Haunted houses are a thing I enjoy, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why I write about them so much. (No such explanation for Donald Trump. Sorry.) Earlier this week, I put my years of terror-themed entertainment consumption to use and wrote about the often overlooked details that ruin every haunted house experience. Today, I write about my experience putting yet another "shocking" haunted house through a test run to see if it handles the little things any better than the rest. It's called The 17th Door, and we talk about it on a very special Halloween episode of the Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by Cracked editor Josh Sargent and comic Vanessa Gritton. They were along for the trip with me. Here's how it went.
In my previous column, I mentioned that my tendency to go overboard studying up beforehand sometimes ruins the haunted house experience for me. So this time around, I tried to go in as blind as possible. Yes, I watched this trailer ...
... and to be honest, my fascination with true crime shows made the part where it looks like someone shoots you in the face feel like fantasy camp stuff for me. Beyond that, I'd gathered that the general theme or direction of the house is that you're looking into the mind of a girl during her first (presumably quite catastrophic) year of college.
I'd planned to stop there in terms of knowing what to expect. But that plan unraveled a bit during a podcast recording, when someone casually tossed out that among the various elements of this particular nightmare is a room just filled with bugs. Listen, I don't scare easily, but fuck a bug. All bugs.
Just asking me to do this would be a horror movie scenario for me.
When people tell me that we'll be eating them as our primary source of sustenance someday, I tell them that sounds like exactly the punishment we'll deserve for fucking the planet so hard. We'll have to resort to eating filth instead of delicious fast food like responsible adults.
Of course, there was a silver lining, in that this kept me from seeking out any further details about what to expect, on account of all the time I dedicated to panicking over the prospect of a goddamn Madagascar hissing cockroach falling into my jacket and ruining my life forever.
The most terrifying part of any haunted house, hands down, is the waiting in line. It's never a fast process, which I assume serves a purpose. The more time you spend out front hearing people scream from inside, the more time you have to worry about whether or not you've just made a terrible mistake by opting to endure the same punishment. While they do a great job of making the wait an even more intense experience than usual at The 17th Door, the very first impression you get of the place is a little underwhelming.
Do they have layaway?
Right, it's in a strip mall. That's approximately as promising as seeing a really great trailer for a horror movie, only to find out at the end that it's rated PG-13. Nevertheless, I kept a positive attitude, as evidenced by this group photo taken with my adventure mates, Josh Sargent and Vanessa Gritton, moments before going inside.
"OK, everyone stand in order from least to most terrified!"
Things got a little more interesting once we passed through those JC Penney-esque front doors, at which point we were immediately instructed to head over to a table to read and sign a waiver. Here, I took a picture so I don't have to explain any of it to you.
You have 30 seconds.
Can't read the tiny print? I was prepared for that. Here are a few of the highlights:
-- You acknowledge that you may be exposed to, among other things, electrical shock.
-- You absolve them of responsibility if you "pee your pants and/or die."
-- You agree to lots of other wacky stuff.
That's the thing, though. It all reads as more silly and fun than legitimately life-threatening. I guess that's to be expected, but it did take some of the element of terror out of the air before we even started our adventure.
Speaking of adventures, the line we had to stand in next was certainly that. It was mostly your standard issue haunted house line, except for the part where they sent various monsters around to scare the shit out of people who weren't paying attention. Here's one of them waiting for unprepared patrons to stumble through the front door.
This presented the next moment of excitement / huge plot hole in this strip mall horror universe. Among the creepy bastards roaming the line looking for people to torment was this guy.
Notice how he looks completely fucking miserable? That's because the dipshit shining the light in his eyes did that constantly, every time one of the "monsters" would pass him in line. This eventually turned into a scuffle, as dealing with excessively aggressive drunken idiots in public often does. At that point, the monster with the chains and pig mask stomped off to get security. Wait ... what? Security? Stab the guy in the stomach like a proper killer, for fuck's sake! This isn't realistic at all! Nevertheless, all the ruckus was enough to scare my pal Vanessa a bit, so I paused to capture her terror on film before heading inside.
Ha ha! Better muster up some courage! You're going to need it when we get to that room full of bugs!
Upon entering the actual haunted house, you're directed to sit in a classroom, where a creepy old woman lays out the backstory behind what you'll be seeing. There isn't too much in the way of scares in this section; it's more comedy than anything. Well, except for the part where a kid gets up and starts waving a gun around before shooting himself in the face. They don't let that part play out too long, which is almost certainly a good thing, given the whole "good guy with a gun" nonsense that people seem to be promoting so heavily these days.
After the feigned suicide, you're told the basic rules of getting through the house. You'll stand in front of a door. When the number above it is red, you wait. When it turns green, you go through the door. Once again, my "look for the plot holes" approach to haunted houses took over as we waited to go through that first door. While we'd been commanded to focus on the door, I couldn't help but notice there was also a curtain behind us. It doesn't take a paranormal expert to recognize where the scares will be coming from in that situation.
Sure enough, at every door which requires you to wait, something reaches out and tries to scare the shit out of you. That's the modus operandi for the entirety of the house, really. Focus on one terrifying, hideous thing so we can scare you with a different thing. To their credit, they do it pretty well.
I'll spare you the room-by-room details, in case you're still planning to check it out for yourself. But I will share a few personal highlights. One of my favorite rooms early on is one where you walk in, it's pitch black, some lights flash revealing that there's a girl in the room, and when the lights flash and you see her again, she's vomiting in your face. That's unsettling no matter how ready for it you might be.
At least it's mostly chocolate!
In another particularly narrow room, you're made to sit on a bench, at which point the entire room fills with play pit balls like you'd find at McDonald's or Chuck E. Cheese's. Not particularly scary, just more cool than anything. Unless you're claustrophobic. Vanessa is claustrophobic. She was rattled at this point, but not nearly as rattled as I was when the guy responsible for dumping the balls on us said, "Remember when they said there'd be bugs?"
I briefly lost my shit at that point, imagining that these balls were also mixed with a bunch of crawling filth merchants, but we were quickly assured that this was just a joke.
The bugs were in the next room. Up to this point, all of the talk between myself and Vanessa involved how brave we would be when we finally faced that room full of bugs. So imagine my surprise when, just before the door opened, she yelled the safe word. See, if you say "mercy" at any point, they let you skip that particular room. Vanessa abandoned me at the bug room. I'm pretty sure she flipped me off on the way out.
I had half a mind to have this guy go call security again.
Fortunately, the bugs in the bug room were dead bugs, which I felt put me at a distinct advantage in whatever battle may erupt. That there was a guy in the room scooping dead bugs off the floor and smashing them in people's hair was a less fortunate discovery.
Still, I survived and made my way to the final room, which is basically just you being locked in a small, pitch-black closet while workers stroll by and occasionally bang on the door or open a peep hole and spray you with water. This kind of thing doesn't bother me much, and at some point, it felt like they just sort of gave up trying to scare me. Sure, I was getting repeatedly sprayed in the face with water, but it felt more playful than anything. At one point, the door behind me opened and a girl dressed as a scary nurse reached up and started rubbing something on my face. She asked me what I thought it was and I told her I didn't want to know. She replied, in the cutest, bubbliest voice imaginable, "It's a Jolly Rancher!" then ran off. As far as endings to a haunted house go, it was absolutely adorable.
Not everyone got off so easy in this last part. Remember I mentioned that Vanessa is claustrophobic? And then also remember how she deserted her unit during the bug wars? Well, she tried to call mercy again at the end. Twice. As luck would have it, though, everyone was too preoccupied trying to scare the rest of the group, so her cries went ignored. No one responded. No one heard her ... except me.
Adam is on Twitter, and you should follow him there @adamtodbrown.