Revamped horror-themed, Fullerton escape room has ‘doubled the scares’
When escape room owner Christina Compani dreamed she was trapped inside a body bag alive, she knew she had to use the idea.
“I was stuck in there and I couldn’t breathe … all of the sudden I started feeling my entire body being dragged, being taken,” said Compani, co-owner of Escapade Games in Fullerton. “I woke up and I turned to my husband … I said, ‘We need to start putting people in a body bag and dragging them across the floor.”
This, in fact, is a key scene in the revamped escape room experience, “Zoe: Reborn,” the current game at Escapade Games, which first opened as a horror-themed escape room in Fullerton in 2017 by Russian owners Kirill Ostrovskiy and Julia Ostrovskaya. David Watermeier, who owns Escape Room Era in Anaheim, and husband-and-wife team Jorin Andresen and Compani purchased Escapade Games in March 2023 from the original owners, and have since created an even more intense experience in a new location in Fullerton. The three owners formed Escape Room Alliance as an overarching connector between the businesses.
The new Fullerton location is larger, by 1,700 square feet, so that the game now has five additional rooms.
“So we’ve really just taken everything from ‘Zoe’ and nearly doubled it,” Andresen said. “Overall, just doubled the size, doubled the scares. Just so that when people come, they could be like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of really cool Zoe aspects to the game,’ so they still know that this is a Zoe game. But they’re like, ‘This is just like the bigger, better version of it.’”
Over the course of 100 minutes and 10 rooms on 2,350 square feet, players are blindfolded, chased, dragged, possibly shocked (with a stun pen) and carried off in a body bag while trying to solve game puzzles as a team. In one scene, you’re crouched under a dining room table, listening to scare actors stomp, jump and yell for you and members of your group. One by one, each of you is dragged off.
“It’s like a real-life horror movie, it is,” Compani said.
The length of the experience is longer than the usual 60 minutes of many escape rooms. The full-contact element is also unusual for an average escape room. Don’t be surprised if you’re missing a shoe or two by the end — but you’ll get them back.
“There are between one and two actors depending on the season and timings of the games,” Watermeier said. “The story of ‘Zoe: Reborn’ takes place some years after the original, so it’s a sequel. The players play as paranormal investigators exploring the abandoned house of Uncle Robert. There is actually a low amount of physical activity required to play in the escape room, technically nobody is forced to run. However, due to the nature of the escape room, the physical activity most players do is much higher. They are running away from the monster — by their own choice — crawling very fast to escape, and on high alert almost the entire time, so their hearts are racing.”
The original “Zoe” game told a story from Russian folklore of a little girl born with supernatural abilities who is killed by her father after he and her uncle experiment on her. In trying to bring her back from the dead, her uncle accidentally summons a demon, which he then confines to a cage. It was at this point when guests were invited in to come “save” Zoe — not knowing she’s a demon.
In “Zoe Reborn,” an “extreme” option allows actors to use a shock pen on players. The normal version is the same except for the shocking elements, and the difference doesn’t impact the pricing. But all members of the group must agree before the game on the preferred version.
“I personally was against it in the beginning,” Watermeier said, regarding the “extreme” mode. “But after experiencing it as a player and seeing so many people’s reactions, I realized that it wasn’t just a lame gimmick or that we want to hurt people. Having the ‘extreme’ mode is just a way to heighten the overall fun as a player.”
Orlando Salvatore, of Rancho Mission Viejo, said the first time he visited Escapade Games for Zoe, his group was concerned initially about the full-contact elements and shocking.
“We thought it would be really rough and not good for our group,” he said. “Then we did the experience when not knowing what to expect and this is the only way to experience ‘Zoe.’ The ‘extreme’ mode they offer is awesome and makes some really fun and scary experiences. You’re never in true danger so make sure to tell your party to not hurt the actors.”
Salvatore, an escape room enthusiast who has visited more than 50, said he found out about Escapade Games through online forums like Reddit and Yelp. He first went to ‘Zoe’ in March 2023 at the business’ previous location.
“I went to their original one twice, and their new one twice, so a total of four times,” he said. “The actors and interactions have become more intricate and their usage of the spaces that they have made has improved greatly. Almost every inch of ‘Zoe’ is used, and reused, to make it a truly immersive experience.”
He said he prefers horror-themed escape rooms because he enjoys horror in general and it gives him a way to experience it year round instead of just during the Halloween season.
“‘Zoe’ is one of those experiences where you forget the real world exists,” he said. “For the time that you’re inside of this escape room, other things that are happening in your day-to-day get pushed to the side, and it’s all about having a good and horrific time with your friends.”
Compani and Andresen, who are escape room enthusiasts themselves, with 90 to 100 games under their belt, said that safety is their top priority, and their interview, audition and training processes are extensive.
Compani came up with the idea for using shocks while working for Escapade Games’ original owners. Andresen said the then-owners were initially against it, so they did an October run to test it out. They got such positive feedback and requests that they continued doing it.
“We did our research,” Compani said. “We looked at what can we use? What is a low voltage so that we’re not actually physically hurting people and how can we do this in a very safe environment, in a controlled environment? We’re not trying to hurt people. Our goal is to give a panic-induced thrill where you’re still safe.”
She said they did hours of training with the employees and any employee that is going to use the shock pen has to try it on themselves first.
“Because you have to know what it feels like in order to do it on another human,” she said. “All of our staff members here, they go through almost two months of training before they actually physically get to have the taser and go in and scare on a group. They do hours and hours and hours of training, because they are touching, grabbing people and they are held responsible for this. I bring in a beta test group for them to do as their first game.”
Andresen said even if a group does opt for the shocks, players aren’t guaranteed to get zapped.
“It’s super safe,” he said. “It’s no more than a little pinch or a carpet shock, it’s really not that bad. The word ‘taser’ freaks people out. And we are obviously here to scare people, so we use that word to heighten the fear.”
Compani said, “Ninety-five percent of our groups do choose the ‘extreme’ mode version.”
But regardless if you choose shocks or not, the owners guarantee it will get scary. Andresen said though there is technically no age minimum, they recommend 13 and older, but discretion is left to parents. He said though they won’t use shocks on young players and generally take it much easier on them, it is a very scary atmosphere.
“‘How’s your kid with scary?’” he said he asks parents who call. “If they can’t even handle a scary movie, they cannot be in a scary movie.”
As the owners continue scaring and shocking, they’re also looking to expand what they do in the space — including an upcoming, traditional-style murder-mystery.
“People are gonna get to come in and talk with people beyond the grave and find out who killed Zoe, why, what was their motive and where. Traditional-style clue game,” Compani said. “We are super excited for that.”
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