It was December 26th in Gastonia, North Carolina, and we were bored. This wasn’t your usual post-Christmas boredom, though. That day we buried my grandmother, who had died a few days before after spending nearly a month in the hospital. My sister Crystal and I, and most of the rest of my family, had taken time off work to be with my grandmother and support each other. My partner Steve had arrived a week before. So by December 26th, we had watched as much TV as we could, been to the hospital as much as we could stand, unwrapped presents, and tried to keep ourselves entertained. We had mourned, for weeks, and we knew we were going to mourn for much longer. But we needed something else to do.
My sister found a website for a place called an escape room. “What is it?” we asked. “They lock you in a room for an hour and you try to get out,” she answered. We shrugged and agreed to go. Our mother, famously claustrophobic, could not be persuaded to join us. The only booking open the next day was at 10am for a “Murder Mystery.”
The next morning, we drove to an industrial area of Charlotte and pulled up to what looked like a warehouse. Inside was a tiny lobby and a waiting room with a foosball table and some wooden puzzles. Steve and I had seen some of the puzzles in a toy shop in San Francisco, but even then we couldn’t remember how to put them together. A few minutes before our timeslot, a group of other adults and a couple of teens arrived. The employee directed us to put our keys and phones in little lockers and told us to introduce ourselves to each other. We were a team.
A few minutes later, they ushered us into a mock hotel room and closed the door behind us. Audio of a phone call played from a speaker over head. We needed to figure out who was killed, where, when, and why. The game was on.
For the next hour, we dashed around the room, pouring over tickets and an address book, trying to guess numbers on locks, unscrewing pipes and (fake) electrical outlets, puzzling over a (fake) severed thumb, and trying to read significance into four old books torn in half. I somehow became the captain in charge of calling the “front desk” via an old phone to ask for clues. Time ticked away. With minutes left, I finally used the address book to open the very first lock I’d found. Inside was a set of dials that gave us the combination to open our final box, which had a letter from our murder victim’s wife.
My teammates handed the phone to me. I dialed the front desk and gave our answers: who, where, when, and why. “That’s right!” the lady responded. We had won.
Our experience was most of our conversation for the next few days. We teased our mother, who loves murder mysteries, about what she had missed. We talked about how the puzzles worked, how our team worked together, how we overcame a language barrier and the oddness of playing with strangers, the design of the rooms, that one magically opening dresser, and most of all, how much fun it was. By the time Steve and I returned to Santa Cruz, we were already planning to play every escape room in the Bay Area, and we wanted to open one of our own. We’d always been board game and roleplaying nerds, but an escape room was a new way to actually enter a new world. Steve had always wanted to run a small business. We had the creativity to make awesome games. And I knew how much fun it’d be to work with my students at nearby UC Santa Cruz.
That’s how EXIT Santa Cruz was born. We still miss “Granny”, Martha Ree Byrd, every day, but she loved to laugh, and have fun, and at EXIT Santa Cruz we are going to dedicate every minute of fun to her.