Mitchell Graham and Stephanie Berrellez knew each other for only a week before they decided to travel together. They met online, had their first date at the beer restaurant chain Yard House — Graham was an hour late — and then spent every one of the next seven days together.
The adventure was Graham’s idea. He wanted to surprise Berrellez, though he did drop some hints on what was in store. He told her it would be a good exercise for them to do together, Berrellez recalls, but it was the word “team-building” that tipped her off.
They were going to travel in time — via an escape room.
Her ability to piece together the clues would serve her well in their adventure. But still, Berrellez was nervous. What if one person snapped at the other as time was running out?
Graham had a similar concern, he recalls. “There’s always that worry that you’ll see a negative side to each other — ”
“Like an ugly side of [someone’s] personality,” Berrellez chimes in, building on her boyfriend’s thought.
In escape rooms, a team — usually three or more people — buys tickets for a certain time, at which point the participants enter a room and use clues to solve puzzles and riddles and accomplish a set mission, all within a certain amount of time. The format originated in Japan, according to the blog Room Escape Artist, and exploded in popularity across Asia and Europe before making its debut in the United States in 2012. There are now more than 2,200 escape room locations across the country, with themes such as jail breaks, Harry Potter, pirates, zombie apocalypses, Vegas parties and lab experiments gone wrong.
In Berrellez and Graham’s room in Newhall, Calif., an expedition went wrong when their “wormhole activation device” malfunctioned, landing them in 13th-century England. The duo had to go through a series of rooms — each one fashioned to a different era — to fix their machine and travel back to the present.
It turns out that high pressure, rather than leading to arguments, actually revealed their compatibility.
“Even though we had only been dating for a week, we were comfortable enough that there was a certain level of encouragement and trust, where it was like, ‘Okay, I’ll take this, and you take that,’ ” Berrellez says. “We had already had kind of a rhythm of being familiar with each other.”
Laurel House, a Los Angeles-based dating coach known as the man whisperer, often suggests escape rooms as a fifth date.
“You see how you each respond to stressors, leadership positions or how you handle each other’s fears or successes,” House says.
Escape rooms require understanding the other’s nonverbal cues or weaknesses, essential factors to helping each other, House says. And as you get to know each other, they can also help deepen a relationship.
“Escape rooms are like what I call a make-or-break vacation date,” House says. The experience is similar to “if you go out of town for the weekend — you’re going to find out if you’re a match or not.”
What about an escape room as a first date? Jonathan Armstrong of Texas, who goes by JD, felt as though meeting for dinner and drinks had become tired and stale, so when the 28-year-old started talking to the guy he is seeing, he suggested they give an escape room a try. For JD, it would be his 17th; for his date, it would be the second.
“After we committed to doing it, I was like, ‘Uh oh, this could go really badly,’ ” JD admits. “I was worried we wouldn’t be showing each other our best faces, but I also thought it might be kind of cool, like an early way to see what someone is like under pressure.”
JD picked an escape room in Fort Worth near a restaurant where the pair wanted to get dinner. They needed to solve an art heist — and though they didn’t do it in time, they had a blast.
“We were figuring things out, and he would make a joke about it, and it showed he could break tension and keep things cool with humor,” JD says. “That impressed me.” The couple has gone on four dates since, and that sense of humor has shined through each time.
Some couples can even measure their relationship not in the years they’ve been together but in the escape rooms they’ve played. Amanda Dupuy is a self-professed enthusiast, as is her boyfriend of three years. In fact, they met in May 2014 when their online puzzle group got together in person for the first time to play Escape the Room’s “The Agency” in New York City. They’ve now done close to 100 rooms together, Dupuy says.
They played five rooms before they started to shift their relationship from platonic to romantic, Dupuy says. She learned that he’s smart and adventurous, that he needs time to process things before he speaks and that he doesn’t give up easily. She also learned what bad habits she needed to confront quickly.
“One of the things that he did a lot in the beginning was that if he knew how to do something, he would take it away from me and do it for me,” Dupuy says. “I had to tell him it’s not okay. I can still do it, and I can still get there.”
Dupuy says that escape rooms can alert you to more dire warning signs — like “if you see that someone is going to throw [something] against the wall. You see how they handle objects, frustration and communication.”
Still, she adds, “the real bonding happened outside of the escape room.”
Couples can even use escape rooms at yet another stage in the relationship: marriage.
Eric Heimsoth and his wife, Katie, started dating in 2012 and played their first escape room in February 2016 while on a road trip across the United States. A year later, in January, Heimsoth decided to propose to Katie in one.
Instead of clues leading to a key to unlock the room, the clues would lead Katie to a ring. But because the room had a James Bond theme — in which Bond wanted to propose to Miss Moneypenny — Katie thought the ring was a prop in the game.
Dutch couple Marloes Bisschob and her husband hosted an escape room as a pre-party to their wedding in the Netherlands, telling guests to meet in the parking lot and surprising them with the activity. Tasks involved breaking out of a prison and a psychiatric ward — complete with actors who yelled at and handcuffed her guests — but most seemed to enjoy it.
“When we now see one group of friends, they ask about the other group of friends,” Bisschob says. But did it bring any lucky singles together? “Unfortunately there were no relationships after the escape room.”