Interview & Review: The Weeping Witch Escape Room
Madison Rhoades unravels the mystery of Cross Roads Escape Games’ newest attraction, The Weeping Witch
When last we checked on Cross Roads Escape Games, they were weathering the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, having abandoned plans to mount a bigger and better version of their 2019 foray into immersive theatre, The Séance. That entertainingly creepy effort was essentially a one-woman show set in a single room, where a medium named Madam Ruby sought help from her guests (i.e., the audience) in order to banish an evil supernatural force. The Séance contained escape room elements (puzzles, hidden objects), but it had a solid storyline that led to a dramatic conclusion with some fairly exciting audience participation.
Now, two years later, Cross Roads Escape Games follows up The Séance with an escape room titled The Weeping Witch, which debuts today. The backstory informs us that Madam Ruby has gone missing, and a new evil force is at work, the titular witch, who can be heard even when she is not seen, her proximity betrayed by her eerie weeping. This time, participants are on their own as they decipher clues, find combinations, and unlock cabinets in order to gather information and objects needed to exorcise the evil spirit before she can suck out the souls of everyone involved – a process which, not coincidentally, takes one-hour, the length of time an escape room traditionally lasts.
Puzzling-solving and group cooperation are key components of the experience, but The Weeping Witch also features a strong scare factor. The set, essentially Madam Ruby’s séance room, has an old-fashioned Victorian vibe that sets the tone. At various times the quest is interrupted by lighting and mechanical effects indicating things going bump in the night. The biggest thrill results from a clever ploy regarding the Weeping Witch herself: having been told to detect her presence by sound, audiences may not expect to actually see her, but…well, let’s just say that, when a little doggie-door type panel suddenly opens, whoever crawls through should expect to find more than a clue inside.
In order to trace the process by which The Séance led to The Weeping Witch, we submitted questions to Madison Rhoades, one half of the wife-and-husband team of Madison and Luke Rhoades, owners of Cross Roads Escape Games.
The Weeping Witch Escape Room: Interview with Madison Rhoades
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Picking up where our previous interview left off: Your original goal for The Séance was to sell it to historic locations around the world, and you had a “bigger and better production” planned at a new location for 2020. Obviously, Covid-19 intervened, but have you given up on staging the play elsewhere, or might that happen in the future?
MADISON RHOADES: Yes, sadly, the pandemic canceled the plans we had for The Séance. Because we re-used a lot of tech and furniture from The Séance for The Weeping Witch, I do not foresee it being re-mounted anytime soon.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Was the sidelining of The Séance by Covid in some way the inspiration for The Weeping Witch – an effort to take some of elements from an abandoned project and put them to good use?
MADISON RHOADES: Yes and no. I have always been interested in the occult, and when it came time to decide what we wanted to do next in the space that we had, this theme and setting just made the most sense. It also didn’t hurt that we had a lot of props and furniture from The Séance that we could use!
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Did you conceive The Weeping Witch to reuse elements of The Séance set? I felt as if I were in the same place (but I have been wrong about this sort of feeling before).
MADISON RHOADES: We did re-use a few furniture pieces from The Séance, but it is a completely new set (but with the same feel). The Séance was placed in our attic, so there were a lot of red drapes to help divide the space and create walls. The Weeping Witch is in its own room, and it allowed us to have bigger set pieces so we could properly adhere it to the wall.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: When conceiving a new escape room, what comes first – story, puzzles, effects, setting?
MADISON RHOADES: For all our games, thinking about what people get to experience always comes first. These are not necessarily puzzles but more like moments that happen in the game that we think would be fun to experience. What goes hand in hand with this is designing what kind of space the players will be exploring and what type of secrets they can uncover in that space. I then figure out the flow and story. Puzzles come last and become the thing that ties it all together.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: After you have an idea, how does that idea become reality?
MADISON RHOADES: I always run my ideas by my husband, Luke, who is the co-owner. He really helps me turn this giant mess of thoughts into a cohesive story and is a great sounding board. He also comes up with a lot of ideas himself. After that, we usually run the idea by a team of people that we want to work with (and have worked with on many projects). For this game, we had the same team from The Séance. Ian Momii was our lighting designer and sound and lighting engineer, Dan Waldkirch was our sound designer, and Christian Mutter was our special effects programmer. Luke and I do all the building ourselves!
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Are there technological challenges/limitations that had to be addressed to make the game work as conceived? Any examples?
MADISON RHOADES: There is always a long period where we find and fix bugs in the equipment, wiring, and programming. Due to the layout of the building, some of the special effects in the room required long wire runs from the network to the props. The EMF radiating off wires nearby sent false signals back to the network. This required us to rerun some of the cables and invest in other technology to “clean up” the signals. The game is very tech-heavy because of all the show moments and special effects. Just debugging everything added an extra month on to our timeline that we didn’t account for.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: It’s early days on The Weeping Witch, but in the past have you ever adjusted the difficulty level after the initial batch of customers? Is it tricky to hit the sweet spot of “challenging but not frustrating”?
MADISON RHOADES: This game has gone through about 6 phases. We usually beta test our games for about a month and invite many groups of new players and experienced players to play through the game. Whenever we design a game, we intentionally make the puzzle as hard as it can be. The puzzles are so difficult that it is impossible for anyone to escape. As we test the game, we narrow things down and slowly make the puzzles more intuitive or cut puzzles altogether. This process not only makes it easier to design the game but also allows us to create a game that can give every group that down-to-the-wire adrenalin rush, whether they are experienced players or not.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: What would you say makes The Weeping Witch different from other horror-theme escape rooms, whether your own Hex or something like Escape Room L.A.’s Haunted Theatre. My experience is limited, but I don’t think many escape rooms include a live scare-actor.
MADISON RHOADES: I think what really sets this game apart is the show moments, special effects, and that the witch herself appears in the game. There are times when the witch is not around and the group gets to solve puzzles, but the moments when she is there are very exciting scenes with programmed lighting, custom music, and ghostly effects. I haven’t seen another escape room with show moments like this before.
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: Can you talk about the differences between staging an immersive play and running an escape room from a perspective of sustainability? The most obvious thing I can think of is that a successful escape room can run daily for years, but horror-themed immersive plays tend to run for a few months at most.
MADISON RHOADES: Immersive theatre is limited because it usually involves memorizing a lot of lines, weeks of rehearsals, and also finding that perfect actor to fit the character. And then, the actors move on to do other things, and it takes a lot of time to rehearse with new actors to keep the show running. We purposely designed this game so the witch could be played by anyone and with minimal training required, which will help it last much longer – hopefully years!
HOLLYWOOD GOTHIQUE: What are the elements you feel are most important to your brand of escape rooms? Obviously, you have a penchant for horror even if your company is not specifically branded that way.
MADISON RHOADES: I have always loved horror films, so I think that will always be my go-to theme. But my husband, Luke, loves comedy, so we also like making wild and ridiculous games like The Fun House. We both love theatre and building sets. So, I think the elements that our brand offers are immersive atmospheres and show moments, which also sets us apart from most companies.
The Weeping Witch Escape Room Game Review
1 – Avoid
2 – Some redeeming qualities
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
First off, we can review only 80% of The Weeping Witch, but we can say it is 100% fun. That’s right: the Hollywood Gothique Crew completed only four-fifths of the tasks before time ran out and the titular terror sucked the souls from our bodies (not that it made much difference in our case). Nevertheless, we think we can give a good account of what you can expect should you dare embark on this dangerous quest.
You should know that the “suck your souls” bit is just hyperbole, the explanation given to justify the one-hour time lock terminating the game: that’s how long it takes the Weeping Witch to devour a soul, so you better finish before then.
That said, The Weeping Witch is an exciting combination of escape room challenges and funhouse scares. Most of your time is spent following clues and solving puzzles, but at various points the supernatural manifests in eerie ways – tingly but not shocking – until the titular character emerges in all her evil glory, her presence illuminated in stroboscopic flashes of light that allow her to move among her victims unseen during the moments of darkness in between. Expect to hear a few screams from your less courageous comrades.
The gameplay walks a narrow tightrope between challenging and frustrating. Escape-room veterans may navigate the complexities in the allotted time, but neophytes should take advantage of the optional helpful hints given by a talking ventriloquist’s dummy perched above the entrance. All it takes is being pointed in the right direction from time to time in order to make even a failed attempt feel enjoyable.
The challenges are laid out in a fairly linear fashion: more often than not, one task needs to be completed before another can begin. This means your group of friends (Cross Roads Escape Games will not mix you with strangers) cannot work separately in different areas; you need to work together, which can be tricky when there is only so much room to crowd around the task at hand. Consequently, cooperation and coordination is key: let one person perform the task while others read the pertinent instructions or keep an eye out for errors.
Be always on guard for your work to be interrupted by unexpected eruptions of paranormal activity, whether it takes the form of flickering lights, unseen voices, or tarot cards flying through the air. Though not a walk-through haunted attraction, The Wicked Witch delivers a similar style of scares, and in some ways the uncanny effect is more pronounced because you are locked into a room with no way out, resulting in more prolonged exposure to the witch when she makes her occasional appearances. Technically, the effect qualifies as a jump-scare, since some participants are likely to jump, but the terror outlasts the initial impact as the wicked witch prowls the darkness engulfing you. It’s an effective but enjoyable form of terror, like being briefly inside a horror movie that aims to thrill rather than disturb.
Even if you do end up having your soul sucked out of your body.
The Weeping Witch takes place at Cross Roads Escape Games during regular business hours: afternoons and evenings Wednesday through Fridays; 11am to midnight Saturdays & Sundays. The game requires 3-8 players; all games are private – no outsiders mixed with your group. Admission is recommended for ages 14 and over. Tickets are $38 per person. The address is 4245 East La Palma Avenue, Anaheim, 92807. For more information visit CrossRoadsEscapeGames.com/the-weeping-witch.