By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)
Imagine this: you and your cleverest friends have been locked in a room. To get out you'll need to solve a series of inventive puzzles. This isn't a nightmare scenario. People actually pay to be put into one of these rooms. They are called Escape Rooms, and they have been popping up in major cities around the country. Pioneered by entrepreneurs, these rooms are becoming a growing business, with an unusual business model.
On a recent weeknight, Amy Hartman and her friends were trapped in an escape room in Los Angeles. The theme of this particular room is "Castle", complete with a legend about the ghost of an evil wizard. The skeleton of a king watches Hartman's group from his throne, in a room filled with armor, puzzles, and a chest they'll need to open if they want to survive. The team searches around for clues.
The Castle Room was the first room opened by Maze Rooms in Los Angeles. (Noah Nelson/Turnstyle News)
"What'd you find?" asked Hartman.
"Found that," said Mike Butler, who held up a small cylinder. "It's got a little rope guy around it."
"Oh," said Hartman, "it's one of these. This is like in the Dan Brown books."
They have just 60 minutes to escape.
This new form of themed entertainment has been popping up in warehouses, strip malls and other places you'd drive past without noticing for more than a year now.
The rooms are a little like video games come to life. Filled with puzzles and gadgets that teams--usually of two to six people--have to solve in order to win.
The phenomenon started in Japan and was brought over to Europe before arriving on American shores.
"I've never expected that I'm going to do something like this," said Natalie Lapidus, who owns the castle escape room with her husband. "Because I am also like a manager -- I have a degree in business administration."
This isn't a hobby for the couple. This is their livelihood. Their business -- Maze Rooms -- is growing, with six rooms in three locations in LA and a franchise in Austin.
That's nothing compared to Moscow, where there are scores of rooms. Lapidus and her husband emigrated from there a little over a year ago. At 26, Lapidus is living a geeky version of the American Dream.
Natalie Lapidus and her husband Ruslan Balashov--owners of Maze Rooms--pose with the final door which must be opened in the Castle Room. The door was on site when they took over the property, inspiring the Castle theme.
"I love this work because one day you're painting the walls, the other day you're sitting somewhere in the business meeting discussing the franchise opportunities. So it's different," said Lapidus.
Tickets run around $30 a person at most places, or teams can buy out the room. But there's a catch: once a team beats a room, there's no more fun to be had.
This is the inherent risk in the business model. There's constant pressure for room owners to find new customers or build new rooms to stay alive in a city's market. Because the market in America is new, no one knows yet how long a popular room can stay profitable here.
And while--relatively speaking--it doesn't cost all that much to start a room, whether or not it's any good is another matter entirely.
"The only thing I'm really worried about," said Kayden Ressel, "is a person going, 'Oh Escape Rooms that's a cool new thing.' And then they go and try a really bad one and they go and are like: 'Escape Rooms suck because that one was really bad.'"
Ressel is the young entrepreneur behind The Basement LA, a horror themed escape room in the LA suburb of Sylmar.
The Basement relies on live actors and a meticulously detailed set to turn a plain warehouse into something that feels genuinely creepy.
"This is something that someone in the early 20s, or late 20s, or early 30s can go do with their friends," said Ressel. "It's a social thing to do on a Friday night that isn't going to a bar and getting drunk. Everyone has to put their phones away and everyone has to interact with each other. I think that draws people in a lot."
Back in the castle escape room, Amy Hartman and her friends have gotten stuck. Until Hartman has a flash of insight.
"Wait wait wait wait," said Hartman. "What were the three that were to help us? Cygnus and then..."
Hartman triggered a lock with a click.
The clues all came together. I'd say, what exactly--but, you know, spoilers.
Afterward her escape, I checked in with Hartman, a first timer.
"It was what I expected but it was more fun and it was actually...harder? Although, apparently we did the super easy room," said Hartman.
(Want to find more Escape Rooms in Los Angeles? Check out this article by Juliet Bennett Rylah, whose help was invaluable in putting together this piece.)
Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.