I first heard about Escape Rooms from an episode The Bachelorette in 2015. The bachelorette Kaitlyn and one of her suitors, Ben Z., went on a “date” where they were abandoned in a dark, messy chamber of horrors and forced to solve puzzles before a time limit in order to escape. This was cruel of the producers because the men who appear on The Bachelorette can barely spell (see the spelling bee episode from Rachel’s season), so while I don’t remember any details of the puzzles, I can assume Kaitlyn was probably on her own trying to get them out of there alive. Even crueler, Kaitlyn had a well-known phobia of birds, and some monster of a producer had put live pigeons in the escape room in order to freak her out for TV. If I remember correctly, there may even have been a disgusting “live snake in a toilet” element.*
My reaction upon watching the episode was “Why would anyone ever pay money to go into one of those? That looks terrible.”
But enough people must have been paying money to go into escape rooms around the country because it gradually became a national trend. Friends on Facebook who usually posted pictures of themselves holding Paint Nite masterpieces started posting pictures of themselves in groups of recent room escapees.
Someone once asked me if I wanted to join a group going to an escape room, and I said “I don’t pay to be imprisoned.”
Flash forward to yesterday, when I paid to be imprisoned for the second time because the first time last year was so much fun.
I felt somewhat less reluctant to try an escape room when I found out that they don’t actually lock you in. You can open the door anytime you need to and just walk out — but then you lose the game, so don’t! If you don’t solve the puzzle in an hour, you’re not actually trapped there for the rest of your life. Knowing that definitely increased the chances of me ever agreeing to do it. Plus, I heard from friends that the place in Madison called Escape This had challenging and creative escape rooms that were not scary. I think what finally convinced me was that there was now somehow a socially acceptable way to get a group of your friends together to solve puzzles.
Last year, when I went to my first escape room, I was nervous. Before I go somewhere new to do a new activity, I tend to fixate on small logistical details. Do I have to hang on to my coat and purse the whole time? (Answer: You hang up your coat in the hall before going in, and there’s a bin that stays with you inside the room where you can put your purse.) Is there a bathroom in the escape room? (Answer: Nope! Better go before the game starts. I wonder how many times this has caused some very dire situations for participants.) Are we going to get stuck because all of the clues are too difficult and we’ll spend the last 45 minutes standing around, blaming each other for being dumb? (Answer: You can ask for a certain number of hints! The gamemasters type out the answers onto a TV screen in the room. And hopefully your group members are nice to each other.)
Last year’s escape room was called “In Check.” It was black-and-white/chess/Alice in Wonderland themed. The goal was to find some kind of golden object that was locked and hidden somewhere in black-and-white room. When the time started, we scurried around opening cabinets and drawers, scrutinizing pictures on the walls, turning over seemingly random black and white objects arranged on shelves, and rifling through papers in a binder. The papers had a puzzle to get us started, and the answer to that puzzle turned out to be the combination to a combination lock that opened a cabinet, which contained more strange objects, clues, and puzzles, and then it continued from there. A lot of the puzzles were number or word puzzles that yielded combinations to locks, but there was an excellent variety of other creative clues and tasks. I won’t spoil anything for those who want to go to this escape room, but I’ll say that elements like light, water, and mirrors all came into play. Our group discovered the golden object with seconds to spare, leading to this victorious photo.
Last night, I went back to Escape This with a larger group to do another room called Sherlocked, which, as you can probably guess, was Sherlock Holmes themed. Before we went in, the woman working there checked her notes and asked us if we were celebrating a birthday. One of our rank raised his hand and she said “Happy birthday” to him.** Then she turned to the group who came in after us to do a different room. They looked like they all might be members of the same blond family — adults, kids, and young adults. The host asked them if they were celebrating an engagement. They all glanced at each other, looked a little uncomfortable and said “…No…?” She checked her notes again and said “I thought…well, sorry, maybe that’s another group then. All right!” Later, as our group stood in the hallway outside our room waiting to go in, someone said “I wonder if that other group was going to have a surprise proposal in the escape room and now it’s spoiled.” We all imagined a romantic scene of solving a puzzle to unlock a box, looking inside it for more clues, and finding a diamond ring! One member of our group said “Let it be known that if my future husband wants to propose to me like that, I would be okay with it.” Hopefully the notes really were messed up between groups, and some poor guy’s plan wasn’t ruined and he didn’t have to frantically try to unlock all the boxes and cabinets before anyone else could look inside in order to get his ring back before anyone noticed.
But back to Sherlocked. My review: it was great! The room looked like an old-fashioned London living room. There were maps and paintings on the wall, Sherlock’s evidence wall with papers taped all over it, an old typewriter, a violin case, a tea set, and more objects that all turned out to help us toward our end goal, which was to find the names of a victim and murderer. We were a big group, so at the beginning when there were only one or two clues to look at and a large throng of people already surrounding them, I went around uselessly prodding couch cushions and handling fake fruit for a while. Eventually the group unearthed enough puzzles and clues that everyone had something to work on. I even proved myself useful at one point by solving a particularly tricky piece involving a list of names that held the secret of how to put a set of encyclopedia volumes in the correct order, thus revealing the combination to a lock.*** Towards the end, tense music from the BBC show Sherlock was being played louder and louder, we were down to trying to decipher the final clue involving some names and some wooden blocks, and time was ticking away. It was amazing how quickly an hour had gone by. After a lot of frantic arguing and guessing, a bonus hint from the TV screen, and about two minutes to go, we had the answer! Someone dialed it into an old-timey telephone on the wall, and triumphant music played. “You escaped!” read the TV screen. We all cheered. Jolly good fun.
I would love to do some more escape rooms, although I think there’s probably a limit to how many escape rooms a sane person can do. You could reach a certain threshold where you do one too many and become unhinged — in every room you enter after that, you try to pull paintings off the wall, open every cabinet, point urgently at any numbers or words that you see that even remotely connect to other things in the room, and just generally assume that any object you see anywhere was put there expressly to send you a message or to mess with you. I think if I wait about six months before trying again, I’ll probably be safe, right?
*I think there was a little disclaimer at the bottom of the screen that said that the live animals were not a normal element of the Escape Room and had been added to “enhance” the experience for the Bachelorette folks.
**It was actually his “birthday + 11 months” day. Long story.
***Not to brag or anything, but the guy who debriefed us after the hour was up said that almost nobody gets that one without a hint. But our group also ended up needing a hint later that was basically “You’re not pushing hard enough on that thing you are pushing on,” so I guess it balances out.
Photo at the top is from TaxRebate.org.uk