How Failing An Escape Room Made Me Realize The Value Of Leadership

I sat down at a special table with a ‘Reserved’ sign in the center, surrounded by three people I’d never met. In front of each of us sat a legal document, waiting for our signatures — which were required if we intended to go any further.

If it sounds like the setup of a pretty great horror movie, it’s not far from the truth. The waiver in front of us was required to enter The Satanic Panic Room, a team-based escape room challenge, and one of the most talked-about installments of this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. The three strangers were people I’d met on Twitter the week prior. They were a team of three looking for a fourth, so as a solo participant looking for a team to join, it was the perfect match.

To give a little bit of background here, the Satanic Panic refers to a brief period in the 1980s where people across America were suddenly terrified of devil worshippers, and looked for signs of it everywhere — in TV and movies, in role-playing games, and even in the backwards grooves of heavy metal records. Today, it’s regarded as little more than an ill-informed moral panic with roots that traced back to everything from bloodletting myths of medieval Europe to the red scare of the 1950s McCarthy era.

Years later, that bizarre time in U.S. history would serve as the inspiration for this four-person escape room, designed to encourage teamwork and cooperation in order to solve a series of puzzles and escape in under 45 minutes. Those who succeeded, according to the lore, we were chosen to be disciples of the dark lord. Those who failed would be sacrificed at the altar.

So, there I was, sitting with these three strangers that I’d known for all of a few minutes. The lobby was empty and eerily silent, void of all the hectic activity that marked Fantastic Fest’s eight-day run. After signing our waivers, the four of us sat around passing the time discussing some of our favorites movies from the week prior. We’d all heard about the escape room, and traded second hand stories , all of which seemed to emphasize that communication and teamwork were both vital to getting out under the time limit.

Now, as someone who’s no stranger to anxiety, this situation seemed to have a lot of triggers for me. The spooky-quiet room, relying on people I’d met online, the fact that I had just signed off on a legal document that I didn’t take the time to read clearly, and the fear of what would come next.

Eventually, our host came out, clad in a black t-shirt and (perhaps unintentionally) sporting the look of an 80s horror movie extra. He calmly told us to follow him up a flight of stairs. It was then, walking up the staircase single-file that a just-behind-the-sternum feeling of panic started to take hold. Sure, these situations are simulations, but the fact that they feel so real is what makes them popular.

At the top of the stairs, we were led into a small waiting room at the end of the hall, with four chairs, each with a hooded shroud draped over it. Next, we were told to pick our seat based on the word stitched onto the back of the cloaks, the choices being Death, Hell, Glory, and Judgment. Once we were seated, the host displayed a remarkable ability to make everyone (even me) feel completely at ease with everything that was going on. Even his explanation that losing the game meant not just our sacrifice, but that Satan would be drinking our blood, was followed by the strangely comforting quip that “Really, you’ll be helping him out either way.”

Clad in our hooded shrouds, we gathered out in the hallway, where we got one last tutorial on different types of padlocks and how to use them, while our host explained that this would be a major part of the escape room. He also told us that, if we needed a hint, we had to shout — in unison — “Satan, I am weak.” Or, if it seemed like we were taking too long, we’d hear a demon’s snarl, and be given a hint whether we asked for one or not.

“Satan is always watching,” he reminded us.

Then, as requested, we pulled the hoods over our eyes while being taken inside the escape room one by one. The room remained dimly lit until everyone was in place. We pulled our hoods off as the lights came on, revealing a room that was just intimidating enough to look like a set from the Saw franchise, but campy enough to remind you that it was all a game. Along with the pentagrams and upside-down crosses, a giant TV mounted on one wall started the 45 minute countdown in bright red, appropriately Satanic font.

Earlier in the week, I’d talked to someone who’d already done the escape room, which proved helpful for a couple of reasons. First, he was alive, even though his team failed, so there was some reassurance that death wasn’t actually on the table here. Second, he explained that, while communication was important, making sure that we had a definitive leader would also be crucial to winning. In retrospect, I should’ve taken his advice more seriously, but to be fair, he’d also referred to Asa Butterfield as our new Spider-Man, so I couldn’t help but doubt him a little.

At the beginning of the challenge, everyone was shackled up in different corners of the room, with the first part of the puzzle being to free ourselves and our teammates. I was alone in one corner, both my ankles were chained to the wall behind me, and my left arm was chained to the ceiling. One teammate had her ankle chained to a table in the center of the room, another was chained around the waist, while the fourth member of our squad was locked in an actual cage in the corner opposite mine.

The point that the host wanted to make clear before entering the room was that the clues would be readily available and easy to spot, and he wasn’t kidding. Tarot cards, cryptic notes, and bits of instruction seemed to be just about everywhere. Some of them, I managed to grab with my one free arm, some I’d spotted from my vantage point while (still) chained in the corner.

Using the clues readily available to us, we pretty quickly started to splinter off into our individual side quests. We’d interpret our own meanings from each of the clues, read too much into something, and start shouting out our various ideas about what to do next. Before long, we were communicating… right over top of one another.

Realizing this was a real problem, and noticing that we’d burned through quite a bit of our time, I tried to take on a kind of “reluctant leader” position — the gruff but lovable stranger who somehow got roped into things. However, I either wasn’t being assertive enough, or I was hindered by the fact that my wrist was and ankles were still chained to the wall and ceiling. Meaning, I wasn’t exactly exuding authority or anything.

With our communication problem derailing us very early on, our team’s other major shortfall came from what our host later referred to as “conspiracy brain.” Earlier, when explaining that all the clues would be apparent, he pointed out that degree in mathematics or any sort of knowledge about pagan history wouldn’t be coming in handy.

We were doing all right in the beginning, despite ourselves. One by one, all of my teammates became unchained, or uncaged while I remained shackled in the corner.

Without giving too much away, it was imperative that all four of us were free before we’d be able to movie forward. As some of the larger clues started to become more apparent, my teammates and I had gotten ahead of themselves, and the screen gave us an unsolicited hint (accompanied by a demon’s snarl, as promised). “All Must Be Unbound!” read the screen in an appropriately satanic font, referring directly to me and the fact I was still chained to the wall (and, technically, the ceiling). Suddenly, with all four of us focused on one smaller goal, my feet became unchained within a few seconds, though that wouldn’t be the defining moment where we all realized we’d finally come together.

At this point, I realized that to finally unchain my left arm, I had to weigh various objects on a scale, then use the image on a poster hanging just above it to figure out what to do with those numbers. The trick, however, was that some of the weight was in ounces, and some in pounds. As I continued to weigh the objects, I kept reminding myself (out loud) that there were 16 ounces in a pound, all while doing fractions in my head.

This is when my conspiracy brain really set in. The scale prominently displayed the weight pounds, but, it turns out, it also displayed ounces, just in much smaller type. It wasn’t hidden or anything. It didn’t require any kind of mathematical conversion. I just wasn’t paying close enough attention, and it took being given another hint from the dark lord (accompanied by another demon’s snarl), before I saw just how much I’d been overcomplicating things.

Finally, my chains fell lose. On the upside, we’d completed the first major part of the game. The downside was that we’d been dragging our feet so much that we’d burned through a full 30 minutes of our time. Once I unlocked the last cuff from my left wrist, the dull, incandescent glow of the room flickered, and we were suddenly flooded by black lights, which revealed what seemed like an endless number of potential clues scrawled all over the walls and ceiling. It was the kind of overwhelming plot twist we weren’t expecting.

That feeling that we weren’t going to make it out in time seemed to wash over us all at once. The clock read 15 minutes. Then, despite everything that had occurred in that first half-hour, we somehow managed to come together. Since our time had started, we’d been gathering all the clues on a table in the center of the room, and suddenly everything started to click into place. Every stray tarot card, scrap of paper, and trinket that we’d uncovered was on that table. Taking every one of those clues into account, it seemed like all at once we were flying through these remaining puzzles with such speed and confidence that we were certain we’d come out victorious, regardless of what little time we had left.

Given that this escape room was part of a genre film festival, our final seconds were appropriately cinematic. Having briefly relished in our collective eureka moment, we’d seemed to have cracked the code, and we knew which keys would fit which locks, and the pattern of the larger, final puzzle became evident all at once. Despite our early setbacks, it really seemed like we’d pull through with only seconds to spare. Triumph and glory would be ours. Roll credits.

Of course, this was the real world, not a movie, so none of that ended up happening. We’d opened the final drawer, which revealed the last clue right as the clock counted down to zero. The blacklight shut off, and the regular overhead light came on, the sound of the tortured souls of hell mocked us from the speakers.

It was official, our group of four had officially failed the Satanic Panic Escape Room. (In retrospect, this was still very cinematic, we were just the characters in the opening reel, not the final one.)

With the crushing disappointment still fresh, our host entered the room, enthusiastically congratulating us for getting as far as we did, all in the same disarming style that put us all at ease at the beginning. Sure, he pointed out what we’d done wrong, namely that we’d gotten too hung up in the early part of the game and kept getting ahead of ourselves, but he did seem genuinely impressed that we managed to come together like we did, even if we hadn’t done so in quite enough to actually solve the room — despite our individual cases of conspiracy brain.

Regardless, after we took our requisite group photo behind the Satanic Panic backdrop, we turned in our hooded cloaks and gathered up our cell phones. The four of us were still buzzing with adrenaline and we all agreed that we had a pretty good time failing the escape room together. Of course, the real life-lesson we took from all this was that while communication is important, without a leader, that communication could prove to be terribly ineffective.

And, like most life lessons, there’s a quote from The Sopranos to help illustrate this crucial point. In this case, when the mafia captains have a meeting and the idea of running the mob with a council was suggested, Jimmy Altieri (Michael Badalucco) eloquently states that “We need a supreme commander at the top, not the f*ckin’ Dave Clarke Five.”

No truer words, Jimmy Altieri, no truer words.

Also, and this might only be specific to my situation, but should you take part in an escape room yourself, maybe don’t be so quick to discount the advice you might encounter by someone who’s done it before just because they mixed up Asa Butterfield’s name for Tom Holland. Had I done that, I could be writing about how me and three complete strangers I met on Twitter had bested an escape room, and become disciples of the dark lord.

Would we have been clad in “I beat the devil and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” t-shirts? We’ll never know.