Back in May, a sandwich board adorned with a painted skeleton key advertising the Cville Escape Room popped up on the Downtown Mall, between the Main Street Arena and Violet Crown Cinema. Intrigued, a couple of friends and I book three slots in the fortune teller’s Secret room.
Passing by the sandwich board we climb a staircase full of M.C. Escher prints. “Are you here to see the fortune teller?” escape room co-owner Jessie Stowell asks when we reach the top. We are.
Jessie and her husband, Keith Stowell, lead us to a room with a large, oval conference table and a whiteboard full of instructions; de-motivational posters cover the walls. After a brief tutorial letting us know what we are looking for (clues, puzzles, riddles) and not looking for (trap doors, clues hiding behind furniture or under the carpet), Jessie leads us down a short, arched hallway to a nondescript door.
“You’re private investigators investigating a series of missing person cases,” she tells us in a hushed voice, one hand on the doorknob. “The common link you’ve found is that they’ve all visited this mysterious fortune teller. You’ve learned that she has a very dangerous book, and you have now been hired to get that book. You have one hour until she returns.”
We step into a dimly lit aubergine room and Jessie closes (but doesn’t lock) the door behind us. We pause to notice our surroundings: bookshelves full of framed, spooky daguerreotypes, books and carved boxes, a side table with a globe, tarot cards, a Ouija board, scarves, a violin and sheet music. A silver mirror and some old-timey posters hang on the walls. In the middle of it all is a round table and a crystal ball.
The three of us spend the next hour opening every drawer and container in search of clues, locks, codes and keys, solving puzzles and brain teasers.
Some of the puzzles are easy enough for us to solve individually; others take teamwork. A series of small victories, like finding a lock combination or deciphering a riddle, leads to an “Aha!” moment at the end.
This is all by design—the Stowells want players to feel like they’re being sufficiently challenged and subsequently rewarded for their achievements.
Keith conceives of and designs the story-driven rooms. First, he devises a scenario, then creates a story around it. Next, he comes up with the clues and puzzles, working everything out on a trifold cardboard presentation board with sticky notes, pins and string. From there, they collect furniture and props to physically build the room. Keith says he starts big and narrows it down to what players of all ages can likely solve in an hour.
Everything players need to know exists in the room, and they can ask Escape Room staff for hints by holding a big pink poster board with a cutout question mark up to a surveillance camera hooked up to a screen in the lobby.
If groups continuously request hints on the same puzzle, the Stowells revise it—Jessie says the Spy’s Demise room has changed quite a bit since it first opened.
The Stowells learned about escape rooms while watching “The Intimacy Acceleration” episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” where some of the characters visit an elaborately designed, laboratory-themed escape room and finish the whole thing in just six minutes. (“To be fair, we do all have advanced degrees,” one of the characters notes.) Jessie says she had to try it for herself. She, Keith and their two children visited rooms in Washington, D.C., and Richmond before deciding to open their own. “I thought it was an amazingly fun thing to do–and a fun thing to do with our kids—so we wanted to bring the experience to Charlottesville,” she says.
Leah Combs, a Charlottesville resident who, along with her husband, Jon, has done escape rooms in other cities, recently solved the Spy’s Demise room. “Compared to other rooms we’ve been in, it was minimalistic, but just as challenging,” says Combs. “Other rooms we’ve tackled had hidden doors to other rooms or puzzles you had to solve through holes in the wall…but these puzzles were creative and not like ones we’d seen before,” Combs says.
The quality of the experience relies on the quality of the puzzles, Combs says, and the Cville Escape Room has it down pat.
The Stowells say they will eventually trade the stories out for new ones, perhaps in a year, or when players have completed all of the challenges and reservations start to drop. In the fall, they’ll add a fourth room with a Jack the Ripper theme to the mix. Keith says they’d intended to open an Alice in Wonderland room, but customers have requested darker scenarios, and they are up to the challenge. “We enjoy creating a theater scene where people can come in and play,” says Keith.
The fortune teller exists only in the story created by Keith, but when Jessie opens the door to tell us we have 15 minutes remaining, we are so absorbed in the story and the scene that we all jump, expecting to see the wicked fortune teller at the door, the death tarot card in hand, ready to hand us our fate.
After 64 exhilarating minutes, and with some help from Jessie, we find the fortune teller’s book and dash from the room, delighted by our escape from reality. —Erin O’Hare
Cville Escape Room’s current quests:
Fortune Teller’s Secret
In a room full of tarot cards, a crystal ball and the occult, up to six players race to save our dimension from a clairvoyant’s deadly ambition.
Up to eight secret agents work to save themselves in a room full of double agents, deadly toxins and other wicked things.
Mad Scientist’s Laboratory
Up to eight players enter the laboratory of a deranged scientist to stop him from creating an army of the dead. If you’re into gruesome props, blood and guts, this is the room for you.