Interview: Real Escape Room Owners Discuss ‘Escape Room’ Movie (2019)

Earlier this month, genre fans were introduced to Escape Room, a horror/thriller directed by Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key, The Taking of Deborah Logan) and one of the first horror movies of 2019. The film capitalizes on the escape room trend that has gained much popularity in recent years. For the uninitiated, escape rooms are essentially puzzle rooms where a group of people (anywhere from 2-10, depending on the game) take part in trying to, well, escape the room, usually with a set time limit. The film, of course, takes this concept and adds a certain deadly spin to the rooms, and the hapless participants must use their wits to survive.

As it turns out, I know two real world creators of escape rooms: Madison and Luke Rhoades, the creators and owners of Cross Roads Escape Games in Anaheim, CA. Cross Roads is ranked the #1 escape room in both Anaheim and Los Angeles, and has a number of different rooms to choose from: The Fun House, The Hex Room, and the recently-opened Psych Ward. So, I figured, why not ask some experts on what they thought of the eponymous film and the culture of escape rooms?

PopHorror: First thing’s first: You guys own Cross Roads Escape Games. How long have you two been operating it? What’s your background, and what made you want to open an escape room?

Madison Rhoades: Well, this week is actually our 3 year anniversary! Lil’ C.R.E.G. is 3 years old.

PopHorror: Aw!

Madison Rhoades: We opened an escape room because we played one, back in 2014 when they first opened. There were only maybe five or so out at the time, and they were kind of… bad. (laughs) They didn’t really have any production value at all, they were just offices. So, we saw them with our [haunted house] background and our theater background, and we said, “This needs to be a production. This needs to be a show. We need to have special effects, sound effects, lighting effects, good scenery. That’s what this needs. You need to feel like you’re in a movie.”

Basically, we thought, “We like this, and we can do it better.” So we opened our own.

PopHorror: That’s so cool! You mentioned you have some theater background… what’re your guys’ specific backgrounds?

Madison Rhoades: I went to school for Fine Art and Theater, so I did set design and scenic painting. Those were my favorites.

Luke Rhoades: I went to Vanguard University and studied Theater. I focused on Technical Theater and Performance, and Scenic Construction.

PopHorror: Awesome! Now, I also know that you guys are both huge horror fans… Were there any specific inspirations or movies that you drew from when you were thinking of creating the different rooms?

Madison Rhoades: Well, The Hex Room is based on all the cliche ’80s horror films that we love… (laughs)

Luke RhoadesNightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th

Madison Rhoades: Obviously Saw. I mean, there’s a list. I think between ‘75 and ‘95 is where we draw our inspiration. Classic horror.

Like I said, we were playing all these escape rooms that were in an office, trying to figure out a murder… I dunno. They just weren’t very exciting. We thought, “We just need to feel like we’re in our own movie!” So, of course, we said, “Well, let’s make that a horror movie!”

And that’s how Hex Room came to be. You’re trying to survive a real life horror movie. You get cast as The Jock, The Rebel, and The Prom Queen… all these cliche horror movie characters. You get all these costume pieces, and you actually get to embody your character and try and make it out!

PopHorror: So, you guys have done a ton of escape rooms… how many would you say you’ve done up until now?

Madison Rhoades: We’ve done hundreds. Somewhere in the 200s. I’ll be honest, we lost count when we were somewhere in the 200s. (laughs)

PopHorror: And that’s not just in LA, right? That’s worldwide?

Madison Rhoades: Mostly Southern California. We’ve done a few in Arizona, Nevada… and Missouri. But I think those are our only out-of-state ones.

PopHorror: Wow!

Madison Rhoades: I mean, there’s hundreds of escape rooms now. When we opened Cross Roads, there were maybe fifteen. There’s hundreds out there now.

PopHorror: So, what would you guys say is something that led to the popularization and the mainstream-ness of escape rooms? Cause that’s a huge increase over three years.

Madison Rhoades: They’re fun. They’re addictive. We’ve played 200 because we like them. (laughs) There’s just something about being inside a real experience, you know? Everyone is so focused on their phones these days – doing screen work, computer work, video games – that we’re just kind of living through our screens. To then have this real life experience where you’re inside, for example, a haunted house setting, or a nuclear war zone setting… It’s different. You’re really there to experience it.

PopHorror: Right, and you’ve worked for haunted houses before, which I imagine must be sort of a similar experience, although I would think escape rooms are more interactive.

Madison Rhoades: Oh yeah. I mean, haunted houses are growing in their experiences, too… it used to be that you’d just be in a train, being scared on either side. But now I’ve heard that with Warner Brothers, they make their haunts a lot more interactive where they have actual scenes that play out. And then Delusion [a haunted house where Madison worked previously], I think, was the first to do that. It was a haunt, and a theater show.

So I think that’s where entertainment is headed, where these different categories start to draw from each other. Haunts start drawing from interactive theater. There’s some escape rooms that are half haunts, half escape rooms… Psych Ward itself, we say is a combination of escape room, board game, and interactive theater. So it’s morphing all these different forms of entertainment to make something new.

PopHorror: I’m excited to see where all of it leads! Now that it’s become a mainstream thing, I think people are starting to investigate it and take it apart and make new experiences for people.

Madison Rhoades: Yes, I hope that’s where it goes. I will say, of the 200 escape rooms… 195 of them have been the exact same thing with different props. But every once in a while, there’s a gem where people push the boundaries, and I think there’s going to be more of that. And that’s what we tried to do with Psych Ward, and I believe we were successful. The Hex Room is more of an escape room, whereas the Psych Ward is more of where we think entertainment is heading next.

PopHorror: Changing subjects, let’s get right into this movie here. You told me earlier there were a lot of other escape room movies, which I certainly didn’t know about.

Madison Rhoades: Yeah, they’re bad. Don’t watch them. (laughs)

PopHorror: I just thought it was interesting that this new one was actually called Escape Room, which – I haven’t seen any of the others – but I thought it was something that none of the others had really done?

Madison Rhoades: Well, this one had a big theatrical release, where all the other ones have been more like indie films. There’s one called Riddle Room and one called No Escape Room, which I think was from the SyFy channel… There’s actually two called Escape Room that both came out in 2017. One is complete trash, and the other I think is produced by Lionsgate so it has quite a bit of budget behind it. But this [Escape Room 2018] is the first one that has a wide release, which helps.

This one, of the other five, was actually the best.

PopHorror: Did you guys have a favorite room from it? Or was there anything in particular that made this one stand out more than the others?

Madison Rhoades: Hmm… well, the acting was the best. (laughs) It was different, for sure. I feel like all the escape room movies are like, “We’re here to play a game!” and then it’s *ominous voice* “No, it’s not a game!” Right? That’s just always going to be the story. So, it wasn’t really different in that aspect…

Some of the puzzles were really clever. I loved the room where the whole room was shrinking and that guy was going to get crushed… that looked fun. I’m sure it was fun to film, too. There’s actually a room in LA that does that, it’s called The Virus. In that one, one wall comes in on you. And there’s another one called The Basement. That’s the name of the company. The room is called The Elevator Shaft, and in that one, the ceiling comes down on top of you.

But, that’s the one thing we noticed when we were watching the movie. “Oh, we’ve done that!” “Oh, we were the first ones to do that!” So, I don’t know if it’s just that they’re just taking these common tropes, or if they did research and they’re actually trying to draw from other escape rooms.

PopHorror: There were definitely a couple of elements that reminded me of other escape rooms… one thing I remember was a room with pressure sensors, and I thought, “Oh, yeah. Someone must’ve done that already.”

Madison Rhoades: Oh, yeah. That’s a pretty common one. That was actually a good first one for them to go into, because that puzzle was the most logical. There were a couple where I was thinking, as a designer…

Luke Rhoades: … as a designer, I don’t think anyone would’ve gotten that! (laughs) They all would’ve died.

Madison Rhoades: Yeah. “I needed a couple more hints there.” (laughs)

PopHorror: Well, there was definitely the one with the block of ice, and I thought, “Why don’t they just throw it against a wall or something…?”

Luke Rhoades: Yes! Thank you! (laughs)

Madison Rhoades: They could’ve chiseled it! There were all those trees there… I don’t think body heat would really work. After a while your hands would just be the same temperature as the ice, wouldn’t it?

Luke Rhoades: And Games Master! Oh my God!

Madison Rhoades: Yeah, that was our #1 critique.

PopHorror: What was that?

Madison Rhoades: They kept calling it Games Master, when really it’s called Game Master. Games Master was just wrong.

Luke Rhoades: It kind of made it a possessive, like The Game’s Master. There’s only one game. So, there’s only one master. That bothered everyone in the audience, too. Everyone was like, “Games…?”

Madison Rhoades: Yeah, everyone was making fun of it on all the escape room forums. We just can’t get over it.

PopHorror: Well, really quick, I wanted to make sure to ask you guys before we finished our conversation here… What advice would you give to someone who’s going to go to an escape room for the first time? Any advice in going to an escape room, choosing an escape room, interacting with them?

Madison Rhoades: I would say to be aware of your surroundings, because you don’t know what a clue could be. Open every single drawer, shake every single book and try to see what’s inside… but at the same time, don’t overthink things. We have people who take books that are set dressing, and think that they have to read the entire book. You only have one hour. You are not going to have time to read this entire bookshelf worth of books.

So, you’re looking for an obvious clue, but you just don’t know form it’s going to come in. So don’t take minute details like lines from a book. Just make sure to investigate everything.

Luke Rhoades: I would also say, never max out a room. Like, as far as their capacity. If they say that they can handle eight people, don’t bring eight people. (laughs) Never ever max out a room. I’d say 5-7 people is the ideal escape room team. You have enough people to come up with ideas, but not so many people that it’s just chaos.

Madison Rhoades: Yes. And beware of games that say they’re good for 2-12 people. There’s no game out there that’s designed to give the same experience to two people as it would to twelve people.

Luke Rhoades: Also, note any age restrictions or suggestions. It’s kind of like a board game, where they’ll say, “This game is for 14 and up!” because they know that under 14, it’ll be too much for them. So that will have an impact on the experience.

PopHorror: On the flip side, what advice would you give to someone that is thinking about making their own escape room?

Madison Rhoades: Make something different! Do something new. Don’t give us the same office with different props that’s been done a thousand times. If you love escape rooms, figure out what you love about them, and then come up with an idea that revolves around what you love.

Also, very important, make sure you do all your research and planning first before you go and buy a property that you’re going to make into an escape room. Make sure you check with the city on their regulations and building codes in whatever city you’re going to be operating in. Opening any business is going to cost you a lot more money and a lot more time than you think it will, so be prepared.

PopHorror: Thank you, guys!

You can check out Cross Roads Escape Games and book a day for any of the games (including the brand new Psych Ward!) here.

Escape Room was released on January 4, 2019.

About Seth Hansen

Seth is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles. When not explaining to strangers why John Carpenter's The Thing is the greatest horror movie ever made (trust me, it is), he's usually playing violin or hanging out in record store clearance sections. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook!

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