In an unassuming building off Sycamore Dairy Road lies the grisly lair of a serial killer. His next victims remove their blindfolds to find themselves locked inside the killer’s living room. Above the door, glowing red digits count down the minutes and seconds until his return with razor-sharp precision.
With nothing to do but await certain death, or make their escape, the seven captives use what threatens to be their last hour to search for the key that will release them.
A half hour later, a table in the room’s center is littered with notes, photos, news clippings and mundane items that may or may not be a clue in disguise. Every head is bent studying the cryptic collection when a captive suddenly breaks from the group to try a hunch on one of the many locked boxes scattered around the room. When it doesn’t open, the brunette girl standing over him lets out her breath and turns her eyes toward the ceiling. Whether she is scanning the vent for clues or praying for divine intervention, it’s not clear, but help from an unseen benefactor comes regardless.
Over the intercom, a voice turns their attention to a framed picture that, upon reflection, seems out of place in a serial killer’s lair.
“I knew it,” shouts the brunette. “I said, why is there a picture of a rainbow in a murder room? That’s a bit suspicious.”
With another box unlocked, the captives waste little time celebrating and focus on deciphering the fresh clues hidden inside.
As the countdown reaches its final minute, the music that’s been playing unobtrusively in the background gives way to the sound of a pounding ax on a wooden door. One member of the now frantic group counts out loud the dwindling seconds, while the others hover over their comrade tasked with unlocking the final box.
There is a wave of relieved laughter as it swings open to reveal the key that unlocks their prison door. As they make their escape with seconds to spare, they can just make out the murderer’s taunts calling after them.
Not everyone who enters the RIP room makes it out in time. Those who fail don’t face an ax-wielding murderer - just the eternal shame of seeing their loss posted on the Facebook page of Escape Room Fayetteville. But that hasn’t slowed the crowd pouring in to take on the challenge in the month since Escape Room opened.
The phenomenon of real-life room escape games has been sweeping the nation in recent years, starting where so many cool things do, on the West Coast.
That’s where Luke Chilton discovered it. The aspiring actor and singer was in L.A. when he first visited the Basement, one of the highest-rated escape rooms in the country.
“That was one of the best times of my life,” Chilton said.
He came home raving about the experience to his aunt, Gayla Joeckel, who travels with the 16-year-old as his on-set guardian.
At first Joeckel was hesitant to check it out for herself, but Chilton managed to talk her into it, and the two returned to North Carolina with a plan.
“This is so unique, so I really wanted to bring something like this to Fayetteville,” Chilton said.
Their idea became a family affair. Joeckel’s husband built the elaborate sets, which were furnished by Chilton’s mother. His father mans the backstage control room. Joeckel and Chilton, “we’re more on the creative end,” Joeckel said.
Since Escape Room Fayetteville opened last month, business has been booming.
“We’ve had double what we were expecting when we first opened,” said Joeckel.
In addition to the RIP room, Escape Room offers a pirate treasure hunt adventure and a bank heist experience that casts the players as the criminals.
“We thought it would be fun to mix things up and let people play the bad guy,” Chilton said.
From the backstage control room, staff keep watch over the players with live video and audio surveillance of each experience, and bestow the occasional hint when a group gets stuck.
The hour-long experience makes a great team-building exercise, and Joeckel said many local businesses have used it for just that, including Bubba’s 33 restaurant and Fayetteville Technical Community College.
But most groups are made up of couples and small groups of friends who quickly bond once the door is locked and the clock is ticking.
“It’s perfect for a date night,” Joeckel said. “Instead of going to the movies, you can come here and actually use your brain and work together.”
In a few months, the rooms will begin to rotate out, bringing in new experiences for fans who have already beat the existing rooms.
Joeckel’s vote is for a “Hangover” room inspired by the film in which players wake up in a hotel room with no memory of how they got there.
Eventually, Chilton said he wants to incorporate a live element, using actors in the room to add to the experience, like he saw in L.A. - “like a clown or something like (the movies) ‘Saw’ or ‘Krampus.’”
As of now, the existing rooms are plenty challenging for Fayetteville players. Only
about 25 percent escape in time, Joeckel said.
“But even when they don’t escape, they come out excited.”