Interview with 17th Door Co-Founder Heather Luther

Haunt season is about to kick off nationwide, unleashing monsters, psychopaths, ghosts and ghouls at your nearest haunted house attraction. One haunt opening its doors on September 21st for their fourth consecutive year is the immersive extreme haunt, The 17th Door, located in Fullerton, CA. However, this is no simple boo scare maze. Requiring that you sign a waiver, The 17th Door drops you in the middle of a horror film-esque production by following a theatrical story focusing on the fictional character of Paula. I had the pleasure of taking an exclusive behind the scenes tour of this year’s theme, followed by an interview with the co-founder and co-creator of The 17th Door, Heather Luther.

PopHorror: Hi, Heather! Thank you for speaking with me about your incredible haunted house immersive experience. So, you and your husband, Robert, co-founded The 17th Door, which has seen huge success in Fullerton, CA. Seeing what you two have built, I can see that you share a certain twisted passion. How did you two meet?

Heather Luther: We met years ago at a haunted house when we were very young. He was with some friends. I was with some friends. We bumped into each other, and we were introduced that night.

Robert and Heather Luther

PopHorror: It’s obvious that your love for Halloween and haunts is nothing new after meeting at a haunted house. Have you both always been into horror, haunts and everything that inspired The 17th Door?

Heather Luther: You know, I have always been into this type of thing. I have always loved Halloween, and I have always loved haunted houses. My birthday is in October, which might put things into perspective. (laughs) But Robert has never been a huge fan of haunts. I’m always the one dragging him along. But he just has all these ideas. All the time! He’s filled with them, and he’s constantly dreaming up the craziest things. Years ago, he decided that he wanted to do an extreme haunted house. He’s literally been talking about it for 10 years. He just has these ideas that get stored away. He’ll bring them up every once in awhile pointing out that something would be great for the haunted house he has been creating in his mind. Half of them, I just shrugged them off (laughs) and they just get stored away. I had been working an office job when we decided to get serious about the haunt. I was thinking of a career change, and we began brainstorming one night over dinner. Suddenly, it just hit him, and he said we should do the haunted house together. I was instantly on board with the idea. (laughs) That was in 2014. We used the rest of that year to attend more haunts and take notes on what we liked, didn’t like, what worked and what didn’t. We went to the TransWorld Trade Show that following spring, and in 2015, we opened The 17th Door.

L-R: Robert and Heather Luther at Gluttire University of The 17th Door

PopHorror: That’s incredible! And are you from out of state?

Heather Luther: That was the rumor when we first opened. When we came into the haunt scene in 2015 with our images and our photos, people instantly thought we were a haunt that was relocating from another state. We’ve always been in the Orange County, though.

PopHorror: I know you touched on it, but what inspired The 17th Door?

Heather Luther: Robert is always looking to use his creativity in life and start new businesses. He’s a true entrepreneur. But he has this crazy creative vein that runs through him. Once we start going with his ideas, it just builds and builds. It’s like he dreamed up this whole scenario off of nothing. The idea was dreamed up so long ago that things developed pretty quickly once we put them in motion. He likes to put on a show. He has done car shows and fireworks shows. He’s a true producer, creator and director.

Paula from The 17th Door

PopHorror: That’s amazing! You have this whole theme for the haunt where a guest goes into every room and has a time limit before they can proceed to the next room, and each room’s time limit varies. You also have a safe word, which is “Mercy” and, when someone cries out the safe word, the production in the room stops and the guest moves on to the next part of the haunt. Do you make them repeat the safe word to make sure it’s not on impulse?

Heather Luther: No, not really. The scare actors use their judgment on whether they think the guest really wants to move on to the next room or if they just want to be left alone. A lot of people who do cry “Mercy” will exit the room immediately, and they get put into a transition space while they wait for their group to finish the room’s experience. Once the production in that room is over, they rejoin their group for the next room experience. Some people will choose to leave the haunt entirely. That happens often. We have had people in tears crying “Mercy!” before even entering the first room. It’s crazy because we haven’t even done anything at that point!

PopHorror: The shrieks and screams paired with anticipation must get to some people! (laughs) So, tell me about the mercy wall.

The 17th Door Mercy Wall

Heather Luther: Originally, the safe word was created for someone who just didn’t want to experience a particular part of the haunt, and they needed an out. But we also didn’t want to entirely pull them out because we wanted them to be able to go through the whole thing if they wanted. So, they have the option to leave whatever room is too much for them. But we were getting so many mercy cries that we started tracking them. Each night, the actors would come back and report on how many mercies they got in their assigned room, and we would tally them up. I think we were probably over 3,000 mercies the first year we began keeping track. But some rooms will naturally get more mercies than others. If it’s a room filled with bugs, some people will say, “Mercy” right away. So, we tallied all of the mercy cries on our mercy wall and it kind of turned into a piece of art.

The 17th Door Mercy Count

PopHorror: Utilizing a safe word that doesn’t take someone entirely out of the haunt is a great idea! About how long does the whole experience last?

Heather Luther: It’s a little over 35 minutes. It’s timed, and you can’t go faster or slower through the haunt without crying, “Mercy!” and having to wait for the next room to begin.

PopHorror: Do you have guests return very often?

Heather Luther: All the time. I spoke with a guy last year whose goal was to come to the haunt 17 times. So, he was literally coming every night and bringing different friends each time! He was one of our super fans, and he was going through the haunt as many times as he could. Of course, we see quite a few guests from year to year. Someone who loves the haunt is going to come back each season. Because we’re changing so much, it’s a completely different experience from year to year. I know some haunts will run the same show for a few years, changing a little. But we change almost everything each year.

Heather Luther showing the few similarities to the 2015 season by reusing some original doors

PopHorror: I’m aware that The 17th Door is not only an immersive haunt, but also tells a story about the fictional character of Paula. This disturbed individual goes to college, has horrible things happen to her and then she kills her baby. Unless I’m mistaken, the story develops further each year?

Heather Luther: That is correct. The story is progressing, so the main characters reappear in the haunt every year. But we have all different kinds of characters that come in and out of the story. The first year, our story setting was a university. Last year, we were in prison. We will be in prison again this year, but we will be moving out at some point. Paula isn’t going to remain in prison for the rest of her life.

PopHorror: That is exciting to hear, and it sounds so much like being in a horror film! Thank you again, Heather, for taking the time to speak with me in regards to this original haunt.

Heather Luther: You are very welcome!

Adrenaline-fueled guests can expect to be thoroughly terrified this season of The 17th Door at the haunt’s location on 1851 West Orangethorpe Avenue, Fullerton, CA. For additional information and pricing, visit the official website of The 17th Door here. You can visit my article featuring a behind-the-scenes look at this extreme haunt here. And try not to cry, “Mercy!”

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