The Best Puzzle Solvers in Horror Movies

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[Image courtesy of Hayden Scott.]

Seven Halloweens have come and gone since I started writing for PuzzleNation Blog, and with an eighth one only a few days away, I’m writing a post about horror movies for the very first time.

Why did I wait so long, given the appropriate seasonal subject and the fact that I’m a huge horror movie buff?

Honestly, it’s mostly a matter of tone.

Horror movies by their very nature confront some fairly dark subjects. Fears, uncomfortable situations, horrific monsters, terrible villains, and no small amount of violence are part and parcel of the genre. And although I have discussed movies or TV shows with death in the past, it’s usually in the context of solving a crime in a puzzly fashion, a la Bones, NCIS: New Orleans, or the Crossword Mysteries.

I always strive to make the general tone of the blog as positive as possible, and for the most part, I don’t feel like horror movies are a good fit, no matter how puzzly some of them are (like Cube, Escape Room, and others).

So, what’s changed?

Well, I think I found a fun way to discuss the subject without dwelling on some of the less pleasant aspects of the genre.

Today, we’re celebrating the best puzzle solvers in horror cinema. These are the characters you want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable. After all, most horror movies are populated with idiots who are destined to perish before the film’s conclusion.

So instead, these are the characters who break the mold.


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Nancy Thompson, A Nightmare on Elm Street

[Image courtesy of Horror Film Wiki.]

When you’re confronted with a monster who hunts people through their dreams, you have to be pretty clever to survive. After all, you have to sleep at some point. When it comes to the Elm Street franchise, they don’t come more clever than young Nancy Thompson.

Nancy discovers she has the ability to pull things from the dreamworld into the real world, and plans to use this ability to stop Freddy Krueger once and for all. She not only sets an alarm to ensure she wakes up before falling victim to Freddy in the dreamworld, but sets numerous booby traps in her house to ensnare and hurt Freddy.

Nancy is a top-notch puzzler for not only figuring out how to use her incredible ability to her advantage, but devising a plan (and a backup plan!) to save herself.

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Kirsty Cotton, Hellraiser

[Image courtesy of Wicked Horror.]

The Lament Configuration is a Rubik’s Cube-like puzzle box that opens a portal to another dimension, where monstrous beings called Cenobites promise untold delights in exchange for your soul. Unfortunately, Kirsty is a clever enough puzzler to solve the Lament Configuration and open the portal.

Thankfully, Kirsty is also clever enough to outmaneuver the Cenobites, buying herself time by realizing someone has escaped their clutches and working to save herself by finding the fugitive.

So Kirsty not only figures out the rules of monsters from another dimension and how to use them, but solves a difficult puzzle box (first opening it, then solving it in reverse to close it) in order to save herself. A pretty sharp cookie, to be sure.

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Clarice Starling, The Silence of the Lambs

[Image courtesy of SBS.]

A young FBI trainee who finds herself tangling with two serial killers — one on the loose, another in custody — Clarice Starling has to not only save a young woman kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, but do so while unraveling the word games and riddles of the devious and brilliant Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Clarice is perhaps the most overtly puzzly of our heroes, solving anagrams and figuring out the double meaning behind many of Dr. Lecter’s riddles and clues in order to get closer to stopping Buffalo Bill. Along the way, she uncovers information missed by more seasoned investigators, even managing to survive an attack by Buffalo Bill (in the dark!) and saving the kidnapped girl in the process.

If you’re ever in danger, hope that Clarice Starling is on the trail.

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Bret, Lights Out

[Image courtesy of Where’s the Jump?]

Imagine that you’re being hunted by a monster that lurks in the dark. It seems like an obvious solution to simply stay in the light, but when that monster is both intelligent and cunning, that’s a taller order than you think. Bret, along with his girlfriend Rebecca and Rebecca’s family, are being pursued by Diana, a creature who can only appear when it’s dark.

When Diana cuts power to the entire neighborhood, everyone must scramble for safety. Thankfully, the resourceful Bret is on their side, and he thwarts Diana’s attacks several times. When she knocks the flashlight from his hands and charges him, he banishes her momentarily with the brightness of his smartphone screen. As he runs for a car outside, she ambushes him from a shadow, but he escapes again by using the key fob in his pocket to activate the car’s headlights.

Effective puzzlers always make the most of the tools at their disposal, and Bret is a most effective puzzler.

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Joan Leaven, Cube

[Image courtesy of Movie Morgue Wiki.]

Sometimes, a good puzzler is plunked down in an unfamiliar situation and has to make sense of it all. (This is the premise of many an escape room or a video game, as well as the truth regarding many coded puzzles or puzzles with symbols.) The situation in Cube is like that times a thousand.

Leaven is one of six people trapped in a maze of interconnected cubical rooms, many of them booby-trapped in various ways. As a young mathematics student, Leaven is immediately intrigued by the numbers inscribed in the small passages that connect the various rooms. The group soon realizes that the rooms are shifting periodically, making the maze harder to solve.

After several theories don’t pan out, Leaven manages to unravel the pattern of the trapped rooms — realizing those rooms are related to prime numbers (specifically powers of prime numbers) — and navigates the group through the ever-shifting maze toward an exit.

The stakes may not always be as high as they were for Leaven, but she never gave up and always approached the puzzle from a fresh angle when thwarted. That’s a sign of a true puzzler.

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Michelle, 10 Cloverfield Lane

[Image courtesy of Yahoo.]

After being run off the road in an accident, Michelle wakes up in a well-stocked underground bunker. She’s been taken there by Howard, the bunker’s owner, who tells her the surface is uninhabitable and the air outside is poisoned. Michelle quickly realizes that Howard is unstable, but must bide her time before attempting to escape.

Michelle is another remarkably resourceful individual, mapping out the ventilation system in the bunker (while doing repairs), fashioning a hazmat suit out of found items, and outwitting Howard long enough to escape. (Once free, she even manages to whip up a Molotov cocktail and dispatch an unexpected threat.)

Some of the most devious puzzles are the ones where you have to figure out how to use what’s in front of you in creative ways to complete a task. Michelle has this skill in spades.

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Erin, You’re Next

[Image courtesy of The Dissolve.]

Erin joins her boyfriend at a family gathering, only for things to turn sour as masked invaders target the party’s guests. But they get more than they bargained for, as Erin quickly reveals herself as one of the most capable horror movie protagonists in the history of the genre.

Erin gathers information, sets traps, outwits the bad guys at seemingly every turn, and generally dazzles with her intelligence, tactical skill, and resourcefulness.

You know that puzzle where you have to connect all the dots in the square with only three lines, but to do so, you have to draw outside the square? That puzzle wouldn’t fool Erin for an instant. She is constantly thinking outside the box — and the house — in order to accomplish the most with the fewest moves.

Horror movies haven’t seen a puzzler like Erin before, and I almost feel bad for any bad guys who get in her way.


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from horror movies? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

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The New York Times Crossword, Accordion to Weird Al

 In February of 2017, The New York Times celebrated a landmark in the history of puzzles: the 75th anniversary of the NYT crossword.

And ever since, to commemorate that puzzly milestone, top constructors and Times favorites have been pairing up with celebrity fans and puzzle enthusiasts to co-construct puzzles for the Times!

This year, you might’ve encountered some of these collaborations, like news pundit Rachel Maddow’s March 2nd puzzle with constructor Joe DiPietro, or “How I Met Your Mother” star Josh Radner’s meditation-themed puzzler from January 31st with constructor Jeff Chen.

Over the last year, names as diverse as John Lithgow, Elayne Boosler, Joy Behar, Mike Selinker, Lisa Loeb, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Clinton have contributed their puzzly efforts to this marvelous project.

And yesterday, another famous wordsmith and master of punnery made his New York Times debut.

[Image courtesy of Instagram.]

Yes, the immortal “Weird Al” Yankovic teamed up with Puzzle Your Kids mastermind and friend of the blog Eric Berlin for a cheese-themed Wednesday outing that delighted fans and solvers alike.

Al has certainly been keeping busy lately, launching his Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour — his words, not mine; I loved the show I attended! — and working with Lin-Manuel Miranda to create The Hamilton Polka, an ambitious and hilarious take on the wildly successful musical.

The puzzle was Eric’s 40th Times puzzle, and Al’s first. Not only did the puzzle feature those signature cinematic cheese puns — like A FEW GOUDA MEN and THE PELICAN BRIE — but there was plenty of nerd culture featured in the fill and cluing.

Tom Lehrer and John Cleese were both name-dropped, as well as Legolas, Wile E. Coyote, WALL-E, Mr. Clean, and Bones from the original Star Trek.

Eric offered some insight into the puzzle’s creation while discussing the puzzle with Wordplay’s Deb Amlen:

My very first attempt at the grid included one of my favorites from his list, QUESOBLANCA. I was under the misapprehension that queso is not just the Spanish word for cheese but also a specific kind of cheese. Whoops, not quite. (This was entirely on me, I should note — Al, not knowing during his brainstorming that the end result would be restricted to specific cheeses, had several cheese-adjacent puns in his list, including FONDUE THE RIGHT THING and CHEESY RIDER.)

And appropriately enough, Al had a bit of fun promoting the puzzle on his Instagram, claiming, “If you’re REALLY good, you don’t NEED the clues!”

For the record, I needed the clues.


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Bones

In today’s edition of Puzzles in Pop Culture, we join the forensic team at the Jeffersonian Institute to uncover what happened to a prominent puzzler. It’s Bones, episode 8 of season 10, “The Puzzler in the Pit.”

The episode opens, appropriately enough, with Special Agent Seeley Booth solving a crossword. (Given the looser grid construction, it’s either a British-style crossword or a cryptic crossword. Either way, points to Agent Booth.)

Both he and forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan (Bones, to some) are called into work after a body is found in a fracking pit. The harsh chemicals in the pit are causing the body to deteriorate faster than normal, but some clever chemistry saves the day. Although a blood sample the team collects is too degraded for a positive match, they manage to identify the body from a rare surgery performed a few years before.

The body belongs to Lawrence Brooks, reclusive syndicated crossword constructor, considered by some to be a master in his field. His wife quickly points the fickle finger of blame squarely at his ambitious assistant, Alexis Sherman. Apparently, Brooks promised to use Alexis’s puzzles and dangled the possibility of a promotion to co-editor, but delivered on neither.

An analysis of a cast Brooks had on when he died reveals crossword clues written on it, but in two different handwriting styles. Some of the clues are straight-forward and simple synonym-style clues, hardly the work of a master constructor like Brooks.

“Despise,” 4 letters. Hate
“Blood feud,” 8 letters. Vendetta.

Other key words on the cast include punish, attack, payback, and justice. The team suspects the other clues are a message from his killer.

When Booth and Special Agent James Aubrey interview Alexis, she plays a nasty phone message from an unidentified man, claiming that a stranger has been hanging around lately. Alexis agrees to help a forensic artist sketch the mystery man.

Sadly, this is the last appearance of a visible puzzle in the episode, leaving solvers with Brooks’s murder to solve instead of a crossword grid.

The team swiftly gathers several suspects:

  • Emory Stewart (the man who matched the forensic artist’s drawing) claims to be writing a book about Brooks, and denies having left the phone message. He suggests another suspect:
  • Donald McKeon, Brooks’s old college roommate and a fellow crossword constructor, who admits to leaving the angry phone message. When the team finds one of Brooks’s puzzles in McKeon’s possession, they accuse him of theft and murder, only for McKeon to claim Brooks had stolen the puzzle from him. (He says his copy of the puzzle is from a old publishing trick, mailing something to yourself to provide a verified date for the contents, like a poor man’s patent.)

[Not an image from the episode, just one of James Addison’s puzzly envelopes.]

Meanwhile, the team discovers that Brooks’s bones had been weakening for months before his death, implying illness or injury. As it turns out, Brooks might have been seeking treatment for early onset Alzheimer’s, triggered by a head injury in a boating accident years before.

The Alzheimer’s treatment explains the condition of his bones, and the illness itself explains both the different handwriting (a dementia symptom) and the conflict with McKeon. (Brooks may have stolen McKeon’s puzzle unknowingly.)

This points back to Mrs. Brooks. It turns out she was publishing puzzles Brooks had previously created but deemed unusable. She had accidentally published McKeon’s puzzle. She mentions being broke, and not knowing what happened to hundreds of thousands of dollars that should’ve been in their bank accounts.

[This is your brain. This is your brain on Internet gambling…]

It appears that Brooks gambled his money away in online gambling. But when Booth and Aubrey lure out the bookie who broke Brooks’s fingers, the bookie says that Brooks was bankrolling a woman: his assistant, Alexis.

The assistant confesses to stealing from Brooks, but claims she would’ve paid him back. She is booked for theft, since they can’t yet prove she committed the murder.

The team discovers Brooks’s neck was broken, and doubts that the assistant could’ve done it.

Oddly enough, the solution appears while the team rallies around a pregnant coworker, Daisy, who solves the case during her pre-delivery contractions. She supposes that the blood sample they found with Brooks wasn’t his. It has to be that of a blood relative.

Brooks had a son. Which brings us back to Emory Stewart, who turns out to be Brooks’s son from a previous relationship. Emory talked to Brooks, but when they met in person later that day, Brooks claimed to have no idea who he was. Angry, and unaware that Alzheimer’s was behind Brooks’s faulty memory, Emory shoved Brooks down a hill, unintentionally killing him.


This episode goes against the standard crossword mystery convention of having a puzzle at the center of the murder. There’s no puzzle left behind by the killer, no cryptic clue scribbled onto a grid by the victim, no need for a detective with a knack for crosswords to crack the case. There’s simply a murder mystery and a bit of fun clue-fueled wordplay.

Sadly, we never return to the curiously unpleasant list of clues and words on Brooks’s cast, which was one of the most interesting plot points to me. Oh well. (There’s also the whole “wife knows husband has Alzheimer’s, but doesn’t report him missing” plot hole. But, hey, puzzles, not plot holes, right?)

[Mr. Shortz, looking none too amused by the plot of this episode.]

This episode does raise an intriguing idea, though. Imagine a murder mystery dinner set at next year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, where something dastardly had happened to Will Shortz. (Thankfully, we can lose the fracking pit and its acidic unpleasantness with this scenario.)

Who would YOU suspect had done the heinous deed? His equally ambitious and capable assistant? A wronged fellow constructor? Perhaps a jealous ping-pong rival? There’s a lot of possibility there.

Of course, considering how Puzzle #5 decimated the competition last year, perhaps Brendan Emmett Quigley would be a more likely target.

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