessary, but they were kinda cheesy and honestly, the scariness of the Paula story was mitigated by the fact that it felt like a Lifetime movie. Or maybe one of those Christian hell houses that try to scare you into defunding Planned Parenthood with videos of fetal tissue being huffed by Hillary Clinton, or whatever. It was heavy-handed, and not in a way that made things scarier. (Hallelujah!)
In most rooms, there’s some sort of jump scare a creature lurking behind a hidden wall or a little person who you think is a statue but who is actually alive and loves caressing lady hair—and often a gross-out element involving dead animals, fake (?) human vomit, and fishy oatmeal. It’s more disgusting than scary, but perhaps that’s partly because we have a haunted house heckler in our group—a bro wearing cargo shorts and a Boston 10k t-shirt who’s on a date and clearly feels the need to show what a tough guy he is by saying dumb shit to the actors, like, “Whoa! Your breath sure is kickin’, little man!” and, “I’m not scared of you, bozo! I’m so high right now!” The haunters repay the favor by specifically going after him like monsters on a mission. Listen, these actors talk behind the scenes and you don’t want to be known as a troublemaker. That’s how you get roaches put in your mouth.
Speaking of insects, the final room is repulsive. Each person in my group is locked in their own tiny closet, which has doors on both sides. After I climb in, I just sink into a fetal position and close my eyes. This is when I learn I am neither fight nor flight, I am “curl up into a ball and wait for the sweet release of death.”
While I crouch in the corner, different characters sporadically open the doors to spray water in my face and grab my ankles (I take pride in the fact that I haven’t shaved recently so whoever is grabbing me is just feeling my bristle leg hairs. WHO’S HAUNTING WHOM?).
They yell at me to say “mercy,” which I imagine is to get their “kill” count up for the night, but I’m onto them and honestly, I’m getting little sleepy and want to change out of my damp pants. (Sorry, the truth is scary.)
One of the actors accidentally leaves my door open and I take it as my opportunity to book it. I’m almost to the safety of the Exit sign when yet another pig-faced man pops out of nowhere and yells at me to get back in my box. I say “OK!” but keep walking towards the exit, which is when he grabs me, pushes me back into the tiny room, and proceeds to climb in with me.
Joke’s on him, though. Claustrophobia is not one of the many things that scares me and, honestly, it’s nice to be so close to another person, especially a comfortably chubby one who I can sink my head into to avoid the beast who pops in and attempts to stick roaches in my mouth. When my supposed tormentor/actual new best friend tries to make me open my eyes, I flat out refuse and burrow my head even deeper into his soft chest. Finally, he sighs and just says, “Bye.”
When the door opens to let my group out, I run so fast to the car that Jonas has to catch up with me halfway there. “Were you scared?” he asks, to which I respond, “I need to change my pants; can we go home?”
We climb into our trusty Kia and race into the warm southern California night, away from the 17th Door, away from Paula’s short, crummy life, and away from hot, dark rooms filled with roaches. After all, it’s getting late and I want to get home before the 10 o’clock news.