Full disclosure: I only went to The 17th Door once before and I absolutely hated it. It was opening night of their first year and I don’t know if it was inaugural jitters or my own jaded, freshly-retired from Knott’s Scary Farm perspective but nothing about it clicked for me. The talent was uneven, the interactive elements were annoying, and the entire tone reeked of a Midwest hell house. I warned all my friends to stay far away from it.

Imagine my surprise thoroughly enjoying the event this year!

The 17th Door tells the continuing story of Paula, a perennially down-on-her-luck young lady trying to navigate life after college. A scary prospect on its own, never mind the fact that Paula has been subject to mental and physical abuse, an unwanted pregnancy, committing infanticide, and finally prison. (Insert “and I thought my student loans were bad” joke here.) This makes for a wholly unique concept in the realm of seasonal haunted events. Can you keep an audience through a years-long serialized experience? The answer is… I think?

I was in a unique position walking into this year’s event. Being there for a review, I was treated to a recap of the two years that I missed, something that your average lapsed or first time guest will not get. Thus, going into this year’s installment I was able to keep up and understand where we are in Paula’s story and the motivation behind some of the scenes contained in the maze. Will your average non-repeat guest understand? Probably not. Will it matter? I highly doubt it.

The overall theme of this year’s installment is the psych ward of a prison. The cast and crew of The 17th Door do such a wonderful job of bringing this to life that Paula’s story almost feels like an Easter Egg for the keen eyed fan at this point, weaving its way in and out of the experience over the twenty-ish minutes it will take to see the entire show. In the rooms that have little to do with Paula, things are at their best. The event opens with a new and updated VR experience and will eventually see you facing cell-block riots, electric chairs, and the most thrilling encounter with a stilt performer I’ve had in my life. These are the scenes that everyone, newcomers and old alike, can enjoy. It’s when we slow down to spend time with Paula that things can feel a disjointed as the momentum stops for anybody who isn’t familiar with the ongoing story. Luckily for the uninitiated these scenes are few and far between (at the time of this writing I can only recall two or three scenes entirely dedicated to Paula’s story) before you’re whisked off to the next room.

Story aside, in this attraction visitors are treated to experiences unlike anything else I’ve been a part of at a Haunt. Gone are the pseudo-“hardcore” moments from past years. No more locker full of pig corpses, no water effects or head shaving. I’m not sure if there was feedback that lead to the decision but anything that would have been included for “shock value” in the past is gone. Instead you have an attraction full of unique uses of special effects all leading to a finale unlike anything I’ve experienced before. And if it sounds like I’m being vague, I am. I hesitate to spoil anything inside because this has grown from an event that I outright hated in its first year to one of the more unique Halloween events I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.

The 17th Door deserves a lot of recognition for turning itself around. In a few short years it has grown from a painfully awkward hell house to something that I would gladly recommend to anyone looking for something new out of their Halloween events. The 17th Door has come into its own and I eagerly look forward to what comes next.

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Michael Lisenberry