Just How Scary are Horror Escape Room Games

2021.01.04.

These days you can see so many escape room games advertised as scary. But, within that word there lies a huge number of possibilities and, let's be frank, most of them wouldn't scare Tiddles the kitten. Of course, some people jump a mile at a jump-scare in a Disney movie. Others of us can make it through splatter horror without blinking an eyelid. So, you have to wonder, if, in an artificial environment, these escape room games can terrify your average person. In the UK, there's presently just one escape room game that has an 18 age limit. 

It's Just a Game

As you probably already know, escape room games are the latest fashion in entertainment. They revolve around the idea of an actual adventure played out in real-time. The normal ingredients will see you and your friends locked in a room. The game aims to solve a series of riddles and puzzles, finding clues that will unlock doors allowing you to escape within the allotted time limit. Each room will have it's own back story, which could be anything from finding a nuclear weapon to stopping a zombie apocalypse. In this escape room age, the title of the room was "The Butcher"! This scenario saw us being pursued by a maniac with an ax, lots of fake blood, and clanking chains. The thing was, that we happily paid the entrance, knowing that it was all an act put on for our entertainment. It wasn't real. So there was nothing to be scared of, right? Wrong. Very wrong indeed!

The Safe Word is for Losers

The website for the game had great reviews, and all of them mentioned that it was scary. To the point that some players ended up calling out the "safe word" to bring their part in the game to an end. Of course, this did have some effect on us. Chatting about the game in the car with the three friends who were to be playing with me, by the time we arrived, we were perhaps a tad anxious. But we all knew it wasn't real. I mean, you can't be afraid of something that just fantasy? Can you?

Starting to Feel the Fear

One of the members of our team was a woman neuroscientist and she was interested to see our responses to trying to solve puzzles and riddles under stress. Of curse, no matter how nervous we all were, we were also macho enough to want to hide it. I mean, who's going to let on that they are afraid of some actors in a darkened room? Not me! All in all, though we all admitted afterward that we were pretty anxious, everyone hid it well at the start of the game. It was only as the gameplay progressed and we began to realize what we'd let ourselves in for, did the panic start to set in.

Hello Terror!

From a psychological angle, it was going to be interesting to see how every one of us coped with both the added stress, but also the added fear. What's interesting is how much we were trying to hide our emotions, but sometimes, they would just jump out in times of great stress. When you can hear the butcher coming, it's as real as it gets. Believe me when I say, that you panic. You're sweating and agitated. Research shows that being under stress will have a negative effect on clear decision making. And increased stress will cause increased risk-taking. We found both of these results to be true, as at one point we were scrabbling around in a mad and blind rush as we could hear the butcher approaching. Of course, fear will affect your decision-making processes. When in a state of fear we tend to overestimate the negative outcome that a particular decision will have upon us. Anyway, we were expecting to be able to see in some sort of quantifiable means, whether decision making and solving puzzles and riddles were going to be difficult in the butcher's lair.

Illogical Fears

I should point out that as a group we have done many escape room games. To the point that we have a pretty good idea of what puzzles will lead to what clues. After doing a number of these games, certain similarities start to appear. As a result, we were confident that it would just be another great escape room experience, but with a bit of acting thrown in to spice up the mix. But nothing could have prepared us for what we experienced. 

It's all in Your Head

So, going into the room, after being told the gruesome back story was interesting in that, it was this back story that worked wonders on our collective imagination. Somehow, the game master was able to plant a seed in our brains, leading us to believe that this was a very real-life scenario. Probably entering this escape room without any context would be relatively normal, after all, it's just a darkened room with some morbid decoration. But being there after hearing the back story, with creepy sounds and the idea of a terrifying butcher, was enough to feed our imaginations to the point that, in truth, we were all pretty terrified from the moment the door closed behind us. 

That Feeling of Dread

We have all done escape rooms together before. But this was the first adult-themed horror game. So for all of us, it would be the perfect opportunity to see how we all worked together under some stress. We thought it would be more or less the same as any other escape room game, in that the "stress" would become more acute the closer we found ourselves to the end of our allotted time. But that wasn't the case at all! As soon as the door closed to start the game, we all freaked out and the idea of being able to find and solve clues logically and calmly flew out the window. That we might be able to think about both the neurophysiological and cognitive processes taking place in our minds was ridiculous, as all we could think about was our survival. We all became obsessed with getting out alive. And there was truly a palpable feeling of dread which instantly escalated to that of sheer terror, whenever we heard the sounds of clanking chains outside the door. It was truly a life and death situation. What's crazy is that we all knew that it was all an act, nobody was coming to chop us up. And yet, the feeling of overpowering fear was real in itself, we were really scared. 

So Afraid

How scared is scared? Well, at one point later in the game one of us became separated from the rest of the group. Being on his own, with the butcher making his way towards him, he became so afraid that he called out the "safe word" to bring his game to a complete stop. Discussing his ordeal in the car on the way home, he said that it was almost weird how the back story fooled his imagination and convinced him that mortal danger was just around the corner. Logically, you're playing a game, no one is coming to do you any harm. But once there, the primitive part of the brain took over and the fear was absolutely real. 

Group Fear

For our group, we all felt the same way. It made zero sense to be afraid. You have all paid to play a game. You know that this butcher character is just an actor. You know that no one is going to touch you in any way, shape, or form. But all of this information flew out of our heads the moment the door closed behind us. You might think that being in a group would act to reduce fear. But it was as if the fear was feeding off us all, and thereby growing larger until we were all swamped. At the end of the game, as we scrabbled around for the very last clue, we could hear the butcher coming down the corridor beside our room, with his heavy breathing and chains dragging on the concrete. I've indeed lived a pretty sheltered life with little exposure to any real drama or dangerous situations. But I can honestly say that I was the most frightened I've ever been and ever hope to be. As the butcher entered the room, I threw myself behind a cupboard in the corner, shaking with fear. My hands were covering my face. I might have cried! Never before have I felt such a relief as for when we finally escaped. 

It Really Works

To sum up, we have to admit that the escape room game, "The Butcher" far exceeded our expectations. In truth, the whole game was spectacular in that they created such an immersive experience, that you and your senses were certain it was all real. The back story coupled with the atmosphere created an unforgettable game. Would I go again? That's a good question. Though I survived playing the game once, I'm not certain that I still would find it terrifying. On second thoughts, I think for reasons to do with my sanity, I would give it a miss. And that, believe it or not, is a great recommendation.
 

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