Play your way out of escape rooms

by Tim Hanson 

“Anybody good at breaking codes?” asks Francis Marion University professor Garry Griffith. “Look at this.” Griffith has his flashlight trained on a photograph tacked to the wall of an old cabin in which he and three friends are being held captive by a serial killer who—in less than an hour—will return to do them all in.

The photo depicts random letters superimposed over the faces of maybe a dozen or more people.

“What kind of code is it?” asks fellow captive Elizabeth McCarley, an administrative assistant at the university.

“I don’t know,” Griffith says. “I don’t know if it really is one.”

“What does it say? ” McCarley asks.

The other two captives—professor Kay Packett and FMU student James McCarley (Elizabeth’s brother)—momentarily stop searching for clues in the darkened room and join the group huddled in front of the photograph. Maybe this is their big break, the clue that will set them free.

“It says,” Griffith replies, squinting hard now as if carefully unscrambling the code on the fly. “It says … ‘Two-for-one drinks on Fridays.’”

There is a collective groan from the group as the professor’s lame joke makes it clear that he has absolutely no idea what any of it means.

Playing the game

In reality, of course, there is no killer, and the group is free to leave the “cabin” at any time if things get too creepy. What they are engaged in is a carefully crafted and remarkably clever “escape room” called Lakewood Lodge, a game involving a variety of locks, puzzles and codes that must be unlocked, solved and broken in order for the group to get out of the room within a set period of time.

The game is played at Locked Inn, Florence’s first and, so far, only escape-room parlor. Owned by the brother-and-sister team of Gavin Smith and Maureen Allen, the business opened in mid-July and has since seen a rush of eager players willing to pony up $25 each to try their hand at beating the clock and escaping the room within 60 minutes.

Locked Inn is one of many escape rooms that have cropped up throughout the state in the last year, part of a worldwide craze that began in Japan nearly a decade ago. Smith and Allen became smitten with the concept when they visited an escape room in Charlotte during a family vacation last February.

“We all like mysteries and scary movies and puzzles and games,” Allen says. “We did not escape the room in time, but it was a wonderful experience nonetheless, and all of us came out of there just really jazzed.”

Since Lakewood Lodge opened, more than 80 groups, or roughly 500 people, have passed through the doors—families looking for something fun to do, birthday parties, couples on date nights, corporate groups and escape-room addicts who travel from city to city to play one room after another.

Other escape rooms across South Carolina have seen striking numbers. Josh and Patty Brickey opened Escape Plan Columbia nearly a year ago and have since catered to more than 6,000 people, ranging from Girl Scout troops to teams of FBI agents. In Cayce, Tracy Crawford, who owns The Final Door with her sister, Alexis Fenske, says at least 1,000 people played their escape room in the first month alone. And Caleb McKisic, the general manager of Breakout Greenville—part of an escape-room franchise with 13 locations operating around the country—says that more than 10,000 people have visited his business since it opened in March.

‘When you hear the beep, your time begins’

When the adventurers from FMU arrive at Locked Inn, Allen briefs them on the rules of the game. One person, she says, will be in charge of a walkie-talkie, which will be used to communicate with her and her brother, both of whom will monitor the group’s progress via a live video feed.

“If, at some point, you feel like you’re stuck and not making much progress, you can ask for a clue, as long as everyone in your party agrees,” she says. “You have three clues, so don’t wait until the last few minutes to use them.”

With the briefing complete, Allen looks at the group, rubs the palms of her hands together and says, “Now, for the blindfolds!”

Eyes covered, the players are led into the room, where Smith explains the scenario: “You were all on an epic road trip, but you were having such a good time that you didn’t even realize that your GPS had gone haywire. Somehow, you end up on a dark, deserted road, and your car breaks down.”

As the unsettling yarn unfolds, the players become aware of a cacophony of chilling noises—hooting owls, cicadas, yowling cats, wind, branches scraping against the side of the cabin. “When help finally arrives,” Smith continues, “it is your worst nightmare—a serial killer grabs your group and locks all of you in this abandoned cabin.”

The only hope of escape is found in a series of clues left by previous victims. The killer will be back in 60 minutes, Smith says. “When you hear the beep, take your blindfolds off and your time begins.”

Their vision restored, the players use flashlights to investigate the large, darkened room. Against one wall, a bookcase holds a variety of disparate items—an old candelabra, paperback books, a world globe, a tiny wooden keg, a journal filled with random notes—any one of which may be a valuable clue.

A rolltop desk dominates the opposite side of the room, while a fireplace sits squarely in the middle of a third wall. The ultimate prize—the door leading to the group’s freedom—is on the fourth wall, but as the beams of their lights flash that way, they see that a locked, wall-to-wall section of steel bars stands between them and escape.

With a digital clock ticking silently away, the group begins searching for clues, but it’s a bit chaotic, because nobody knows where to begin. Packett finds pieces of a traditional jigsaw puzzle but frowns in the darkness.

“I’m not good at puzzles,” she says. “Who’s good at puzzles?”

“I’ll try,” says Griffith.

“Are you fast?” asks Packett, mindful of the clock.

“No,” Griffith concedes.

“James, are you fast?” asks Packett, turning to the youngest member of the group.

McCarley begins fitting together puzzle pieces, which soon begin to reveal a picture of butterflies. But is it a clue or a time-draining red herring?

With almost 10 minutes gone, the group finds a key, which opens the desk.

“Looks like we have a journal in here,” says Elizabeth McCarley, flipping through the pages. She reads from an old, tattered news clipping glued inside the journal: “Dear Editor, this is the murderer of the two teenagers …”

From across the room, James McCarley asks, “Does this puzzle actually do something?”

No answer. Everyone is concentrating on other possible clues.

At one point, Packett spies a piece of clothing that has, apparently, been strategically placed on one corner of the desk. Realizing that it might somehow contain a valuable clue, she brightens and says, “Here’s a jersey. Somebody hold the light on it so I can see if there is anything here.”

Griffith steps quickly across the room to join her and soon has the answer.

“That’s mine,” Griffith says.

“This is yours?” asks Packett, a bit incredulous and slightly annoyed. “Oh, for crying out loud.”

Race to the finish

With time slipping away, the group decides to ask for a clue.

Smith’s voice comes across the walkie-talkie and urges the group to check out some items on the bookshelf. The clue proves to be helpful and moves everyone closer to freedom. Eventually, their work pays off, and the lock to the barred partition dividing the room snaps open.

With only a few minutes remaining, the pace accelerates as the players scramble to make sense of new clues and puzzles. James McCarley finds a femur and holds the bone toward his friends.

“Does this mean anything?” he asks.

With no answer forthcoming, he sets aside the bone and empties a small bag of curiously blank Scrabble pieces onto the floor.

“What in the world?” Packett asks.

Then a loud beeping indicates that time is up. The lights come on, and Smith enters the room.

“You guys were so close,” he says. “You were about 80 percent of the way through.”

The group is slightly disheartened until they learn that most escape rooms have a meager 20 to 30 percent escape rate and that larger groups—Locked Inn can accommodate up to eight players in one room—usually have better luck, because they can work on more clues at the same time.

Living the adventure

The serial-killer motif runs through many escape rooms, but not all. Smith and Allen have a second game, set to open soon, called Submerged. In this scenario, players are trapped in a sinking submarine and must discover a way to make it to the surface within an hour.

Other escape rooms in South Carolina feature prison breaks, deadly pathogens, wizards, spy games, crime scenes and dungeons. While some scenarios may be too dark or scary for children, others are designed to welcome younger players.

Josh Brickey, a Fairfield Electric Cooperative member and owner of Escape Plan Columbia, prides himself on offering family-friendly game experiences. While the scenario behind some of his games may be intense, “we keep it lighthearted so people have fun,” he says. “We’re not going to jump out and scare you, but I can’t guarantee your teammates won’t.”

So what drives the popularity of escape rooms? Robert Webb, co-owner of Escape in 60 in downtown Charleston, sums it up in a word: adventure.

“It is a real, live adventure,” he says. “It is a little bit like theater, but you are the star. People really enjoy that.”