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 Puzzling Art of Letterlocking

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[Image courtesy of Letter Writers Alliance.]

When you think about puzzles and personal security, what comes to mind?

Do you think of puzzle boxes, those delightfully tricky little wooden creations with all their sliding pieces and hidden compartments? Or does your mind go to encryption, the art of concealing your message in plain sight with ciphers, scytales, and other techniques meant to baffle anyone but those in the know?

Some puzzle box designs date back centuries, and ciphers can be traced back even further. (One is named after Caesar, after all.)

But there’s another centuries-old puzzly procedure you might not know about, and it kept letters and messages safe using nothing more than paper and wax.

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[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

This technique is known as letterlocking. It involves a mix of precise folds, interlocking pieces of paper, and sealing wax in order to create a distinctive design or pattern.

Although the pattern itself can work like a puzzle — requiring a particular trick to unfold it and reveal the message without ripping or damaging the letter — that’s only a secondary line of defense. The true goal of letterlocking is to reveal tampering. The folding techniques are distinctive, and the wax creates points of adhesion.

If you receive a letter and the folds are done (aka redone) incorrectly, or the wax is smeared (or the paper ripped where the wax would have held it tight), then you know the letter has been compromised.

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[Image courtesy of ibookbinding.com.]

Some examples of letterlocking trace back to the 13th century, and key figures like Queen Elizabeth I, Machiavelli, Galileo, and Marie Antoinette employed letterlocking security in the past. Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote a message and letterlocked it with a butterfly lock six hours before her beheading. (For a more modern reference, letterlocking was employed in the Harry Potter films as well, most famously in Dumbledore’s will.)

The various techniques involved are as distinctive as knots. The triangle lock. The dagger-trap. The pinwheel letter. And some historians believe that those techniques imply connections between some of the important players in history.

For instance, both poet John Donne and the spymaster of Queen Elizabeth I employed a similar letterlocking style. Did they share a common source, or even an instructor in common? Or did a particular letterlocking technique provide a clue as to the contents of the letter within?

Letterlocking is a historical curiosity that was seemingly lost to time after the proliferation of the envelope and other security techniques, but it is slowly being rediscovered by a new generation, as well as reverse engineered by scientists and scholars. Yale and MIT both have teams exploring the burgeoning field of letterlocking.

Museums are discovering treasure troves of letterlocked messages by going directly to the source: post offices. A cache of 600 undelivered letters in the Netherlands, for instance, are being analyzed by researchers.

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[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

It’s a remarkable thing, really, this union of centuries-old skills with twenty-first century knowledge. These are puzzles, frozen in time, waiting to be solved and placed into the larger picture of history.

Letterlocking is nothing less than a rare and beautiful art combining puzzles and privacy, as elegant as it is clever. There are no doubt many more secrets to be found behind the folds, slits, and wax seals of these lovingly crafted messages.


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Puzzle Furniture Meets Musical Innovation!

[Image courtesy of Praktrik.]

Puzzle furniture is an intriguing, complex subset of the puzzling world that requires skill, craftsmanship, dedication, and ingenuity working in tandem in order to create a single piece.

Now, those qualities are staggeringly common amongst puzzlers. After all, those words apply to many of the constructors and puzzle designers I know, because they all take great pride in their creations, whether we’re talking mechanical puzzles, puzzle grids, or interactive solving events like puzzle hunts or escape rooms.

But there’s something about puzzle furniture that adds an additional wow factor to the endeavor. Sometimes you’re the one assembling the puzzle, as you do with tables from our friends at Praktrik. Other times, you’re unraveling the hidden secrets of what appears, at first, to be a deceptively ordinary (yet still exquisite) piece of furniture, like the ones created by Craig Thibodeau.

Whether you’re finding hidden buttons, using magnets to reveal concealed storage areas, or sliding aside wooden pieces to reveal keyholes or additional hints, pieces of puzzle furniture like the one featured above are challenging and unforgettable solving experiences.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as unique or as mind-boggling as this creation by Kagen Sound…

A musical puzzle table.

Kagen Sound, formerly known as Kagen Schaefer, has built an impressive reputation for unusual and visually striking puzzle furniture. One piece requires you to rotate different rings on a table surface in order to form patterns that unlock other features. Another is a puzzle box that demands nineteen specific moves in the correct order before you can open the lid.

And even these difficult puzzles pale in comparison to one where music is part of the solution.

Each drawer, when opened or closed, produces a different note. But there are additional drawers that must be unlocked before you can perform the entire piece of music concealed within the table.

It’s a remarkable design that rewards patience and experimentation as well as puzzly skill, and I could easily imagine losing hours upon hours exploring the table and trying different patterns and chains of movement in order to unlock other drawers or reveal additional secrets.

I think what makes this brand of puzzling so intriguing and so charming is how it employs old-world craftsmanship with hands-on solving. Although Kagen doesn’t employ 3-D printing or computer modeling, I know that many mechanical puzzle designers incorporate modern tools into classic puzzle styles.

The creativity of puzzle designers like Kagen Sound is truly boundless, and every time I think I’ve seen every trick, every puzzle, or every variation out there, I am gladly, gleefully surprised by twists, reinventions, and fresh ideas I could never have even imagined.

[You can check out more of Kagen’s designs on his website, as well as on this Pinterest board featuring previous works of his.]


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The Fine Art of Puzzle Cabinetry

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about puzzle furniture, a small but growing niche of the puzzle world. We explored modular sofa, chair, and desk designs, as well as impressive tables designed by the puzzle wizards at Praktrik.

But what happens when you combine a designer of fiendishly clever puzzle boxes and a furniture designer with an impeccable knack for melding mechanical puzzles and beautiful woodworking?

You get the Wisteria Puzzle Cabinet, an absolute masterpiece that serves as both a stylish cabinet and an incredibly complex puzzle box.

It’s the most beautiful and complicated safe you could ever want, and it would hide in plain sight in your home.

Check out this video detailing some — but I suspect not all — of its secrets, including hidden compartments, an internal elevator, and multi-piece keys that must be uncovered, assembled, and reused:

The puzzly aspects were designed by Robert Yarger (also known as Stickman in the puzzle box world) and the actual cabinet built by Craig Thibodeau, and together, they’ve brought this mind-blowing piece of puzzle art to life.

Granted, the price of an piece like this is pretty steep.

On his website, Thibodeau states that his “latest work exploring mechanical furniture, puzzles and hidden compartments is the most expensive furniture I build due to the highly complex design and fabrication process. These pieces typically start at around $30,000 and go up from there due to the complexity of the internal mechanisms and the variety of hidden details incorporated into the design of these highly unique pieces.”

Although that’s out of my price range, it’s a testament to how much preparation, design, and labor goes into a puzzle as gorgeous and labyrinthine as this cabinet. Even at five figures, it seems well worth the price.

Oh, and if you’re looking for more puzzly furniture, you can also check out the table designs of David Lundell on YouTube, like this magic-themed coffee table:

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go check every piece of furniture in my house for secret compartments. You know, just in case.


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Designing Your Own Escape Room Event!

One of the most interactive puzzly challenges available to modern solvers is the escape room.

Although themes and scenarios vary greatly, the basic idea is this: a group of people are locked in a room, and tasked with escaping from it within a certain time frame (usually an hour).

They do so by searching for clues, completing tasks, unraveling riddles, and finally, unlocking the door to escape. Some rooms employ riddles. Others use word puzzles. Others still involve working together to overcome obstacles. (For instance, I hear about one escape room where the group was split in two and separated, and they had to work together to unlock the door that separated them.)

There are endless variations available to the intrepid puzzler. And a week or so ago, I had a go at creating my own and running it for a friend’s birthday. I’d never run an escape room per se, but having run roleplaying events before — as well as murder mystery dinners — I was excited to pit my dastardly puzzly mind against a worthy group of heroes and miscreants.

And so, I thought I’d offer a few tips on creating your own puzzly escape experience.


1.) Know your audience.

If your players aren’t engaged, the event is pointless. So you have to make sure that whatever obstacles you lay before them will interest them. If they aren’t partial to brain teasers, mechanical puzzles, or physical challenges, they’ll quickly lose any investment in completing the game.

In my case, I tried to use every puzzly tool at my disposal. There were riddles, puzzle boxes, combination locks to crack, door locks to “pick”, and tricky clues to unravel.

[I drafted two puzzle boxes from my collection into the game.]

2.) Give everyone something to do.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to things like this. So use that to your advantage. Let the hardcore puzzlers tackle the puzzles, while the less puzzly people complete tasks like uncovering backstory, hunting for hidden items, or even doing battle with threats to the players.

Adding a live-action roleplay element like combat can not only add flavor to your game, but it allows players to contribute without having to struggle with puzzles that might not be their strong suit.

If everyone feels like they’re contributing, all successes feel shared. And shared successes are the best ones.

3.) Let imagination drive the game.

When tackling an event like this, it can be easy to splash out on locks, puzzle boxes, and all sorts of trappings for the game. After all, you want it to be an immersive experience, but that sort of immersion can grow expensive very quickly. And you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to create a great solving adventure.

[A 5-digit combination lock that lets you spell words (or mix letters and numbers), a directional combination lock, and two standard four-digit locks]

I had a small budget, so I bought a few combination locks, four small briefcases (so there was something to unlock and open), and some other bits and bobs. Locks run between $6 and $12, but there are few things more satisfying than cracking a puzzle, dialing in your answer, and feeling the lock open in your hand. The sign of a job well done.

But you can build one without spending much money at all. Get creative with it! You can replicate practically anything with a piece of paper — locks, puzzles, riddles — and a little imagination. Any box can become a treasure chest or a lockbox. Any room can become a laboratory or a dungeon or a high-security vault.

[I picked up this little lock for cheap on Amazon, drew the various characters in the combination on little slips of paper, and hid them around the room. It was up to the players to find them, put them in the correct order, and open the lock.]

The low-budget solutions are often the most satisfying. For instance, I mentioned above that, in my escape room, there were door locks to “pick.” I used quotation marks because I didn’t buy door locks to actually pick. Instead, I swapped in another, simpler method for testing someone’s digital dexterity: Jenga.

I stacked up a Jenga tower, removed 8 or 9 pieces, and then challenged the group’s lockpick to remove two or three pieces per door they “picked.” This simulated both the tension of the act and the level of skillful manipulation necessary, and for a fraction of the possible cost.

4.) Tell a story.

I’m a roleplaying fan. I love telling stories in my gameplay. And, to me, nothing adds flavor and depth to an escape room like a story. My favorite escape room experience was a Houdini-themed room that was loaded with the famous magician’s history and trappings — shackles, a straitjacket, and more — and all those little touches added so much to the atmosphere and the tension of the game itself.

So craft a story! Why are the players there? Why do they need to escape? Is there a villain? A curse? An evil artificial intelligence to battle? A diabolical millionaire or a mad scientist with an axe to grind?

All those elements can add to the experience. The escape room I designed and ran centered around a evil wizard and the aftermath of his reign of terror. My players warded off ghosts, avoided automated traps, and even held a Beauty-and-the-Beast-inspired seance — since the wizard had turned several of his staff into furniture — as they moved from place to place.

[The remains of a room well-escaped.]

With a little ingenuity, forethought, and creativity, you can craft a one-of-a-kind puzzle experience.


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The Best of All Possible Puzzle/Game Worlds?

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[A sampling of the wide variety of modern puzzles and games. Fluxx cards, Bananagrams tiles, a wooden puzzle box, Pairs cards, David Steinberg’s Juicy Crosswords from the Orange County Register, Timeline cards, last month’s edition of The Crosswords Club, Puzzometry pieces, Cards Against Humanity cards, multi-sided roleplaying dice.]

This is the most exciting time in history to be a puzzler or board game enthusiast.

Think about it. If you want to play a game or solve a puzzle, you don’t have to go any farther than your pocket, since a plethora of puzzly goodness awaits you on your smartphone.

Puzzle apps are our bread and butter here at PuzzleNation, so this might feel like a cheap plug, but honestly, it boggles my mind how much more accessible puzzles and games are now than they were even five years ago.

And the app revolution is only one part of the story.

I was reading a book the other day, as I am wont to do on the long train rides to and from PuzzleNation HQ. Titled The Revenge of Analog, it was all about the cultural response to digital media, highlighting the resurgence of vinyl records, film, and other tangible alternatives to electronic formats.

In the chapter “The Revenge of Board Games,” the author discussed the social aspect of tabletop gaming, and how sitting down with people and playing a game is a far different, more rewarding experience than online gaming and other social media-based interactions. (A fine point to consider, what with International TableTop Day a little more than a week away.)

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While I do think that’s partially true, I also think that downplays the ingenuity of the puzzle/game community. I think we’re the best of both worlds.

I mentioned in my Tak review last week that puzzles are being created today that could not have been five or ten or twenty years ago. The advent of 3-D printing and laser cutters for homes and small businesses has brought design, construction, and promotion literally to the doorstep of entrepreneurial puzzlers.

Just last week I received a new edition of Puzzometry in the mail, a perk for supporting a team for a school robotics competition. This laser-cut plastic jigsaw will keep me guessing for hours (if its puzzly siblings are anything to go by), and it was designed and manufactured by a single individual.

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Old and new styles are meshing as never before. Many puzzle constructors are partially or fully supporting themselves via email puzzle subscriptions and direct sales to the customer. Events like the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games are organized and advertised mostly online.

Crowdfunding has leveled the playing field for many companies and designers in both puzzles and games, allowing more products than ever before to enter the market. (According to Kickstarter, tabletop game projects raised $52 million dollars in 2013, and that number has surely gone up in the meantime.)

You’ve got a proper board game renaissance as classic games and styles of play are meshing with new technology, and games from across the world are shared on YouTube, at Friendly Local Game Shops, or even in puzzle cafes like Toronto’s Snakes and Lattes or New York City’s The Uncommons.

Whether you’re a pen-and-paper solver or a Penny Dell Crossword App devotee, a fan of classics like Chutes and Ladders or a proud tabletopper experimenting with the newest games, this is an amazing time to be a puzzler or board gamer.

So keep playing. Keep puzzling. And share that with others.


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