Escape Rooms and Bottle Episodes: A Condensed, Horrific History

When they appear in sitcoms, escape rooms are played for laughs and sentimentality, true to their common real-life role as a fun diversion and a team-bonding activity. On the other hand, horror media has a lot to say about the sinister side of being trapped in a room and dependent on only your wits to free you; a whole bevy of twenty-first-century films depict escape rooms from Hell. Consider the horrific potential of pairing claustrophobia with psychologically intricate tasks, and it makes sense that the recent rise of escape rooms as a pastime would be accompanied by a rise in twisting that pastime for terrifying purposes.

Escape room horror is not, however, a new concept, despite the modern appellation. Before No Escape Room (2016), Riddle Room (2016), Escape Room (2018), Escape Room (2019), Escape Room 2: Tournament of Champions (2020), and even before Fermat’s Room—which came out in 2007, the same year as the first documented real-life escape room—there was the 1997 movie Cube. In Cube, six strangers are trapped within a harrowingly booby-trapped setup of cubic rooms, and must rely on math and logic to escape death.

“It’s like something out of that twilighty show about that zone,” Homer said before entering his three-dimensional predicament in this Halloween episode of The Simpsons.

I am not here to recommend that you watch Cube, not unless you’re a fan of creative, vivid gore. Still, it is remarkable as a precursor to escape room horror directly inspired by actual escape rooms. Back in 1994 when director and writer Vincenzo Natali first completed the script, the closest relative to Natali’s vision was the Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”

“Five Characters” originally aired in December 1961, sandwiched between episodes about time travel and World-War-II-era body-swapping. Compared to those premises, the episode’s set up is simple. Frustratingly so; the lack of bells and whistles is the source of the horror. The characters who wake up trapped together don’t even have names: they are simply, according to narrator Rod Serling, “Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, and an army major—a collection of question marks.”

These question marks play out the episode in essentially a featureless void. There are no brainteasers or riddles to unravel, no booby traps to dodge or calculations to perform. Rather, the puzzles are both larger and more bare-bones, existential: who are they, where are they, and is it possible to be somewhere else? Is it worth it to be somewhere else?

We might also call this story an example of bottle episode horror. In a 2014 interview, New Girl showrunner Elizabeth Meriweather said about the bottle episode, “Background Check,” “For a bottle episode, the stakes have to be very, very high, or else you’re feeling the claustrophobia of not leaving the loft.” This is a good rule of thumb for a sitcom, but what about a horror show, wherein you want to feel the claustrophobia? I’d argue that high stakes are just as necessary for bringing the claustrophobia home as for obscuring its presence; the line between effective comedy and effective horror, here, is thin.

The Community episode “Cooperative Calligraphy” makes no effort to obscure the claustrophobia of the situation; rules were made to be broken.

Does “Five Characters” offer the emotional depth and palpable claustrophobia necessary to bring out the horror of the situation? A review posted on The Twilight Zone Project seems divided on the issue, speaking to the episode’s building suspense but also calling the characters “cartoonish” and the twist “cheap.” “Five Characters,” you see, concludes with the reveal that the clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper and army major aren’t just playing a game of escape; they themselves are playthings, dolls in a charity toy drive bucket.

I have seen this episode several times, and still don’t know what exactly to make of this twist. What meaning can be gleaned from it, what metaphor? Uncertain what exactly the cast’s toy status tells us about humanity or anything else that lofty, I’d rather think of the episode as an historical artifact, and situate the concept of the players as the playthings in the context of the escape room and/or bottle episode horror television that has followed in its wake. Stay tuned for next week, when I examine a clear, modern descendant of “Five Characters in Search of An Exit.” (No, it’s not Cube.) Let the suspense build . . .


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