In a locked room full of hidden clues, the real trick to escaping is discovering why you are here
By Christine Hennessey
The entrance to the Cape Fear Escape Room is easy to miss. Located downtown, just off Front Street, an iron gate opens to a steep staircase leading down. On a muggy evening our group descends, leaving behind the bustle of cars and pedicabs, the diners sipping beer outside the Copper Penny and the slow boats idling along the river. At the bottom we push open a door and the five of us — me, my husband, another couple, a friend — step into the tiny foyer. Music plays softly while a water fountain gurgles in the corner. A large frosted-glass door looms — frosted — concealing what lies beyond. We will walk through it soon. Whether we find our way out remains to be determined.
An escape room is a live-action game in which a team of players is locked in a room. There, they must find clues, solve puzzles and decipher symbols in order to finagle their way out before their allotted time (usually an hour, give or take) is up. It’s important to note that escape rooms aren’t haunted houses in disguise. No one jumps out at you and screams, “Boo!” Monsters do not lurk in corners. The only time you interact with anyone other than your team is if you hit the buzzer and request a clue. You only get three, though, so use them wisely.
Some people view the escape room as the natural evolution of hedge mazes, popular in the 15th century, in which people were plopped in the center of a complicated problem — that is, the maze — and then had to navigate an exit. Others view escape rooms as a sort of living video game, more immediate and exciting than simply operating a joystick while staring at a screen. No matter where escape rooms trace their origin, one thing is clear: They are having a moment, and that moment is now.
The Cape Fear Escape Room opened its doors last October, offering two rooms that feature two very different games: a murder mystery, and a time travel adventure. Their second location, which purports to takes place in a speakeasy, opened in May. Port City Escape, a second company, launched their escape room sometime shortly after and included a game to uncover Blackbeard’s treasure and another to stop the launch of a nuclear warhead. This trend isn’t limited to Wilmington: escape rooms are popping up across America, a mystery unto themselves. Why are they so popular? Why are we drawn to them? What are we really trying to escape?
Before we enter the escape room, our gamemaster, a dark-haired young man who is clearly thrilled on our behalf, plays a video offering a brief backstory and informing us of our mission. He confiscates our phones — no videos or photos allowed — and sends us into the room. The door locks shut behind us.
It’s hard to write about this or any escape room with specific details; to reveal too much would ruin the game. What I can tell you is that we’re searching for Al Capone’s hidden fortune. Everything we need to solve the puzzle is somewhere in the room. It’s hard to tell what is a clue and what isn’t — anything could lead to something, or to a dead end. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. If we don’t find our way out within 60 minutes, we lose.
That’s exactly what happened during our inaugural visit. We’d gone to the Cape Fear Escape Room’s first location a few months earlier. In that game — a murder mystery involving a doomed chemistry student — we ran out of time before finding our way out. We didn’t escape, but we learned a lot and vowed that our next adventure would succeed. There’s an art to the escape room. If you fail, the gamemaster will show you how you could have or should have solved it. Suddenly it clicks. There’s a pattern to these games, certain tropes you only recognize in retrospect. Once you understand the process, the next attempt is easier. Possible.
The first official escape room debuted in 2006, in Japan. Since then they’ve multiplied, crossing borders and transcending languages, many of the clues and stories recycled, repurposed, spun to suit a particular country or city. No matter where they’re located, however, they’re marketed the same way. Great for corporate team building. A unique birthday party idea. An intrepid date night. At the Cape Fear Escape Room there’s even a discount offered to Girl Scout troops working on their Secret Agent badge.
It makes sense. Whether you’re an office manager, a newly minted 30-year-old, potential lovers, or a Girl Scout, the escape room is a revealing challenge. It requires communication and patience, and the best teams benefit from a range of skills, experiences and backgrounds. This becomes obvious as our team fumbles through the clues and races the clock. My husband, a scientist, methodically lines up our clues on the floor. Our friend, a math whiz, recognizes patterns in an instant. The couple brings balance to the game — she helps us stay organized, he stumbles across secrets haphazardly. While they all assure me I’m vital to our success, my main role appears to be cheerleader. In a way, every team that enters the escape room — ours included — is a microcosm-of-society, in which we each bring something to the table with the potential to rescue us all. We are, quite literally, in it together.
Since that night in the underground speakeasy, I’ve thought about what the escape room means for me as a North Carolinian. I grew up in New York but left that liberal bastion for the South 12 years ago, a move I don’t regret except for those moments — election seasons, mostly — when I do. Occasionally I feel trapped by my choices, hedged in by ideologies and shortsighted politicians, limited by invasive laws that threaten our humanity. I chose to come here and every day I choose to stay. But that doesn’t mean I don’t dream of a way out, or pine for ways to fix a system that sometimes feels broken. I search for clues daily, turning impossible puzzles over in my mind, hoping the key to a better future is within reach, waiting for something to click.
This, I think, is the root of the escape room phenomenon. Our fears reflect our world, and our boogeymen become metaphors. The belief in extraterrestrials and UFOs is an affront to the idea that we’re alone in the universe. In recent years zombies have taken a bite out of our collective imagination, their infectious desire to consume brains caused, at least in part, by the terror of pandemics, like Ebola and now Zika. Even ghosts are rooted in our fear of death, our refusal to give up this world for the great unknown.
Escape rooms aren’t frightening, but they reflect our collective predicament and need to solve something tangible. To get out of a situation we put ourselves in. After all, we entered this room on our own accord. We didn’t know exactly what we were getting into, but we were curious. We wanted to be challenged, and maybe we got more than we bargained for, but we’re here. We’re together. Either we all get out, or none of us do.
For the next hour our team works together to escape the room. We unlock mysteries, solve puzzles, and waste precious minutes due to red herrings. However, thanks to communication, quick thinking, and a little luck, we map out a solution. We put the pieces together. The door swings open with seconds to spare. We escape.
We ascend the stairs, leave the strange world of the escape room and spill out, blinking, into the street. The sun is still bright, but a cool breeze comes off the river. The world clicks back into place, but it looks different, as if there are still patterns hidden around us, secrets we can’t yet see. Around us people are eating and drinking and walking, going about their day, living their lives. They don’t know where we’re been, the choices we’ve made or how far we’ve traveled to arrive at this place.
Christine Hennessey writes and works in Wilmington.