We are at a gas station near downtown Raleigh attempting to rehydrate. We’re sweaty, breathless, and debriefing on what the hell happened back there.
Pressing an ice-cold gatorade to my neck, I ask, “you wanna go again?”
“Only if it’s a different room,” my partner answers, unscrewing a bottle of water. “That was too stressful. I was miserable.” He chugs.
I scroll through my iPhone calendar, looking for empty days. “I’m going back. I’m addicted. I’m gonna do them all.”
After a few minutes of thought he says, “I might go back, too. But no more zombies.”
Neither of us had ever been to an escape room before. I wasn’t even sure where to find one. You’ve heard of them–you are locked into a clue-filled room and have to solve a code to break free. Many rooms are theme based: pirates, prisons, laboratories, etc. But how challenging could it be? How exciting could you make it? I spent my middle school years playing the PC adventure game Myst™, and pretty much have this kind of “which lever opens which door” business figured out. But why not give it a try?
I knew the Obama family played one in Honolulu (and unsurprisingly beat the room with seconds to spare). I heard that overworked Chinese students use them to de-stress. The first room of note, Real Escape Game™, opened in Kyoto in 2007. A decade later, there are about 3,000 room venues with various companies all over the world. The Science Channel™ even developed a short-lived TV Game Show.
The big companies are pulling in several hundred grand each year. The young’uns, like Raleigh Room Escapes, LLC™, have firmly grasped their surfboards–hoping to ride that wave to the bank.
For Raleigh Room Escapes, co-founded by a pair of actor-producers, the tide is rising and the winds are strong. At least for now. In its 2.5 years in town, they continue to book rooms weeks in advance, with shows constantly selling-out, whether through private bookings or public join-ins. With individual tickets running $15-$30 it’s an affordable theatrical alternative to the big-box Broadway tours with seats costing as much as $150.
But why is RRE having success? Well, primarily, because it’s not just about escaping the room. According to co-founder Rebekah Carmichael, “most traditional rooms have phenomenal puzzles and incredible scenic design. But at the end of the day there’s no reason to be there. We provide story, psychology, and immersion.”
That has been the key to RRE’s unique success in the area: plot. They offer five unique storylines, each driven by an original script, professional character actors, film-quality makeup and costume effects, theatrical-grade lighting and sound design, and immersive, 360-degree environments. It is less haunted house and more Saw film. And these rooms are built from the ground up and carefully designed based on actual sociological research and behavioral analytics, unlike many escape rooms whose sets are purchased as plug-and-play kits.
Some of the experiences are highly theatrical. In Escape the Tramping Ground your team digs through the wreckage of an abandoned laboratory. For most escape room companies, the context ends there. But RRE has an impetus for your participation: you are attempting to discover what happened to the lost research team before the lab itself is demolished. Combining North Carolina folklore and plot-revealing clues, you begin to piece together the mystery. The use of binaural technology, theatrical lighting cues, and real foliage enhance the experience so that the world outside vanishes from your mind. You aren’t in a room escape, you’re in a sci-fi/horror film.
The Stronghold is a story designed for those who want a more challenging, puzzle-focused experience, while Trapped in a Room with a Zombie has an additional…obstacle. The Formula of Escape is for those looking for a less-stressful challenge. An earlier RRE room, a highly-immersive mobile unit called The Watering Hole, is currently up for sale.
When asked about the future of the escape room industry, co-founder J. Robert Raines had this response: “The bubble is definitely going to burst due to oversaturation. If you don’t innovate, you die. In January 2018 we’re actually tearing everything down and building brand new iterations of the shows: new puzzles, characters, and layout.”
More RRE innovation comes in the form of a patented psychoanalysis process, which provides optional individual and group performance feedback for team-building exercises. And unlike many small businesses, the RRE website has more answers to more questions than one could dream of.
Back at the gas station with our now-emptied Gatorade bottles, we reflected. Upon our arrival at RRE, the successful completion rate for the Trapped in a Room with a Zombie story was a mere 28%. The odds were never in our favor. When our guide, Professor Von Guttenberg (played by an amusingly manic Jill Cromwell) told us of the zombified scientist we would encounter, I had not anticipated actor Sarah Moats crawling spider-like toward me, a series of chains holding her just out of reach. Of course, every few minutes her chain lengthens and she closes in. But I wasn’t really using that leg anyway.
Everyone reacts to stressful situations differently. Fight or flight kicks in when the scenario feels this real. One of the seven participants in our group glued herself to the wall for most of the show, terrified of impending zombie contact. Another did what she could to distract the zombie while we fiddled with combination locks and searched for hidden keys. One comrade furiously scribbled solutions to cryptic messages. I myself was given the Frazzled Teacher award by our guide for my tendency to herd the group like kindergarteners.
After much zombie dodging, code deciphering, compartment discovering, floor crawling, and profanity screaming, I managed to have my hand mere inches from The Key just before the alarms sounded and we were all eaten by the zombified Dr. Oxy. Oh, to have saved five seconds somewhere in that hour.
I never fancied myself a participant in such a novelty. A haunted house with hidden letters on the walls–big deal. But oh no, dear readers, this was theatre. Participant theatre–a play in which I was the hero. Though I wound up as so much dead meat, I could not help feeling that I was part of a larger story–a thrilling one.
I could not help thinking as I staggered out of the room, “exit, pursued by a zombie.” I spun around to check behind me. Just to be sure.
SECOND OPINION: Brian Howe’s 2017 IndyWeek overview of triangle escape rooms: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/escape-from-the-fall; 2016 WRAL report on Escape the Tramping Ground: http://www.wral.com/new-escape-room-based-on-devil-s-tramping-ground-opens-friday/15469132/; Kathy Hanrahan’s 2015 WRAL report on Trapped in a Room with a Zombie: http://www.wral.com/trapped-in-a-room-with-a-zombie-raleigh-room-escapes-offer-challenging-fun-experience/14820567/
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: http://www.raleighroomescapes.com
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: http://www.raleighroomescapes.com/faq
THE CAST: http://www.raleighroomescapes.com/about-the-cast/
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.