Escape rooms, those lock-in experiences where you and your group have to solve esoteric puzzles to make your way out, are designed to stretch players’ problem-solving skills in an interactive environment. Any expectations beyond just having a good time are usually tied to a theme, and the scarier escape rooms are somewhat equivalent to visiting a haunted house attraction, but — you know — far more interactive, and the exits are locked. What people don’t know is that things don’t always go as planned in escape rooms.
Escape rooms have always struck me as something so compelling. Searching for clues, coming up with strategies, working with a team — like playing a murder mystery dinner game, but without the whole “slain in the piano room with the candlestick” vibe. A race against the clock where your wits are tested. I knew that things could get pretty wild, but I wasn’t expecting anything like the tales I’ve heard after chatting with several escape room employees.
From breaking fundamental parts of the rooms, to solving problems by thinking too far outside of the literal box, it sheds a whole new light on these seemingly cosy outings.
For instance, you likely haven’t considered quite how often literal furniture gets torn from the walls. One escape room employee told me, requesting anonymity because they were not authorised to speak on behalf of the company, that they had a group literally tear a plumbed kitchen sink from its kitchenette.
“In our defence,” she told me, “it was a team of at least 10 people. So, it was very hard to keep track of them all.” They only had a few cameras covering the multi-room set up, which ordinarily would be enough. “I could only see the backs of about five people. I had no idea they were lifting the sink out until it was too late”.
The correct solution was for a player to put their hand down the “gross-looking” drain to retrieve a key from a box, and none of them fancied that idea. But despite desperate pleas from the employee over the room’s walkie-talkie, they pulled the whole thing out. Then, incredibly, the same group found themselves pulling up portions of the room’s tiled floor.
“The floor tear-up came after the sink refurbishment,” said the employee. Already on high alert given the room involved another drain hole, this time covered in fake blood, she said they completed the drain puzzle fine this time, but then noticed “the flooring was a little jank and lop-sided, which they apparently found suspicious. So, they started tugging on the edges.” Despite attempts to repair it, the damage the group did to the floor caused other players to think it was part of the room too.
Sarah Johnson, general manager of The Escape Game Austin, in Texas, told me about a similarly overenthusiastic group of players who refused to take nails as an answer. “In some of our adventures, we have items attached to the wall that move or lift,” said Johnson. “Anything that should move will move very easily. On one occasion, we had a guest who was convinced that a very large map was supposed to lift off the wall. Within seconds, they were able to pull [down the whole map] taking parts of the drywall with it.” Not only did parts of the wall come away, but the map ended up shattering on the ground. The incident did lead to “guest-testing” objects that shouldn’t be moved, though. That way, now guides can step in before things go too awry.
Escape rooms around the country vary hugely. Some have specific solutions to a given puzzle, while others allow for multiple approaches, and players going in obviously don’t know what to expect. Because of this, it’s easy to excuse someone for thinking they’ve found a clue or the means of escape when they haven’t. It’s harder to do so when a person ends up interacting with a piece of furniture or fixture in a way that has nothing to do with a puzzle, and is obviously destructive. This was the case with Redditor Brasscassette, who described an interesting scene while working at a popular escape room in downtown Atlanta. A couple had booked a room that was normally held for larger groups, and because of this, it took them longer to complete the game’s objectives. One particular puzzle involving a locked door proved a bit too much, prompting the husband to construct a lever using an old whiskey barrel and metal pole.
As the timer ran down, the man became visibly anxious and began examining the door. “We had a metal pole with a magnet that was intended to be used [for another puzzle]. He grabbed that pole and stuck it at the bottom of the door’s middle hinge and used a bar stool to prop it up.” At that point, he went and grabbed a prop barrel to weigh down the other side of the pole. The room’s staff ran in to stop him, but too late, and he was able to release the pin that kept either side of the hinge together. “It was a whole bitch-and-a-half to rehang the door,” said Brasscassette.
Most of these incidents are accidental in nature. However, there are occasions where guests are a little more flippant about their behaviour. Omar Aru, owner of Escape Room Herndon, shared stories involving rude players. Obviously alcohol is not allowed inside most escape rooms, but Aru recalls seeing a lady who kept “holding the purse to her face and tilting it up,” having snuck a bottle of wine in with her, before ending her session throwing up in the trash.
Inebriated guests are obviously a regular issue, with another escape room employee telling me about a woman who was so drunk that she passed out during a session. “She actually managed to slump herself down a very small flight of stairs with her head pointing down,” the staff member told me. For a while, employees thought she was looking for something, and her friends, who had also been drinking, continued to play without her.
However, when it comes to abandoning a teammate, another group that played at Escape Room Herndon took it to the next level. CJ Hampson, a Game Master for location, declared that they once “had a group offer a blood sacrifice in exchange for a clue.”
ERH has utilised several different escape rooms over the years. One of them, called The Mystery of Room 213, featured a meat locker with several body bags hanging from the ceiling. The players would need to move these bodies on a track, Resident Evil-style, in order to solve a puzzle. Apparently, it proved a bit too much for one group. Not so much because they were scared, but because they were desperate for a clue. “So, in 213, when [the group] got to the body room, this girl yelled, ‘We need to join them! We need to sacrifice someone!’,” said CJ. “There was a whole discussion about who was the least valuable to the group.” They were pretending to choose someone to be hanged alongside the other “bodies”. CJ intervened and told them that, “while fun, human sacrifice wasn’t necessary.”
Herndon’s Omar Aru added that some players really get into the various themes. They might call out to a deity or lay down on a gurney and pretend to be a patient waiting to be operated on. Other times, groups can get stuck, and resort to extremes for help. On one occasion, CJ Hampson explains, “an entire group broke into intense and frenzied wall twerking as a way of asking for a clue.” The players had already used up all the available clues, and when Hampson told them he couldn’t offer any more help, they resorted to flirting. Shaking their butts, along with some sexy dancing, was their method to coax something out of him. It didn’t work.
Other methods that didn’t prove helpful included the family visiting The Bureau Orlando, who kept using a small opening in a wall — designed for passing tools between two rooms — to pass a baby back and forth. “We have a Loch Ness monster game where groups start split up in two separate rooms,” said Alexis Santos, the CEO of the escape room. “A lab incubating the monster’s eggs has been sabotaged. Players need to find a way to repair the lab and figure out which egg is viable enough to be hatched.” This is intended to be solved by using the small hatch to share equipment by a divided team, and not for exchanging live human babies. They were eventually asked to stop.
Players tend to bring a little of themselves into the games. Not just in terms of their puzzle solving skills and potential vices, but also specific aspects of their lives that they’d like to share with others. Matt Mingle of Exit Escape Room NYC said that he’d seen people propose marriage during a game by hiding rings inside one of various puzzles. “Some people really like making escape rooms a focal point in their lives,” he notes. A sentiment shared by Wilson Upchurch, Assistant Manager of The Escape Game Austin, who detailed how his team was able to host their first escape room wedding.
Upchurch explained how they got a call from a guy who was looking to get married during an escape room session. “Although he and his fiancée lived in the Caribbean, they had recently played Prison Break at The Escape Game and made a simple deal: once they escaped they were going to get married!” They eventually set up a scenario that would facilitate such an arrangement. “Gary and Elaine flew stateside, we helped them reserve two Prison Break games back-to-back so that, in his words, he could ‘seal his fate,’ and once the game was over the wedding ceremony would begin,” said Upchurch.
Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Upchurch said that the couple was accompanied by a small group of their families, their pastor, and a photographer. The ceremony took place inside the final room of the game. Waiting for them was a cake, balloons and a honeymoon goodie bag. “They escaped on time and the wedding ceremony went wonderfully,” said Upchurch.
Last word for peculiar escape room antics must go to another anonymous employee, who described one of the most innovative ways of solving a challenge. In this particular room, guests were tasked with retrieving a briefcase above them without tripping a series of lasers. The intended solution was to flip a bunch of switches in the correct order to turn off the beams, but this group had another method. The team of Russian acrobats decided instead to stack themselves on top of one another, and then contort their bodies between the beams to grab the briefcase, without needing to touch the switches. They were given the win.
Most folks attending an escape room just want to have a good time. In doing so, a few get a little overzealous when it comes to solving puzzles. Don’t want to end up in an embarrassing situation? Check with staff before trying anything risky. Remember that large furniture (and heavy items in general) aren’t typically meant to be moved, nor is drywall intended to be pulled out. All manner of locked doors can be opened using obvious methods; if you have to construct a lever without prompting, you’re likely doing it wrong. And lastly, don’t come inebriated. It only leads to trouble and a possible ban from a given establishment.
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