The first in our Signature Color Series, Michael explains why Panic is Red.
Deceptively hard to imitate, “panic” inducing rooms are more than jump scares. The storyline is a bit important, but the sense of urgency is created largely by darkness, dreading jump scares, dangling chains, bloody handprints, and the like. The Basement, with its reach-into-the-full-toilet levels of “oh my FUCKing God!” puts us somewhere we would do anything to avoid in real life. The quality of Red is usually measured by how hard it would be to come up with some of the awful things Panic does to us. Paradoxically, the dread and the terror derives from the fact that we actually can imagine plenty of terrors all on our own. In fact, they are nearly all imagined as escape rooms are inherently pretty safe experiences (in order to protect against lawsuits, etc.).
We can appreciate this panic room genre a little better when we look at a genre of film that seems similar but is actually its opposite: Horror/Slasher Films. Sometimes called ‘Torture porn’, films like Saw, or an arty example like Funny Games, are an ideal comparison. The contraptions in Saw are ingenious and too poetic for a timed challenge. Watching Saw, we can only enjoy the scenes. It does in a minute or two what takes two hours in most dramas, in that they reveal the victim’s character to us through one conflict. We know, in a profound way, who the character is based not on IF but HOW they survive (or don’t). The parallel with this genre of escape room is that, win or lose, you’ve pretty much achieved the same kind of fulfillment. Remember that the inventor of the Saw puzzles is a fictional character (and a sick person). But players might actually learn about their inner character from a Red Room in a way they could not from any other style of room. Eventually, every escape room enthusiast is going to be confronted with a challenge that will take an extra bit of fortitude they’re surprised to learn they had (or lacked).
Red Rooms are the most revealing of rooms from any Signature Color if your own behavior is analyzed afterward. They will always test both your ability to keep your cool knowing that something dreadful is coming, and your ability to correctly anticipate another person’s idea of sick, twisted fun. While some rooms make you seem good at puzzles, Red Rooms make you feel good at pure survival. Red Rooms are the most primal genre. The key to their success is their ability to tap into the sub-human part of our brains which keep us afraid of things like the dark, spiders, or clowns. The fact that they tap into sub-human fears is likely the reason Red Rooms are so popular and prominent among escape rooms; using commonly held fears makes them easier to produce. In a spaceship escape room, I want some nice sets and special effects, so I can believe I’m on a spaceship. In a Red Room, there’s really no need for extravagance. The combination of chintyness and horrifying makes use of the natural closeness between laughing and screaming in the human brain and could contribute to the fact that Red Rooms are also the oldest of escape room types.
PROS: Laughter, shared crisis, lots of adrenaline makes for a happy group at the debriefing
CONS: Liability issues, repetitive tactics, ease of production has led to a marketplace flooded with Red Rooms
APPEAL TO: Everyone who doesn’t have a hard and fast rule about loud noises or other primal fears. Most people are unprepared for how effective a bag over the head can be for inducing panic.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR DESIGNERS OF RED ROOMS: Puzzles have to relate to the room, and preferably to the sick sense of humor of the captor; the strongest puzzles involve macabre, deliberate misuse of appliances: toilets aren’t where we keep our valuables… chainsaws aren’t made for walking on… When all else fails, just imagine a cuttingly sarcastic portrait of a 50s family home. But try to go beyond that to see what other values you can invert. For players to chance upon the right clue or line of thinking, they should have to think of their own values, especially domestic ones, the way they would if they were mocking them in an angry, cruel, and brooding way.