Simon Stokes trades in terror, serving up squeals with a seasoning of cypher. Known to his colleagues as The Key Master, he’s the founder and creator of Nottingham’s Escapologic, home to one of the UK’s most popular escape rooms. For those in the dark, an escape room is an hour-long immersive adventure; sixty minutes in a uniquely themed locked chamber with up to five players. Escape means cracking codes, unveiling secret doors and unravelling the mind of the character whose world you temporarily inhabit.
Simon is smart and when to comes to combining creativity and code, he has a brain which both concerns and consumes him, but one which 60,000 people have enjoyed in the last year and are very thankful for. He said: “Escape rooms are new, they’re clever and people have been playing the games on their phones for years, now they want to play them in real life.
“During the past twelve months I’ve been at the wrong end of a male wielding hammer, made a fully-grown man wet himself, another physically sick and caused countless panic attacks but people love it and keep coming back for more.”
Starting in Japan about ten years ago, the rooms are now an international phenomenon with popular themed ones opening every month. Simon has played 80 rooms himself and escaped all bar one, The Bad Clown in Macclesfield which is no longer open. As the brain behind each of Nottingham’s eight underground rooms on Castle Gate Simon has created two which are 18+ experiences; The Butcher - blood on walls, psychopathic backstory and scary enough to make a group of bouncers cry: “I’m a big Nellie get me out of here!” (true story) and Howitz – close your eyes and think abandoned toy shop with resident ghost.
Simon said: “I do worry about my mind. The Health and Safety Executive approves everything I do but they did draw the line when I suggested putting a head through a noose hanging from the ceiling as the final task to release the door. I have thought about filling rooms with water and also googled how much electricity I can legally put through the human body, but so far they are not having any of it.”
The rooms opened in October 2015 and success rates for escape vary between 15 to 50%. Not all veer towards the macabre and many can be played by twelve-year-olds and above and challenge the mind rather that the metal. His first room, Contraption, demands that the team solves physical and mental puzzles, cracks cryptic codes, and unravels the secret escape route left behind by the mysterious inventor. His second, Crypt, involves a legendary explorer Crispin Sheppard, who mysteriously vanished leaving rumours of an ancient curse shrouding the stones of his pitch-black tomb.
When Simon is creating a room, he quite literally sits in the middle of it – always an underground and abandoned building – and waits for inspiration. He added: “I sit there and wait and see what comes through the walls. It’s like writing, it will either come that day or it won’t. Some rooms naturally lend themselves to stories.
"When I sat in the room which is now Butcher, it was very cold and there were shiny white tiles on the wall. It was obvious really.”
While the punters emerge onto the street either thrilled or disappointed – there’s never any real escape for Simon who quite literally inhabits the characters of the backstory as he transforms a blank room into an hour-long immersive adventure. While he was designing Curio, the one about a treasure hunter who spent a lifetime collecting trinkets from all four corners of the globe, the protagonist followed him around 24 hours a day. He said: “I genuinely thought there was something wrong with me. It was as though I had taken a drug which opened my mind to creativity and I seriously wanted it to stop.
“The protagonist Alexander Curio lived with me for eight months and followed me everywhere, there would be weekends when I wouldn’t sleep. When I had finished writing it, he told me it was all wrong so I had to scrap it and start again. It has since been voted one of the best rooms in the UK so I guess it was worth it.”
“Imagine a room full of pin boards like police lines, that’s how I would describe my mind. I have learnt to control it but it can be exhausting and there are times where I have to quite literally defrag."
There is however a calmer side to the man who challenges the minds of many and often scares people for a living. The 43-year-old father of two boys and owner of four chickens, two rescue cats and an eleven-year-old Bassett hound is at his happiest when at home with his family. It’s true that nothing, either living or dead, scares the man apart from wasps, yes wasps, but he does have a penchant for musical theatre, collects playing cards and is drawn to the beauty of wildlife and grand architecture.
It’s also the case that despite the very real terror experienced by adventurers who play his rooms they are all in very safe hands, watched at all times by a fiendishly friendly troupe who are all expertly trained in dealing with panic. Nice things also happen in the rooms; a newly born baby and a dog have accompanied enthusiastic family players and there have been eight marriage proposals.
Simon concludes: “I can’t think of anything else I would rather do with my life and the reality is that I just love Mondays. I have a fantastic group of staff around me, we all work hard, play hard and have a lot of fun. We don’t do it for money we do it for love.
“Making people happy is very rewarding and all I can say is that I take it very personally when people don’t enjoy themselves in my rooms.”
Simon is currently working on creating Leicester’s Escapologic in the vaults of the former NatWest bank in St Martins. Opening in the new year, there will initially be three rooms with eight planned for the end of 2018. The rooms are a World War II missile communication base, a nuclear reactor room and one which will involve travelling back in time to a Victorian laboratory in a bid to remove a strain of bacteria to prevent an outbreak in the present day. Enter if you dare, duck.