Cracking the Code: Interview with Escape Room Creator

Senior Lucy Houlihan has served as Artistic Director of Colorado College’s Theatre Workshop and a technician for many on-campus productions. She most recently designed an escape room for the Wellness Center—a hobby that she hopes to turn into a business after graduation.

Jordan Berman: So, what are these so-called escape rooms?

Lucy Houlihan: The escape rooms in question are basically puzzle rooms, so they’re called escape rooms because usually it’s a room where you go into it and you try to escape. There’s a series of puzzles, and there’s obviously codes; oftentimes there’s a second room, where you end up opening one door and then there’s more.

JB: Where do these puzzles come from?

LH: In my case, it’s a lot of building them myself … the ideas come from a lot of different places, and Robert Mahaffie [‘15] is usually the one who plans them with me. It’s usually a matter of him and I sitting down for three or four hours and mapping out, like “This would be a cool clue,” “This would be a fun puzzle,” [or] “How can we fit this into the story of it?”

JB: What’s the story behind the most recent escape room you did?

LH: The most recent escape room I did was with the Wellness [Resource] Center, and they hired me to come in and provide alternative activity for eighth block. I built the room as both that fun Friday/Saturday night alternative, and also something that can educate the people who are going through it in wellness, so the theme of this last one was the neuroscience professors at CC developing technology to put people into someone’s subconscious. As a group you are going into the brain of the graduating senior, and you’re teaching her a bit of self-care, so all of the clues were based on how you keep yourself stress-free as a college senior.

JB: How did you get started building escape rooms?

LH: I wish it was a more interesting story, but Robert Mahaffie walked up to me at the beginning of last year—we were already friends—and he said, ‘Hey wanna build an escape room with me?’ and I was nuts enough to say yes. I’d never done an escape room before.

JB: Which escape room was your favorite?

LH: I think my favorite one, as much as it was a pain in the a–, was the second one we did, “The Johnson’s Living Room.” It was very much “The Americans” mixed with “The Sandlot.” That’s kind of how I describe it to people. You go in with the objective to find your baseball because you hit it through the window of your neighbor’s house, and by the end you find out they’re Russian spies, and you have to stop the nuclear apocalypse. That was definitely the most complicated, set-decoration-wise, which I think is why I liked it so much, even though it had the most problems as far as people being able to break it.

With the very first group … we wanted to impress them because one of the guys was a professional escape room builder. But a CC student walked in with this group and went under one of the tables and found some of our wires, which we happened to not have covered, and she thought, “Oh, we probably have to hotwire it.” She put two of the wires together and accidentally blew through our entire circuit. They broke the room so much we had to cancel the next four groups after them because we had to rebuild the circuits. But yeah, if I was building an actual escape room, I would not have wanted it to be that one because it was so easily broken.

JB: What do you mean when you say “actual” escape room?

LH: I mean actual escape room as in building this to be permanent. But there’s something really cool about building an escape room that’s very temporary because usually that’s not how it is. It’s this mix of theater and escape rooms that Robert and I ended up doing. The intro you’re usually given is from a character, and we wanted acting to be a part of it because it was kind of a play in this way that the audience gets to be involved in it. That’s something that “real” escape rooms don’t usually have—that temporariness—which I think has made it so we can do really cool things because it only has to work for three days.

JB: So what are you planning for the future, escape-room-wise or in general?

LH: Well, I’m walking in two weeks, which is crazy. But beginning in June, I’m moving out to Los Angeles, and Robert’s out there already. We’ve built five escape rooms, but between me and Robert, we have enough to build three more escape rooms. Physical objects, like locks and boxes and magnets, and all these things that you end up having to buy. And we have all these ideas, like we want to build an RV escape room so that we can drive it up to parking lots.

JB: Like a food truck?

LH: Yeah, like a food truck, but we’ll drive it up to businesses and have employees go through it. We’ve also talked about the psychology of escape rooms, and being able to sell it as team building. We’ll watch your employees go through it and say, “Okay, this guy is really good at this kind of puzzle; he should be doing this kind of job,” or “This woman has this crazy way of thinking and this amazing leadership ability.” We have all these ideas of how to take escape rooms and make them usable for businesses. Even birthday parties—we could drive an RV up to a birthday party.

JB: Get the preteens off their phones.

LH: Yeah, get them in a place where they have to do puzzles. That’s pretty far off … but it’s something we’re definitely going to continue.

Thank you, Lucy! Good luck in Los Angeles!

Jordan Berman

Jordan Berman

Jordan Berman is a Class of 2018 creative writing major and computer science minor who writes movie reviews so you don't have to. He is interested in good movies and making fun of people who list 'long walks on the beach' as an interest. He exists only so long as you believe in him, so keep him in your thoughts three times a day. Or don't.

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