Paying to be Locked Up In an ‘Escape Room’ Is More Popular Than Ever. Why?

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Two men, Mike and Dave, are led blindfolded and stumbling into a small room. The door shuts and clicks behind them. Pulling off their blindfolds, they don’t like what they see, or at least, what little they can see.

Trapped in what appears to be a tiny cellar, the only light coming from an undersized purple bulb in the corner. The room is dank, musty, and the ambiance falls somewhere on the far side of chilling.

“Have fun, my dumplings,” says a creepy voice from an unseen loudspeaker. “But do hurry. Your time is short.” The last syllable, “short,” is punctuated by a long, low scream—the scream of a woman in the throes of a nameless agony, emanating from God-knows-where.

Frantically, the two men set to rummaging through the oddments scattered around the room, searching for clues. There are a series of locked boxes and chests of varying sizes, stowed away in each corner; some small wicker baskets and a couple of old workshop tins, with yet more oddments inside.

In one of the tins, Dave finds a tiny flashlight.

Over the course of an hour, the two men work through what proves to be a series of puzzles, numerical cyphers that open locked boxes; the cyphers are unraveled from bits of doggerel, crude poems scrawled on dirty paper hidden in unexpected places.

Every so often, the creepy voice returns, threatening, taunting, teasing at clues.

“We are so dead,” Mike wails, despairing as the end of the hour-long countdown draws near.

“Stop that,” Dave spits through teeth clenched on the butt of his flashlight, lodged in his mouth as his fingers work feverishly at the combination lock on a large chest. “Get your head back in the game. We’re going to get out of this.”

The lock on the chest is seemingly the last puzzle, the final secret in a room full of dangerous little mysteries. But whether the entrapped duo have divined the right combination is still a matter of terrible uncertainty.

Dave’s fingers falter—“…six, five, four…”

For Dave and Mike, the end is nigh.

You’ve no doubt gathered that Dave and Mike are not, nor were they ever, going to die at the hands of a Riddler-esque cretin in the bowels of a killer’s lair. Instead, they were fumbling about in something called Underneath, one of two escape rooms on offer at EscapeWorks Knoxville, located on the northern end of Central Avenue Pike and just one of several such places in the area.

Locally owned establishments EscapeWorks Knoxville, Which Way Out, and Escape Game Knoxville all opened around June of 2015, joined by franchise escape ventures Breakout and Key Quest, and now it’s impossible to listen to a local radio station without hearing one of their spots.

So what is an escape room, and why has the concept suddenly gained so much traction hereabouts? The short answer is that an overseas phenomenon finally caught up to us.

The first room, Real Escape Game, was the product of the Japanese company SCRAP in 2007. The notion spread rapidly in Asian countries, then caught on in Europe through the efforts of Hungarian franchise Parapark.

Then SCRAP came to San Francisco in 2012. Now, according to a, a website that tracks escape games, there are close to 4,000 rooms worldwide in more than 60 countries. Growth from 2014 to 2015 was an astonishing 3,900 percent.

In essence, these are video and role-playing games come to life, inspired by RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, early computer adventure games such as Myst (a popular video adventure-puzzle game, set on a mysterious island, released in 1993), and the trapped-in-a-room horror film series Saw.

Players enter theme-based locked rooms—prison-escape games are popular, as are “killer’s lair” scenarios like the aforementioned Underneath, but those are just two of too many to name—and solve various puzzles, searching for clues that will enable them to get out of the room in less than an hour’s time. And, as many discover, the struggle to escape is addictive.


So what kind of person opens an escape room? EscapeWorks Knoxville owner Rob Knolton was certainly a viable candidate.

A self-described techie nerd with a love for horror and Halloween, Knolton opened the FrightWorks Haunted House in Powell back in 1999. Of course, operating a haunted house is a quintessentially seasonal endeavor—Knolton did IT work in the down months—so when word of the burgeoning escape-room craze caught his attention, it seemed like a natural fit.

“Escape rooms are pretty popular for haunted attraction owners,” Knolton says. “We’re always looking for things to do in the off-season. So in summer of 2015, we tested the concept with a room in our haunted house. It went over very well.”

Knolton’s friendly rival over at the downtown-area Escape Game Knoxville, Dustin Wyrick, was just a tech-savvy former music major looking for something to do. When a friend in Wisconsin opened an escape room there two years ago, it set Wyrick off.

“I’m your typical 33 year old male,” Wyrick says. “I’ve played plenty of RPGs, video games, card games.

“After I learned about escape rooms, It took eight or nine months of work and research to get this up and running. I’m still not sure how I ended up doing something like this. But I know I’ve never had a problem thinking up puzzles and games.”

Wyrick’s three rooms are all rooted in classic tropes. There’s Villain’s Lair, another trapped-in-the-killer’s-hideout themed outing in which players have to disarm a bomb set by a Joker-like villain. MIK Ultra is a spy thriller, with players taking on the role of entrapped journalists uncovering a government mind-control conspiracy.

Close Quarters is Saw redux, with four players chained one to another through the walls of four closely adjoining little rooms. The players begin the game blindfolded, and Wyrick says the “solve” rate for Close Quarters is a mere 10 percent.

But if the themes are well-worn, the props and puzzles designed by Wyrick and his assistants are ingenious, like a hobbit-sized trap door, or an animated magic mirror, or a table that opens up a secret box when players water a potted plant.

Wyrick shows off a gadget he’s only just finished, constructed from a handful of special parts he ordered from China. “It’s a static charge ‘plasma ball,’” he says. “It’s gonna be locked behind a secret door. When you reach in and touch the ball, it’ll release a magnet and drop a clue through a hole in a tree.”

All of which will be part of Escape Game Knoxville’s forthcoming Once Upon a Time, four adjoining rooms, hosting up to 14 players, featuring an Enchanted Forest/fantasy theme.

“One person wears a magic bracelet that gives them special abilities,” Wyrick enthuses. “And the players will have to move that person around to different rooms to solve the puzzles. It’s going to be the most ambitious room we’ve built yet.”


Across town at Which Way Out off Kingston Pike, owner Karen Ray’s concepts are less grounded in fantasy, perhaps by design. A longtime event-planning professional, Ray founded Corporate Events in 1991 with her husband, and that morphed into Fantasy Casino Events just a few years later, an enterprise that specializes in casino-themed events and parties.

“I’m always looking at what’s new in the industry,” Ray says. “And two years ago, I saw on Facebook where whole groups of people were going traveling to Atlanta to play escape games there.

“It intrigued me. So I did some research. We already done a lot of team-building types of events in the past. Escape rooms seemed like a really good idea for us.”

Small wonder that one of two WWO escape rooms is dubbed “Casino Heist.” Based on actual events—the 1992 heist of a the Stardust Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas by an employee named Bill Brennan—the game sees players locked in casino office room, searching for clues as to where Brennan might have hidden the missing money. (According to reports, Brennan made off with $500,000, although some believed the he may have hidden, yet never retrieved, the missing cash.)

Who plays these games? There’s no one short answer to that question, although Ray’s business model offers at least a partial clue. Coming from an event-planning background, Ray had plenty of business and industry contacts, and now close to 65 percent of her traffic comes from businesses looking to escape games as corporate team-building exercises.

Wyrick and Knolton also say that a significant, albeit somewhat lesser percentage of their traffic comes from corporate clients. “It’s really great for team building, and I think for a lot of rooms, that’s what they’re geared for,” Wyrick says. “You’re getting out of the office and working together in ways that you would not ordinarily.”

Knolton tells that in some instances, supervisors with corporate groups choose not to play the games themselves, opting instead to sit in the control room alongside the “game master” and watch their charges work together via camera feed. “Some of them take it very seriously as an exercise,” he says with a chuckle.

As for the other members of the escape room clientele—the just-for-funsies folks, if you will—the games often become something of an addiction.

“We get people where this is their hobby,” says Which Way Out Game Master Sara Givens, a Hardin Valley Academy student who works for Ray in her spare time. “We’ve had people come in, do it on road trips where that’s all they’re doing, looking for rooms to play. One guy said ours was the 67th room he’d played.”

Watching a game of Casino Heist unfold on a Friday afternoon, it’s intriguing to see the cogs and wheels of group dynamics laid bare. A group of eight expanded family members—Givens notes that larger groups usually perform better—take on the challenge of the Casino Heist, exhibiting by turns the perils of too many cooks, and the benefits of having more minds in the game.

“They’re on the verge of something; they may need a hint,” says Game Master Givens. The Game Master—a monitor stationed in another room, watching the game unfold on video—claims as his/her prime directive the task of keeping the game moving, providing appropriate hints at key times, to keep frustration from setting in among game players.

Over the course of an hour, the group muddles through various and confounding puzzles, including one that requires them to string a series of colored plastic chains across the room in a criss-crossing pattern, making for some comic viewing as taller members of the party attempt to weave back and forth across the room for the remainder of the game.

A couple of louder members of the group inevitably seize control of the situation, barking out directives to other members who either serve as assisting corollaries or as passive watchers, letting the others do the lion’s share of the work.

In the end, they fall short of the goal. “I think they’ve all just given up,” Givens says, watching shoulders collectively slump as the final minute of the group’s hour ticks away on a video screen inside the room.

Nonetheless, in the wake of falling short, group members say they “loved the experience.”

“It was awesome fun,” says Kim Hixon, the group’s de facto leader, who says she decided to bring her friends to Which Way Out after her daughter played the room.

“It’s a challenge, and it makes you think,” she says. Then she looks at her friends, and they all nod assent as she adds, “We’re determined to come back. And we’re going to figure it out, next time.”


As the seconds tick away—“…four, three, two…”—Dave finally wrestles the last element of the shopworn rotary combination lock into place. He feels a small, satisfying click: The combination is correct.

Then there’s a louder click, and a bang, and the creaking sound of an old hinge. A door opens. But rather than the opening the main door—the path to sweet freedom—the combination has merely triggered the opening of a trapdoor leading to a small second room.

With the countdown having finished, the main door swings open, and EscapeWorks owner Knolton steps in, chuckling. “You guys have found the second room,” he says. “Do you want to keep playing?”

“Uh, no thanks,” Dave and Mike answer, in chagrined unison. For all of their mad fumbling, they scarcely managed to complete half the escape in the allotted time.

But after a few minutes, and some gentle ego massaging courtesy of Knolton (“You guys really didn’t do too bad, for your first time.”), both men agree they will probably return to EscapeWorks, and possibly to other area escape rooms, as well. And next time, they promise, they will bring friends.

“I think everyone wants a little mystery and suspense in their lives,” says Knolton, offering his own take on the escape room phenomenon. “But they don’t necessarily want to jump out of an airplane or climb Mount Everest.

“And with everything having been digital for so long, I think there was a pent-up need for something like this. We need that face-to-face interaction, that coming together that’s missing from so many of our lives in recent years.”

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