Escape Rooms: Are they scary?

Image is from Lock Hill, located in Athens, Greece.

Probably my first horror-themed room was Lethal Decision in Athens (only my 13th ever game!). You start the game hooded and chained up with an actor standing over you wreathed in smoke, a strobe going off behind him and also holding a revving petrol-powered chainsaw (without the belt on). You heard the noise and smelt the fumes which all added to the atmosphere.

But was I scared?

To be fair, in that room it was hard to be scared as you spent nearly the whole time hyped up on adrenaline, other scary rooms take a different path to make you jump. Adding actors to escape rooms has been a talking point I’ve seen mentioned since I started playing. With my LARP (Live Action RolePlay) head-on, I view them as NPC’s (Non-Player Characters), they are there to help or hinder the players. Most rooms seem to use them as the antagonist, Doctor Greuber of Nerve Klinik at Break Escape is a good example. The primary job of that character is to hinder you escaping the room, usually by appearing when you least (!) expect them.

Later on the same trip, I got to play all three rooms at Lock Hill, this is billed as Europe’s most thematic room, and it’s probably not far from. The setup is a fully enclosed environment set dressed as a village and the separate rooms are incorporated into the environment. Everything is geared to play on your senses, the low light, the enclosing architecture and then there are the rooms as well.

I will be honest and say horror rooms aren’t really my thing but I like playing rooms, so if I’ve made a journey to get somewhere then I invariably end up doing them anyway. I know some people have scary rooms and/or actors in rooms as hard red lights and that’s fine, most rooms with actors in them tend to have them purely to amp up the fear factor.  

The one notable exception I can think of is at The Happy Institute at The Panic Room in Gravesend. There, the character is meant to hinder you but not in an up-in-your-face way (and I also think that is quite an underrated room). Actors in rooms are still relatively rare in the UK but they seem to be more prevalent on the continent.

One thing I should say is that I’ve been a LARPer (see the previous definition) for nearly 30 years and writing and running my games for nearly as long. Some of those have involved NPC’s and jump scares as part of the overall game (depending on the background). I wonder if this means I have a different outlook on these type of rooms, I tend to view Escape Rooms as hour-long chunks of LARP anyway, an hours escape into a fantasy world.

Within the East Midlands, we have three notable horror rooms involving actors: –

Nerve Klinik at Break Escape

Edith at Unescapable

Butcher at Escapologic

I’ve played the first two and had a similar reaction in both. I’ve analysed my pulse rate data from when I played Edith (at time of writing that was only a few days ago) to try and work out my mood at the time. It’s worth noting that Edith has only recently reopened to allow for social distancing during the current pandemic. Both Nerve Klinik and Edith are set up roughly the same structurally, you have to accomplish some initial tasks to proceed to the next area. Certainly, in Edith, they play with the lights a lot (not that there’s much light in the first place) and my eye was continually drawn to where I thought our encounter would come. I’m relatively sure (looking at the data from my smartwatch) that my pulse rate was higher at this earlier stage than in the latter half of the room. When we finally got into the next stage we had our first encounter with Edith and after that stage, I wasn’t scared anymore. My anticipation anxiety was gone and now it was all about the puzzles and the game. Roughly the same thing happened in Nerve Klinik, once after that initial encounter was over and despite the best efforts of the GM in the costume to try and get a rise out of me.

There’s a great moment in Edith, that forces the players to split (I was playing as a two) and it meant that I then couldn’t move from where I was. I could hear Edith deliberately making their way towards me (Nerve Klinik does something similar but I think Edith does it better). I’m assuming this is the LARP part of me, but I was not afraid as in my head I saw someone in a costume. I’d had a similar experience at Nerve Klinik a year before, almost exactly the same. There was an amount of trepidation going into the room (oh, the briefing before Nerve Klinik) and during the early stage of that room but once the antagonist actor had made their appearance I was past it.

Thinking on, I believe I was more scared/anxious whilst playing Howitz (at Escapologic) that I played the day before Edith. Howitz is a creepy room anyway and features a couple of environmental jump scares that did make me leap back in shock a couple of times (much to the amusement of my partner). In the case of both Edith and Nerve Klinik, I think once I’d had that first encounter there was nothing left to scare me but Howitz never relented on the atmosphere part and I could feel it, all the way to the end.

I wonder if it’s the anticipation/anxiety that gets to me? I like roller coasters but I hate the ascent hill part, that clack-clack-clack of the chain that drags car up before that first drop. Give me a coaster that launches you every time.

I talked to the GM after Edith and we talked about changes they’d had to make to the game in light of the pandemic and social distancing, specifically the encounters. The original game might have included a couple more jump scares which would probably have got me but after that, would I have reverted to my “Oh are you here to murder me now” persona? I know the Butcher setup means that you don’t get to see the actor until 40 minutes into the game which is an interesting setup, will I be in pieces for those 40 minutes until they turn up?

So what makes us scared? I’m no psychologist and I’m guessing there’s probably some papers out there already. Fear of the unknown seems like a fairly obvious one, certainly, it played a part in that first half of both Nerve Klinik and Edith. Rooms like this (and by the same standard Howitz) use the environment to set you on edge, low light, unsettling props/visuals, strange sounds. All of these combine in your mind, I would assume this may even be what triggers the flight or fight response (I’m not advocating fighting in an escape room!). I do remember when we came out of Boiling Point (we were doing every room at Break Escape) ahead of doing Nerve Klinik (we’d heard screaming above us from there all day!) a guy was sitting on the stairs leading up to Nerve Klinik. When we mentioned this to the GM before we went in, he told us that he’d had to come out as he couldn’t handle the stress in the room. He was a big guy as well, muscular and covered in tattoos but the mind can exert maybe the strongest force?

As I stated previously, I’m not a huge fan of scare rooms but I have and do play them as more often I’m interested in the story or some other element connected with the room.

As I talked about in a previous post about puzzles, all of our brains are wired slightly differently and I think that applies to how we interpret the unknown, what causes us to feel ‘it’. Some people thrive on it, others withdraw and I guess I’m somewhere in between.  

Thanks for reading if indeed you still are.

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