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A Puzzling Phenomenon: Worldwide Escape Room Craze Comes To Deep Ellum

Lauren Aguirre
A Room With A Clue is located on Main Street in Dallas' Deep Ellum.

Some gamers are taking puzzles to a new level -- by allowing themselves to be locked in a room until they figure out how to escape. 

The escape room craze, a worldwide phenomenon, has come to North Texas.

Eight adults are gathered around a box, struggling with a stubborn combination lock. When they get the box open, they’ll get another clue. There are only 15 minutes left on the clock - and several other puzzles to solve inside this theater-themed escape room.

These puzzle fans have each paid $30 to be here. And although they’re not actually locked in the room, the idea of being trapped adds to the challenge.

Tyler Lucas - an employee at A Room With A Clue - explains the rules: "The goal is to find that final key to this box. Once you open it, just hold down that button until ... that comes on. Beeps twice and you win."

No Zombies

Room With A Clue is new to Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood, opening just before Halloween. Business is booming and its three escape rooms – the theater, the garret, and the ship – are booked solid almost every weekend.

Co-owner Patrick  Emile says he didn’t expect it to take off this quickly. 

"So we opened up with just two rooms in mid-October and we were overwhelmingly busy. We had no idea that it was going to be like that day one," he said. "Then, all of a sudden the phone starts ringing off the hook and people are just booking like mad."

M'Fon Planter was one of those eight people trying to figure out the lock. She likes solving puzzles and says teamwork is a big part of the escape room experience.

"I thought it was awesome. I thought it was fun and challenging," she said. "I like how our whole group kinda split up to like handle all the little different tiny tasks and then came together and opened the boxes."

Her thoughts on being "locked" in a room?

"I didn't really know what to expect," she said. "I'm really glad there weren't any zombie people or any of the horror stuff in there to like terrify you while you're trying to solve the puzzle."

Why Do We Like Puzzles?

Jeff Herrington is a mystery writer. He's also a cruciverbalist - that's a fancy way of saying he makes crossword puzzles. Some of his creations have been picked up by The New York Times.

Herrington says escape rooms appeal to those who are experiential learners.

"You actually have to experience and act out the puzzle and solve it," he said. "It’s a combination. You’re still being cerebral but you’re also experiencing the puzzle from a physical standpoint."

He also says solving puzzles can be a way of coping wit bigger, seemingly insurmountable problems.

"If I can't deal with ISIS right now, or if I can't deal with the presidential election and the craziness of all that, I can solve something even if I can't solve the world's problems," he said.

Brendan Kallaugher, A Room With A Clue's other co-owner, says people have a need to stretch their brains.

"People like to apply their mind," he said. "There's a lot of thing we do that are kind of just mindless, and this is a way to kind of engage your intellect and to think and still have fun doing it."

And, after an hour of work, for gamers like Planter, there is joy in finally completing the puzzle.

"I don't know," she said. "I just like puzzles."

Update, Dec. 8: After this story aired on KERA 90.1 FM and was posted online, KERA has learned that A Room With A Clue and another escape room have been shut down by the city of Dallas. The city says there’s a problem with the certificate of occupancy for both groups.

The other business, called Escape Expert, says on its website that it’s applying for a new certificate of occupancy.

City officials didn’t return KERA’s calls.

Both businesses say they are working to fix the matter and hope to re-open soon.