The whole point of escape rooms, the popular entertainment venues at which visitors use their puzzle-solving skills to beat the clock and unravel a mystery, is to leave.
But for one Old Town native, escape room success came by coming home.
Justin Hayes, a Laurel High School alumnus, this spring joined the team at the Laurel House of Horrors to help create an elaborate escape room with a thematic tie to its location in the former movie theater at Laurel Shopping Center. “Escape the Movies!” challenges visitors to work together to decipher clues as they move through scenes from four classic horror films.
“It’s a very demanding job but something that is pretty cool,” Hayes said of his role as general manager and creative director. “I’ve really embraced the challenge of looking forward to the potential of the space…there’s a lot of opportunity to do something unique and original.”
The Laurel House of Horrors was established in 2014 by resident Richard Blankenship and met with great success thanks in large part to positive reviews by visitors. In 2017, the seasonal business expanded into a year-round escape room, but visitor reviews were lackluster. The challenges lacked a coherent, unifying story and did not consistently incorporate proven puzzle and game standards.
Owners decided to revamp the escape room and earlier this year tasked a team of designers led by Hayes with the project. The result is a “nostalgic” team-building experience that draws families, parties, dates and corporate visitors of all ages and ethnicities, Hayes said. The escape room has a mid-range level of difficulty that allows novices to succeed while also engaging veteran players. It was the perfect fit for a creative person with a background in marketing, design, writing and education.
Hayes, the son of long-time Old Town residents Douglas and Susan Hayes, went to college in Florida after graduating from Laurel High in 2000. From there, he moved to New York City for four years, first working in an AmeriCorps program and then launching a career doing art department work for film and television. The 2008 financial crisis hit his industry hard, and he took the opportunity to go abroad and teach English and art in China, Korea, Thailand and Peru.
By 2017, Hayes was ready to come home. It’s been hard to find work that matches his many creative skills, but he feels like the escape room is a perfect fit.
He has big plans to make the House of Horrors escape room, the first and only in the city, a leader in the industry. Hayes is working with the team at Jailbreak Brewery to launch a “pop up” escape booth at its taproom in North Laurel. He has contacted other escape room owners throughout the region to help create a cross-promotional treasure hunt-style game. It would invite visitors to visit multiple escape rooms, while also working on a larger app-based puzzle that connects each site. Winners could receive cash or other prizes.
Hayes, Blankenship and the team at the Laurel House of Horrors are also in the initial planning stages for a sequel to the Escape the Movies! challenge that “draws more from the interesting world of fact, rather than the copyrighted world of fiction,” he said.