Escape rooms have come a long way from their early internet browser game origins. It’s only been about a decade since the first IRL escape room was created in Japan and it wasn’t until 2012 that they reached the US. In the years since, they’ve spread across the country like wildfire, with ever-increasing puzzle difficulty and production value. In major metropolitan areas, they’re now as ubiquitous as Targets, and have transitioned from novelty to a staple of date nights and corporate team-building exercises. Firmly cementing their spot in the cultural landscape was January’s Escape Room, a horror film taking place inside an elaborate one filled with boobie traps.
As with any leisure activity, escape rooms have picked up their share of fanatics. These enthusiasts travel the globe to tackle the best rooms on offer, cataloguing and comparing notes on each new venture within their tight-knit online community. Completion times, number of hints used, and personal rankings of rooms on the unofficial five key system devised by escape room-ranking site, Escape Authority, are all up for discussion, but the only metric that really matters, of course, is how many you’ve completed.
Dallas software developer Jeff Carter grew up playing escape room Flash games and was elated to find out in 2016 that thousands of their real-life analogs were out there waiting to be experienced. “I remember as a kid thinking it would be so awesome if they were real,” says Carter. “Then my dream came true.”
In the less than three years from the time he learned of their existence, carter has played over 290 rooms, chronicling his journey in an Excel spreadsheet. His family jokes about his sudden fanaticism, but Carter defends his passion. “They call it an obsession, but I don’t like the way that sounds,” he says. “I tell them I’m an enthusiast. They know it makes me happy but they think it’s a bit excessive for me to do so many.”
Since catching the escape room bug in 2014 when a friend dragged her along to one, LA-based enthusiast Sheryl Bon has completed 115 rooms. She now works part-time as a manager for escape room franchise 60out to supplement her acting career. Like Carter, Bon keeps a meticulous spreadsheet of her trials that covers each room’s location, how many players were on her team, how many players the room allowed, whether or not she made it out, the time it took, and notes about what she did and didn’t like. She estimates that, when factoring in travel costs, she’s already spent $20,000 on the habit.
“It’s an expensive hobby,” she acknowledges, “but I don’t really mind.”
Bon’s newfound obsession has taken her across America and around the world. When we speak, she tells me she's just returned home from an escape room sojourn to the UK and France with her boyfriend, who she helped indoctrinate into the escape room lifestyle.
“Relationships are made and broken in escape rooms,” Bon explains. “Before [my boyfriend] even knew [of my fanaticism] I tested the waters with him by bringing him to one. Needless to say, he passed. Now I have him on my team.”
Bon’s far from the only one to rope others into the hobby. Orange County, California, enthusiast Jim Dangcil says his friends now regard him as an “escape room pimp.”
“I’m like a drug pusher,” jokes Dangcil. “It’s like ‘what? You’ve never done an escape room? Let’s go do one right now.’”
Instantly hooked at a company event less than a year ago, Dangcil has already completed 96 rooms, but he says his fervor pales in comparison to his girlfriend’s, who got addicted after he exposed her to his new hobby. He recalls a time when, after an exhausting full day spent at the Orange County Fair, she was jonesing to squeeze some rooms in along the drive home.
“She was like, ‘there are rooms available right now,’” says Dangcil “’We can fit in a few before heading back. If we hustle, we can get there in the next ten minutes.’”
Some enthusiasts, like Edwin Tactay in San Diego, fell so hard for these puzzles that it changed the course of their lives. After being introduced to the rooms with a three-in-a-row blitz, Tactay picked up a part time job as an escape room "game master"—the person who explains rules, offers hints, and monitors the progress of customers. He performed this role at a few locations before he was enlisted by another escape room company to help design a new room and its puzzles. He soon became an in-demand consultant for escape room builders across the SoCal region. Eventually, an investor approached him with the opportunity to open and design a room of his very own, so Tactay quit his day job as a creative director at an apparel website to work on escape rooms full-time.
"I’m not a great business person with all the taxes and forms and everything," Tactay tells me over the phone. "But I love puzzles and building the game, so that’s why I decided to go for it." Like Bon, he estimates he’s spent “at least $20,000” on the hobby, even with many other room owners comping him games.
If there’s a Mecca for escape room enthusiasts, it’s 13th Gate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The community reverentially compares the location’s production values to that of Disneyland, and Escape Authority was compelled to provisionally modify its five-key rating system with a 6th and then 7th key just to give its rooms—one spanning 3,300 square feet—their due praise.
Tactay tells me that he’s celebrating his 40th birthday by flying out there with some fellow enthusiasts to hit all five of their rooms in a day. Those room bookings alone cost him $700. Dangcil remarks that his girlfriend never had any interest in traveling to New Orleans, but after learning of 13th Gate, a mere 90-minute drive away, she planned the four-day birthday trip to the city with 11 escape rooms on the itinerary.
It's not all sweetheart getaways for this culture, however. Every so often, a bit of drama creeps into the online escape room community where these folks swap suggestions for new rooms to try and grouse about bad puzzles. The biggest taboo is for an owner to promote their own room without divulging their connection to it. But by and large, it’s an exceedingly positive place where these fiends can geek out together, and every enthusiast I spoke to seemed thrilled to not only have found a new passion, but a group of like-minded people that share it.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be into something so much as I am escape rooms,” Bon gushes. “Now everyone knows me as Escape Room Girl. The first thing [friends and family] ask me now when they see me is: ‘What number are you at?’”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.