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What is a Trapdoor?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 April 2014
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A trapdoor is a horizontal door inset into a floor or ceiling. Trapdoors may be hinged, or they may slide on casters, rollers, or rails, depending on the design. There are all sorts of uses for trapdoors, ranging from access to attic spaces to creating disappearing illusions on a stage. Many people associate trapdoors specifically with hiding places and secret passages.

Trapdoors are often installed in homes with drop ceilings, allowing people to open the trapdoor to access storage space. In many cases, the design also includes a fold-out ladder which will drop down when the trapdoor is opened, so that users can easily climb up unto the crawl space. Trapdoors are also installed in floors to create access to basement storage. As a general rule, they are built at the same time as the rest of the structure, as cutting in a trapdoor can be messy and challenging.

These doors can also have more novel uses, as well. For example, some people install trapdoors in the floors of houseboats to allow people to swim or fish in the water underneath the boat. A trapdoor can also be used for roof access, making it easy to work on and repair a roof. Trapdoors may also be used to access concealed or hidden spaces, in which case the design blends in with the surrounding features, making it difficult to find the trapdoor.

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In theaters, trapdoors are quite useful. They can allow for unexpected entrances and exits from the middle of the stage, for example, and they can also be used to pass up props and other materials. These trapdoors may lead into the orchestra pit or into the recesses of the stage, depending on the design of the theater, and the drop is usually short, so that no ladder or step stool needs to be used.

Some older homes include built in trapdoors which lead to mysterious nooks or crannies. In some cases, these trapdoors were used to conceal fugitives and valued belongings, and they would have been covered by rugs, tables, or other objects to make them hard to see and access.

The trapdoor has also historically been used for more sinister purposes. Many gallows, for example, are outfitted with a trapdoor which is opened for hangings, allowing the condemned to fall on the noose. When well-designed, such a trapdoor allows the condemned to fall enough so that his or her neck is broken, causing a close to instantaneous death.

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Discuss this Article

julies
Post 14

I have never enjoyed fishing, but have friends who have a houseboat with a trap door on the floor of the boat.

The first time I saw this I didn't know quite what to expect. My friends say some of their best fishing comes from the water under the trap door of their boat.

I don't know why this would make any difference when it comes to fishing, but I know as a kid I was pretty fascinated by it.

This was one of the only times I was interested in doing any fishing to see if it really made a difference.

It has been a long time since I have been on a house boat, or any boat for that matter. Do they still make trap doors on the bottom of boats like that?

sunshined
Post 13

I volunteered on the props committee of our local community theater for a few years. We had one trap door on our stage that was often used in certain productions.

There are so many things you can do with a trap door in the theater. There were many times when we wished we had more than one trap door on the stage. This was an old stage though, so we were thankful that we had at least one trap door to work with.

Anytime this trap door was used for a surprise entrance or exit, you never failed to get a reaction from the crowd.

Where I was listening backstage, I could always tell when the trap door was used by the reaction I heard from the crowd.

honeybees
Post 12

@Oceana - My parents house also has a trap door that leads to an attic. This just happened to be in my bedroom and I was always fascinated by this trap door.

When you pulled the door down, the ladder would unfold all the way to the floor. Then all you had to do was climb the ladder to reach the attic.

My mom had all kinds of things stored up there. I loved to go up there and snoop around when I was a kid.

It would have been a perfect hiding place from my sisters, except the open ladder always gave away where you were.

It was also very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. There weren't too many days a year when you wanted to spend much time up there.

I did make a great storage space for things you wanted to hang on to but didn't need to use very often.

JessicaLynn
Post 11

@Emilski - I'm pretty sure people have been using hanging as a method of execution for longer than there have been trapdoors. I remember learning about some peasant uprising in Europe in the 1500s, and hearing about how many of the peasants were hung from trees when the uprising was squashed.

Anyway, I'm hoping a day will come when capital punishment will be outlawed all around the world, and there will be no more need for a gallows with a trapdoor. I know that's not very likely, but I can dream, right?

SZapper
Post 10

@ceilingcat - Don't feel bad, I've never lived anywhere with a trapdoor either. In fact, I usually associate trapdoors with the theater!

Unlike television and movies, when you're putting on a live show, you don't have as many opportunities for special effects. So trapdoors can help get actors on and off the stage and create special effects to make the play look better.

I think the whole idea is actually pretty ingenious, and I choose not to think about the creepier uses for trapdoors (a gallows.)

ceilingcat
Post 9

The only experience I've ever had with a trapdoor was the one leading to the attic in the house I grew up in. However, we never used the attic. I don't remember anybody opening that trapdoor up even one time the whole twelve years my family lived in that house!

Every since then, I've been an apartment dweller. You don't get anything fun like a secret trapdoor in an apartment, let me tell you. I think it would be pretty fun to have a house with a trapdoor leading to a secret room though. Maybe when I eventually purchase a home of my own I'll make sure to get one with a trapdoor!

jmc88
Post 8

@Emilski - Right you are and that is what made the method of hanging being so popular for decades.

I see the trap door as being a very simple type of device that can be used for a variety of purposes. They make great devices in theater and can be great for accessing points of homes when there is little space available.

The trap door is a device that can be used for so many purposes and is just something that is kind of a really neat thing that is very applicable in a vast variety of different usages whether they be honest or sinister, but can make life just a little be simpler and easier.

Emilski
Post 7

Whenever I think of trap doors I do not think of the ones that one would see in a movie or a play. The trap doors that I think of involve the gallows of a hanging.

I know that when the reason why they did not hang people for a long time was because they had no way of doing so to where the person would simply not choke to death, which could take several minutes. This is why they had other methods of execution like the guillotine or simple beheading.

Somewhere along the line someone got the idea to use a trap door to make the execution process more swift and simple.

The best part about the gallows was that they could be constructed for the purpose of one hanging and then taken down soon after the execution.

matthewc23
Post 6

@Izzy78 - You absolutely can play tricks on people. I used to have a trap door in my house and whenever we would play hide and seek or some game like that I would use the trap door to get to other places of the house rather quickly.

My brother knew of the trap door, but there was little he could do to stop me. Once I went through the trap door I could go anywhere throughout the house and it would be very hard to track where I went to. It was a great way to hide and find other hiding places throughout the house.

Better yet, the trap door led to many short cuts to get to places throughout the house and the whole concept of using a type of secret passage to do so is very appealing.

Izzy78
Post 5

I have always thought that trap doors were really cool and I always wanted to install one in my house just to do it.

I find the whole concept of having a trap door as having a place to hide or to simply have a means of exit or escape so one does not have to walk through the whole building to get out.

My neighbor told me a story that he had a trap door installed in his floor so he could get into his cellar, which was rather large, without having to walk outside. I would find this to be a very neat thing to have and I could play a whole lot of tricks on people.

OeKc05
Post 4

I have actually been in an old mansion with a trapdoor. Like you see on TV a lot of the time, the bookcase rolled away to reveal a secret room.

I believe that this house had been used as the set of several movies and shows involving trapdoors. It was a particularly impressive one, because the room behind it was larger than most of the rooms in the house!

It worked in much the same way that a sliding glass door does. The bookcase was set on a track, and it rolled out of the way when pushed to the side.

It thought it would be hard to move, since there were a lot of books on the bookcase. It turned out that they were all hollow and just for show, so it slid away with ease.

seag47
Post 3

@Oceana – I wish there was a better setup for attic access, because every home I've seen has had a trapdoor to the attic. The house I currently rent has one, too, and I've had my share of problems with it.

For one thing, the ladder is loose in sections. When I pull the string, I have to get out of the way quickly, because it will come down in my face.

Also, there are mice up there that push things around and make a mess. I have had insulation material fall down in my face while opening the trapdoor before, and I also suspect that the mice were responsible for the empty cardboard box that fell on my head.

Oceana
Post 2

The attic in my parents' house has a trapdoor for access. This rectangular wooden door has a string hanging from it and a plastic knob on the end, so you can easily grasp it and tug the door downward.

Once the door has come down to about a forty-five degree angle, you can see the ladder all folded up on top of it. This ladder has sets of hinges that allow it to bend and straighten as needed.

You have to pull the top section of the ladder up and out, so there is no danger of it unfolding on its own and knocking you in the head as the door is opening. Once you get up there, if you want it closed, you have to have someone below close it for you and open it back up when you want to exit. That's why I prefer to leave it open and the ladder down until I'm ready to get out of there.

lighth0se33
Post 1

I live in a home that was built nearly sixty years ago, and it has a trapdoor that has since been sealed. I'm not sure what it's original purpose was, but someone who has lived in the house between the time it was constructed and the time I moved in decided it was no longer necessary.

The trapdoor is right in front of the bathroom. Now, it is a solid piece of plywood, but I can tell that it was once an opening.

My husband thinks that it was put there to allow the owner to go under the floor to work on the pipes, but I like to believe it was for something much more interesting. Maybe he had someone to hide from, or perhaps he was hiding someone else down there!

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