Under the cover of darkness, I slip through the large French doors of the ranch house. The same song can still be heard on repeat, emanating from a record player in the den—and it hides my footsteps well. I keep my flashlight off, moving carefully through the darkness, ensuring I make as little noise as possible. I head up the stairs, toward my next clue, and one step closer to victory. I push open the bedroom door and quickly scan the room: it is lit only by a television playing an emergency broadcast signal and appears to be empty. I move to the desk to search for a clue when the door slams shut. I freeze as a hand grabs my shoulder, accompanied by a child-like giggle and the words, “Come play with me.” “Welcome Home.”
Welcome Home is the first immersive escape room by The Reality X, a new company created by Cameron Cooper. Welcome Home takes its inspiration from movies like You’re Next and The Strangers, and is currently the closest you’ll get to living out those horror films. Giving guests the freedom to explore a vast property, solve puzzles, and avoid masked men (and a truly frightening woman), Welcome Home will be a unique experience for every guest – and each return visit.
The experience starts when guests are invited by their Cousin Ian to a multi-acre mansion in the middle of nowhere. He is picking the successor to his fortune, but to choose a winner (who also earns a $250 grand prize) amongst the guests, he has created some tests for them—and invited masked monstrosities to stand in the way.
Cousin Ian serves each guest with a menu. But what’s for dinner are experiences, or tracks, that offer different narratives and sets of puzzles—and also offer replayability for returning guests. While the descriptions are vague, the titles are enough to hint at what you may experience. These range from “Abduction” to “Plague” to “Molly” to “Maniac”. With an experience chosen, you are given a journal that acts as your bible for the experience (if you are ever stuck, refer to this!), a bag to keep your clues, and a trusty flashlight that will be your best friend – or your greatest enemy.
Cooper describes this experience as a social experiment: fourteen guests can experience Welcome Home, but there are only six tracks, so people inevitably will be paired up on a given track. But it is up to the participants to determine whether they will work together or individually. In a normal escape room, I would suggest that two heads are better than one in terms of solving puzzles, but in a game where stealth and avoidance is necessary, the bulk of a large team may, in fact, be a detriment. Further, if a team member is captured, caged, or restrained, the rest of the team will lose valuable time trying to free the victim. Each group will be different and there is definitely a joy in playing with your friends, but for me, to win, this is an individual experience.
With the logistics of the experience discussed, it’s safe to say Welcome Home succeeds in being one of the most tense and frightening experiences I’ve encountered to date. While it is not physically aggressive (the masked stalkers never put more than a single hand on me), the fear is tangible here—and this is where Welcome Home truly differentiates itself from other escape rooms or immersive experiences. There are other experiences that place you in scary situations, whether they are physical or psychological, but Welcome Home allows you to place yourself in the situation. This is something I touched on in Heretic’s Vanish, in which guests were given the agency to continue on their own and had to want to progress the narrative. Welcome Home takes this a step further by making the entire experience audience-driven. Beyond the introduction, there are no predefined story beats or events; instead, every scene you get is personal to you and occurs because you made a noise, turned on your flashlight, or didn’t escape quickly enough. Guests could hide the entire experience and not solve a single puzzle if they wanted; but if you want to win, it’s up to you to search out the clues you’ll need to solve the puzzles. This is an experience for you, and because of you.
This palpable fear is a direct result of the talented Welcome Home actors. I cannot commend them enough. Each is varied with distinct personalities, truly inhabiting the character that they have become. Ian Heath (The Rope, Remember Me: Germaine) plays The Clown with a vibrant ferocity, manically laughing as he chases you from room to room; Anthony Olivares plays the terrifying Mr. Bun Buns, who has a knack for appearing silently out of the darkness with a head tilt rivaled only by Michael Myers; Cason MacBride (Castle Rock Experience) as Dr. Plague collects victims with more finesse than a lepidopterist collects butterflies, marching them across the property as they lose valuable minutes to the clock; and Beth Stranathan (Blackout, Castle Rock Experience) plays The Woman, who was perhaps the most frightening to me due to her ability to broadcast her presence via her baby doll and her overtly playful nature.
The location is as much of a character as The Clown or The Woman. While the first and second weekends of Welcome Home utilized different locations, the vast ranch house was gorgeous. Under a blanket of stars and isolated from any neighbors, the location truly felt disconnected from the outside world. Clues and puzzles were distributed among barns, chicken coops, and various wilderness locations on the multi-acre property. But it was obviously the ranch house that remains the most memorable. Each bedroom provided a balcony exit and a front door leading back into the house, allowing guests an in and out of the property when needed. This proved essential for some of the most notable cat-and-mouse moments of the night. Further, the balcony provided the quintessential location for The Woman to allow her baby doll to giggle as guests approached the mansion. This sound sent chills down my spine knowing I had to enter and face her.
It’s in these nuanced details that Welcome Home truly shines: reminiscent of You’re Next, a song plays on repeat in the living room providing a soundtrack that masks footsteps (your own and those of your stalkers); the playful, devious ways in which The Clown toys with his victims once he’s captured them (I’m not spoiling this one); the giggle of The Woman’s doll creates a Pavlovian response of fear in all guests; and the scratching of tree branches against the bag over your head as you are led deeper into the wilderness by a masked captor. But the nuance that stood out the most to me is a new one: if you are lucky enough to win and become the successor, you are given an opportunity to join the family and turn against your friends in one of the most glorious reversals I have experienced.
The puzzles are clever and require a bit of ingenuity. While you have two and a half hours to solve your track’s series of puzzles, the inclusion of the masked stalkers adds a tension that makes it harder to think and rushes you into making mistakes. Simple puzzles become difficult, and finding an item may take two or three tries if you keep getting interrupted by a pesky perpetrator. Cooper also added a layer of fear into the puzzles; my track had me mixing chemicals and gathering pills, which was surprisingly fun given the circumstances. The Reality X also finds interesting ways of incorporating your masked friends into the fun. While the experience succeeded wonderfully for me, there were a few kinks to iron out amongst other tracks. But as we attended their fourth show ever, it is to be expected—and I have full faith that all tracks will be running smoothly in future iterations.
I must commend Cooper for giving audiences the freedom to play it their way in this experience. While he does give the rule of “no running”, he does not tell us that our flashlights need to be on the entire time or that we must only walk. In my opinion, if he did, the fear in this experience would be severely neutered. My favorite moments were maneuvering the property stealthily in complete darkness or quickly moving away from stalkers that were pursuing me, narrowly escaping by hiding under a bed or behind a tree. Could I have tripped in the dark? Yes, definitely. But if I was worried about that, I would have turned my flashlight on.
While there are a handful of other experiences providing the ability to live a horror film, The Reality X has created the first in which I was given the ability to choose how I play the game. This can be a detriment for those not wanting the onus of progression solely on themselves, but for those willing to push forward, it’s truly a thing of beauty. Combining this freedom with clever puzzles and exceptional actors, Welcome Home provides a look into the future of immersive escape rooms, proving that they are no longer limited to just four walls.