Audiences associate the word "horror" with scary movies or terrifying novels. But over the past half-decade, live theater and haunted house exhibits have merged, bringing new life to the genre with interactive, real-world experiences that let audiences step through the screen and into their own personal tales of terror. In The Future of Fear, we’re talking to the creators of some of the most striking, immersive horror experiences to see how they’re taking the genre in directions it’s never gone before.
They led us into the basement like lambs to slaughter, hoods pulled over our heads so we couldn’t see the chain-link cage we were being stuffed into. We knew we didn’t have much time until our captor would return, ready to rip the flesh from our bones in cannibalistic glee, so we hurriedly unlocked the cage and tore the room apart, solving riddle after riddle in our quest to escape.
Finally, hidden in the darkness in an adjoining room, we found his latest victim: fading, but still alive. She tried to help, pointing us in the right direction as our group struggled to solve the final puzzle. Then it hit us. We were missing one vital piece of information, which was almost certainly hidden inside a safe on the wall — a safe that our earlier mistakes had rendered completely inoperable.
That’s when I knew we were all going to die.
I was playing The Basement, a horror-themed escape room located in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Up to 12 people go in, a 45-minute timer starts counting down, and if you don’t make it out in time, you’re "captured, caged, and consumed." (That's what happened to my team.) Getting forced inside a room with some strangers and a ticking clock may not seem like everyone’s idea of a good time, but over the past few years escape rooms have proven to be incredibly popular — and a wickedly effective option for audiences looking for a taste of immersive entertainment.
The first real-world escape games emerged in Japan in the mid-2000s, inspired by simple "escape-the-room" computer games like 2004’s Crimson Room. In that title, the gameplay was simple: the player starts out locked inside a bedroom, and has to uncover tools and puzzle their way out. But over the ensuing years the physical versions have marched inexorably toward the mainstream, bringing with them a diversity of storylines, scenarios, and levels of complexity. (Just check one of the many online escape room directories to find a room located in… well, just about anywhere.)
"The entertainment industry will never go out of business, because the one thing that's always in demand is escape," Adam Milicevic, a creative director at Universal Studios Japan, tells me over the phone. "From the week, their life, their problems. Particularly with the escape room — it's a new form of stimulation."
Milicevic should know. He’s been behind large-scale interactive walk-through attractions based on Resident Evil and Alien vs. Predator for the park’s Halloween Horror Nights, but he’s also a large-scale escape room designer, having worked on Death Note: The Escape. That attraction, inspired by the film series and manga of the same name, was the escape room concept taken to its wildest extreme: a scavenger quest spanning a four-story building that had teams of audience members interacting with iPads in their search for freedom. But this Halloween he decided to work on a much smaller canvas, collaborating with the Think Tank art gallery in Los Angeles to create a two-room escape pop up as part of an exhibit called Trap House LA.
Trap House sets its tone with the premise. A punk rock singer named Evan Mayhew — loosely modeled on G.G. Allin — has been inviting aspiring musicians to his recording studio to audition for his label. Players take on the role of a group sent to the studio, but once they step inside the first room — which is decked out with recording gear and meticulously detailed posters and artwork — they’re introduced to a more sinister story of kidnapping and organ harvesting.
"I didn't want to do something generically ‘horror,’" Milicevic says. Instead, the initial idea was to use the medium of an escape room to bring attention to the issue of human trafficking — something that Milicevic felt has been given a cavalier treatment in films like Taken. "I wanted something grounded, that shines a little bit of light on an actual issue," he says. That’s not to say the room is a downer — it errs on the side of collaborative fun above all else — but it nevertheless juxtaposes the adrenaline rush of solving puzzles with some grim revelations. In the process, it serves as a reminder that escape rooms are more than just collections of puzzles. They’re narrative experiences, too, as reliant on storytelling and worldbuilding to transport audiences as any other kind of production.
It’s an important distinction, as a focus on story is becoming one of the ways escape rooms are distinguishing themselves in an increasingly crowded market. In The Basement, audience members can choose between three different rooms, each one telling a successive chapter of escape as participants try to get away from the fictional serial killer Edward R. Tandy. At the Anaheim-based The Hex Room, participants are literally cast and dressed as one of six different character archetypes — think roles like "The Jock," "The Rebel," or "The Prom Queen" — and then tasked with performing their own mini-escapes before joining forces for the final act. And then there’s immersive theater productions like Delusion or The Tension Experience, in which the escape room elements are subsumed almost entirely by an ongoing, immersive storyline.
"The thing with the narratives is they've always been there, whether or not they’re super prevalent," Milicevic says. It’s true even when it comes to attractions like traditional haunted houses, where many guests may just be looking for the visceral thrill of an effective jump scare. You can’t have character, context, or a real sense of tension without some semblance of story, and as audiences respond it’s something that designers are increasingly focused on. "There's the people that want to get into the storytelling, and want to know who the characters are, and what the set is," Milicevic says. "Because those are also the loudest fans, that's caused people to pay more attention to doing things like that."
"There is no fourth wall. There is no safety zone."
All of it, however, is ultimately in service of the same goal: letting audiences be totally enveloped by a fictional world. "The thing about sending people through an experience is there's no comfort zone. I think that's particularly unique to walking through a [haunted] house or walking through an escape room," Milicevic says. "Other experiences, there's a seat belt. You're at home. There's no threat of breaking that fourth wall. With an experience you’re immersed in, there is no fourth wall. There's no safety zone."
"Even in VR, you can take the glasses off," he says. "There's always a device to get out of it. With an escape room or a maze, you have to get to the end of it. You have to finish."
Or, as was the case in my trip to The Basement, you don't finish at all. Instead you just watch the clock tick down, the tension increasing with every passing moment because that underlying narrative has made it all too clear what the stakes really are. And as the timer hits zero, gas starts to fill the room, the surviving victim that had once been so helpful falling to the ground, twitching, and then finally — eternally — going still.
At least they still let me buy a T-shirt in the lobby.