THE MOST NOTORIOUS HAUNTED HOUSE in Southern California has a uniquely Southern Californian location: ensconced within a Fullerton shopping plaza, behind the 99 Cents Only Store, on a commercial strip dotted with Korean restaurants and the True Love Lutheran Church.
It’s in this Orange County suburb that the independent haunted-house creators the 17th Door have constructed “Perpetuum Penitentiary,” a maze in which visitors spend more than 30 minutes getting doused with water, manhandled by guards, verbally harassed by inmates, and forced to jump off a platform into pitch black, not knowing where (or in what) they’ll land. The experience costs between $22 and $29, depending on the day of the week and how close it is to Halloween. For an extra fee, visitors can also take part in a virtual-reality experience, featuring real electric shocks. (The wrist muscles of the photographer for this story were still twitching 15 minutes afterward.)
From September 22nd to October 31rst, the 17th Door operates for 26 dates, opening more and more days a week leading up to the holiday. Last year, it attracted over 26,000 attendees during a similar stretch.
On the Wednesday before this year’s opening weekend, the staff and performers conducted a test run, during which the 131 cast members (or “haunters,” as they call themselves) could invite three friends or family members to participate so everyone could get accustomed to their roles and work out technical problems. Backstage had the jittery energy of a high-school play.
Owned, operated, and devised by the husband-and-wife team of Robbie and Heather Luther, this is the 17th Door’s third year in existence—but it’s the first year for this particular concept, which follows a young woman named Paula as she experiences the horrors of a deranged prison after being convicted of murdering her child. The 17th Door maze of the previous two years was located in Tustin, another Orange County suburb, and set at “Gluttire University”; it featured a mock school shooting, Paula giving birth to a pig, and guests being hit in the face with a dead fish.
As the invitees lined up in a makeshift holding area by the loading dock, the build-out crew continued to make last-minute adjustments and haunters in orange jumpsuits and black tactical uniforms scarfed down their two allotted slices of Little Caesars pizza, waiting to be called into place. A pair of guys on stilts prowled around, brandishing oversized mallets, with deep black circles raccooning their eyes.
Fresh out of the makeup room, 35-year-old Jenny Robert took a seat. Just four-foot-seven, her face painted in a zombie-like black-and-white pattern, she’s the cast member tasked with making attendees take the leap into a dark abyss in the middle of the maze. “I have a really big personality,” she said. “Obviously I’m smaller stature, but people don’t expect what comes out of my mouth, or my demanding presence.” Like most of the 17th Door employees, Robert lives in Orange County. Though she works as an aerospace recruiter in “real” life, Robert auditioned to be part of the 17th Door last year because she wanted an experience similar to the job she had years ago at Disneyland—as Minnie Mouse.
Haunted-house performances are something of a tradition in the shadow of Hollywood. As the Halloween industry’s massive growth continues, more and more Southern California amusement parks have begun holding what enthusiasts call "haunts," Universal Studios now has Halloween Horror Nights (featuring tie-ins to entertainment franchises such as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story), ship-turned-hotel the Queen Mary hosts “Dark Harbor,” Six Flags Magic Mountain runs “Fright Fest,” and even Disneyland adds spooky seasonal touches.
The most famous and influential haunt in Southern California remains “Knott’s Scary Farm,” which takes over Knott’s Berry Farm, the usually mild theme park that features a log-flume ride and a Wild West stunt show. Knott’s Scary Farm started as a three-day marketing ploy in 1973, but has turned into a weeks-long immersive experience featuring nine mazes and four different scare zones. Many of the 17th Door haunters previously worked at Knott’s or had formative experiences there. “I got in trouble because I really liked watching them scare people, so I went to Ghost Town and would hide in the fog with my little hoodie and try to scare the guests that came by,” said Wyatt Barclay, a 19-year-old film student. “I was ten years old. One of the actors actually told me to leave.”
Barclay has been with the 17th Door for all three of its years, first applying because he was too young to work at Knott’s. He has become increasingly involved in the production; this year he made the promotional character videos and did the sound design for the maze, as well as teaching himself how to make the film for the VR component. “Initially [the 17th Door] started off, and it was just a matter of getting a bunch of people together who believed in it and wanted to make it work,” he said. “Now it’s much more dynamic and advanced.”
The 17th Door has cultivated a reputation as an “extreme” haunt. It’s earned that description not just because the haunters are allowed to touch guests—which is strictly forbidden at other haunts—but because of the waiver that everyone must sign before they enter. Among the elements that the paperwork promises participants will be exposed to are insects, fog, loud noises, foul scents, strobe lighting, and extreme temperatures. This year’s waiver also warns: “YOUR HAIR MAY BE CUT—IF YOU SIT IN THE BARBER CHAIR, YOUR HAIR WILL GET CUT.”
While the waiver provides legal protection for the 17th Door, it also amps up visitors’ anxiety levels—which is part of the point. “When they have you sign a waiver, you read everything that’s going to happen,” said Chris Maggio, a 27-year-old who plays Perpetuum’s bullying main prison guard. “With other haunts, [people are] going in not knowing what’s going to happen. When they go into the 17th Door, their mind’s already going. The worst stuff is going around in their heads.”
There is an escape hatch, of sorts; if at any point in the haunt visitors are feeling too scared or overwhelmed to continue, they can say, “Mercy.” Then they’ll be able to move on to the next room, or leave altogether.
During the 17th Door’s first year, of the approximately 25,000 visitors who came through, around 3,800 of them called mercy. After a while, the haunters could tell beforehand who was going to cave or crumble. “You’re looking at them in line. You’re picking people out, and you’re like, ‘That one’s not going to make it.’ The one twiddling their hair, being antsy, going back and forth—that one’s going to bitch out,” said Carlos Curiel, a 35-year-old comedian who was previously a haunter but has now transitioned to a behind-the-scenes role, as the assistant cast coordinator.
During the Wednesday-night test run, the first round of guests was called inside to sign the waivers. Before they’d even entered the maze’s initial room, a man broke off and hastily headed back down the ramp toward the parking lot. “I’m not going!” he called back to his friend. “I’m not getting electrocuted!” He was Perpetuum Penitentiary’s first victim.