Black Market Escape Rooms, Upland, CA
It seems like about once a year, we go and visit an escape room, and then we come back and write about it. Two years ago, it was a Halloween time visit to Crossroads Escape Games and their fun The Hex room. Last year, we checked out Red Lantern's Midnight on the Bayou. And this year, we're back again with another darkly themed escape room--this one created by a rather well known name to those in the haunt community...
Murder Co. is the product of Jon Cooke under his Black Market Escape Rooms outfit. Some people know Jon as the lead singer of the symphonic metal band, Winds of Plague. Others know him as the innovative, prodigy maze designer at Knott's Scary Farm. And some know him as both. And what definitely describes Cooke is a man who is always striving to challenge himself creatively, whether that be on stage or behind a computer or in shop. And so, though it was surprising to hear several months ago that he was stepping down from his position at Knott's, it really wasn't that surprising at all to those who know him. A man who never stays idle, he was off on another new venture.
When Murder Co. was first announced, there were some questions. The buzz going around painted it as a mix between a haunted house maze and an escape room, so which would it be? An escape room with a horror theme, or a haunted attraction with puzzle-solving elements?
Well, we can clear up that first question by noting that Murder Co. is an escape room first and foremost. But it comes with a clever, twisted backstory. Visitors are members who have recently joined the exclusive membership of Murder Co., a secret club that allows its members to witness people being killed. Of course, there are darker secrets to Murder Co., was guests soon find out, and before long, they're entangled in a deadly trap from which they must escape, or become victims themselves! It's a bit of Eli Roth's Hostel, with an added flair of a theater of slaughter.
Murder Co. is an immersive escape room experience, drawing from Cooke's experience designing such hit Haunt mazes as Paranormal Inc. or Shadowlands or Dark Ride. Guests will find the site in the back end of a complex of auto repair shops, away from the street. Look for the RB Carpets sign just after the Chevron and make a left turn from 9th Street when coming from Mountain Ave. And upon parking outside a relatively non-descript building that simply says "Black Market Escape Rooms," the experience begins.
A masked figure opens the doors on the side and motions for arrivees to enter. Inside, a luxuriously gothic waiting room marks a stark contrast to the Inland Empire desert environment. Guests check in by signing a waiver before waiting. And when the time has come, they are played a video to introduce them to the world of Murder Co.
Guests have their pick of one of four "artists" to perform on their visit. Each has a distinctly unique personality--united by a common bond for sadistic torture and murder--and after the selection is made, the group is filed into the audience chamber to observe the killing. What follows is indeed a theatrical display of carnage. The "artist" picks upon several creative ways to maim and disfigure his or her victim, all while the guests presumably watch with great entertainment--something the victim may happen to resentfully notice and react to (entertainingly so, might I add).
Soon, though, it is all over. There lies another dead soul, bloody and brutalized, and the tour concludes.
Or does it? Well, that's where the twist comes in, and ultimately, the guests themselves have one hour to escape from Murder Co. It's not necessarily a convoluted story, but it's a great little plot to set the backdrop for a thrilling puzzle-solving adventure.
Drawing upon their Haunt experience, Jon Cooke and his production team (comprised of a core network of close friends made through years of fraternity at Knott's Scary Farm) have stocked the multiple rooms that comprise Murder Co. with detailed props and theming that will seem fitting to anyone expecting Haunt quality settings. And yes, that is "rooms" with an "s." Whereas many escape rooms are singular rooms filled with a variety of puzzles, Murder Co. will require guests to progress through a series of spaces. It's a nice wrinkle that lends further uncertainty, as visitors can never quite be sure whether a room is the last room to be solved and must plan their time accordingly.
The puzzles at Murder Co. are challenging but not impossible. There are the typical combination codes to unlock, pattern puzzles to determine, hidden messages to decode, and special keys to uncover. As with any escape room, teamwork is key. Though Murder Co. can accommodate groups of up to 8 people, 5 or 6 seems to be an ideal number (and groups as low as 2 people have escaped as well).
Thus, medium difficulty is probably an accurate assessment of the challenge at this escape room. The intent is not to frustrate with exceedingly complicated problems to solve. It's about the experience and being immersed in a do-or-die environment that requires some cleverness from which to escape. Cooke doesn't want everyone to be trapped forever and fall victim (though some groups inevitably do get stuck at one particular part, wasting valuable time because of an oversight). The experience should be fun, and it certainly is! When I visited, the members of our group could definitely feel the tension as time ticked by, or when certain climactic moments arose. The presence of a couple of live actors playing a part in the escape room added a bit of enjoyable immersive theater to the experience, enhancing our immersion into the storyline. And the characters themselves were a riot to interact with.
Murder Co. also engages certain special effects to increase the theatricality of the game. Those who've walked through Jon's mazes at Knott's Scary Farm know that he is always pushing the envelope with use of technology for various effects. Some of that comes into play here, and they work pretty well!
Ultimately, Murder Co. is an impressive first venture into the world of escape rooms for Jon Cooke and his team. It's very well themed, enveloping, and exciting. And it blends excellent storytelling with some sick humor and blood and guts and horror.
It should be noted that this project is entirely self-financed, with Jon relying on a talented group of friends to help with tasks like design, fabrication, construction, theatrical programming, lighting, painting, and such. This is a labor of love, for sure, and the passion shows. Murder Co. continues to make tweaks to its escape room, and it will be interesting to see how it evolves.
People who are fans of escape rooms should definitely stop by, even if Murder Co. may be located in seemingly far off Upland. It's actually not that far from the rest of Southern California--less than an hour away from Orange County when there's minor traffic and a little over an hour from West L.A. under similar medium-light traffic conditions. Head over to Black Market Escape Rooms to purchase your ticket today. Then enjoy the artistic annihilation that takes place at Murder Co.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.