The thing on the floor skittered toward me grotesquely, its walk half-crab, half-spider. I didn't think it could see; its milky white eyes were nearly the same shade as its sunless skin. But its hearing and sense of smell were clearly sharp as it cocked its head and sniffed the air, trying to locate its prey—me. I'd just solved a cryptogram from clues that had been scattered about the room, but so what? It had me cornered now, and the once-human creature grinned hideously as it slithered in my direction.
"Leg meat! Over here! Juicy, juicy leg meat!" yelled the Thin Man, my ally, hiking up a trouser leg as he tried to distract the drooling beast. Surprisingly, the ploy worked. The creature whipped its head around, growled, and crawled his way as I spun the combination lock, opened the drawer, and retrieved a precious key. But the hellion heard my progress and stopped. The room went still as the monster gracefully arced its left leg through the air and, gently but deliberately, closed the drawer with its foot.
"Just my luck," I thought. "A zombie who likes to play with its food." I'd seen immersive theater before. But Trapped in a Room with a Zombie at Raleigh Room Escapes had just taken it to another level.
Books and tales told by firelight were once our only options for spooky thrills. Theater, film, radio, and television followed, but they always kept their dark visions on the other side of technical or aesthetic divides. Haunted house attractions seemed to flirt with that border, but offered no real agency to those who went through them. But in recent years, first-person video games, virtual reality apps, and experiments in increasingly interactive theater forms, like Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, have all but removed those barricades.
Since 2015, an unlikely group on Brookside Drive in Raleigh has been quietly elevating room escape games, which are plentiful in the Triangle but usually emphasize play over art, into the realm of immersive theater, in original, thrilling encounters that run sixty to ninety minutes. Raleigh Room Escapes co-owner Rebekah Carmichael says that instead of conventional performances that look in on the stories of others, they wanted to let people create their own.
"We offer the skeleton, so to speak, and they flesh it out," she says. "Rather than watch someone they don't know have an experience, they experience it themselves."
When a family of theater veterans crafts a series of room escapes, the difference from the norm is evident. In Trapped in a Room with a Zombie, talented local actors plunge us into the world of their narrative, and we become its extremely active protagonists. Our preliminary briefing establishes ground rules and sets the stage, as Jill Cromwell—who also did the makeup design on our zombie, Sarah Moats—digs into the morbid humor of a ruthless, sexy Soviet scientist who has recruited us as guinea pigs to observe her chained, zombified former colleague's behavior in our presence.
Equally dramatic scenarios await in the group's other adventures. It's said that no plant life grows at the Devil's Tramping Ground, the famous Caswell County urban legend site. But in Escape the Tramping Ground, samples taken from its surroundings have turned a biology lab into a green, leafy hell. With the site under quarantine, a military attaché to the UN's World Health Organization gives us our orders: go in, learn the fate of the research biologists, find the research and soil samples that might check the demonic overgrowth, and then get out before they incinerate the place.
And in Stronghold, a sales tour of an intimate—and airtight—state-of-the-art security bunker goes sideways when its computerized interface malfunctions, leaving us locked inside with forty-five minutes of air to make necessary repairs.
While setting, lighting, props and sound design are all important parts of the experience, narrative is key for co-owner J. Robert Raines, building a story that organically sets the stakes and drives the action beyond merely solving puzzles for their own sake. Raines and Carmichael think such innovations are part of a necessary evolution, both for room escapes and the theater.
"This is where we believe theater should be heading if it's to stay alive," Carmichael says. "Remove the fourth wall and make each person a part of the story."
The numbers suggest no shortage of patrons who want that experience. Two and a half years after opening, Raleigh Room Escapes has more than doubled its weekly number of shows, and it triples them during holidays. To combat the one-and-done tendencies typical in the genre, the company will close for a month in January to create new shows and change and renovate existing ones.
"We'll have new characters, new puzzles, new set designs, and a new layout. We're gutting the entire warehouse," Raines says. He's particularly gleeful about the next iteration of Trapped in a Room with a Zombie. The creature won't be chained in it. I make an entry in my mental datebook for February 2018.
After all, someone's got to save the world.
Correction: This post originally misidentified Rebekah Carmichael as Rachel. And the experiences run from sixty to ninety minutes, not from forty-five minutes to an hour.