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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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Everyone loves a good scary story, especially around Halloween, myself included. In fact, the only thing I like better than a good scary story is a good scary story with some puzzling included.

So, in the spirit of the spooky season, I thought we could delve into one of my favorites from Nickelodeon’s Saturday night (SNick) lineup: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

[Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society…]

Are You Afraid of the Dark? was an anthology series, centered around a group of young storytellers who called themselves The Midnight Society. Each week, one of them would offer up a terrifying tale (but not too terrifying, because it was Nickelodeon, after all), oftentimes reminiscent of classic horror stories like “The Monkey’s Paw,” or episodes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits.

Most of them featured your standard horror tropes — vampires, ghosts, evil magicians, cursed items — but a few of them dove headfirst into the puzzle-game realm, pitting the protagonists against fiendish foes with only their puzzly wits to protect them.

[Nope, not THAT pinball wizard.]

In “The Tale of the Pinball Wizard,” a young man named Ross gets a job at the mall, only to disobey his new boss by playing a pinball machine he discovered in the back room. Playing well past closing time, he leaves the store and finds himself locked inside the mall, where the storyline of the pinball game has come to life!

Battling the dark knight and trying to ensure the princess reaches the throne, Ross outwits the villains (with a bit of puzzly tactical finesse) and wins the game, forgetting a classic video game trope: when the game’s over, you go back to start. As his wronged boss looks down on him from outside the pinball game, Ross realizes he’s trapped… just in time for a giant pinball to loom menacingly from the top of the mall escalator.

(Yes, most of the “morals” of each story involved listening to your elders, not venturing off on your own, and generally being less of a brat.)

They would return to the game-comes-to-life gimmick later in “The Tale of the Forever Game,” where a jerkish young man plays a Jumanji-like game with his friends as the unwitting pieces. If he loses, he takes the place of his cursed opponent, condemned to lure other unsuspecting jerks into playing weird, poorly-scripted board games.

In one game-inspired story, “The Tale of the Zombie Dice,” a young gambler named Tate wagers a year’s worth of free arcade games against the not-in-any-way-transparently-evil Mr. Click, the arcade’s owner.

[Nope, not these Zombie Dice.]

As you might expect, Tate loses, and ends up shrunk down and locked away, intended to be sold overseas as a pet! (I know, very weird.) It’s up to his friend Alex to save the day (but not before first losing a round of Zombie Dice, because, you know, high stakes and all that).

Alex goes in double-or-nothing against Mr. Click, and gets to choose the wager. Alex, while not a gambler, employs an old-school bar bet brain teaser, betting that he can finish two big mugs of soda before Mr. Click can finish one small glass.

(His only condition? Mr. Click can’t start drinking until Alex has finished the first of his mugs. Mr. Click suspects Alex has a trick up his sleeve, like he’ll move Mr. Click’s glass, so Alex lays down a new rule: neither player can touch the other’s drinking glass.)

When Mr. Click agrees on the condition that Alex drink three mugs of soda, Alex instantly accepts, because crafty villains are rarely crafty enough to see a good guy scamming them. The bet is on!

If you figured out that Alex finishes his first mug and puts it down right over Click’s glass, congratulations! You’re smarter than this week’s villain.

Thwarted by the wager he accepted, Mr. Click is defeated and Tate is freed. (They never mention if Alex gets any free games at the arcade.)

But when it comes to puzzly stories, you have to go all the way back to the very first episode for the best one: “The Tale of the Phantom Cab.”

It’s a slightly-convoluted tale of two boys taken to a house in the woods by a strange cab, and confronting the weirdo who lives there, Dr. Vink. Said weirdo challenges the boys to answer riddles like “How far can you walk into the woods?” (To the credit of our protagonists, they knock out most of the riddles with ease.)

But when one riddle proves too tricky, the boys end up back in the cab. You see, the cab is actually a ghost cab, reliving the same deadly crash over and over again, and if the boys don’t solve the last riddle, their fate is sealed.

Thankfully, one of the boys solves the riddle in the nick of time, and they escape. But, seriously who would want their life resting on the riddle “what has no weight, can be seen by the naked eye, and if put in a barrel it will make the barrel lighter?”

It just goes to show you: it’s always good to keep your puzzly skills sharp, because you never know when you’ll have to outwit monsters, villains, and things that go bump in the night.

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