It is 10pm on a Thursday and to kick-start the weekend a group of friends and I are headed to No Way Out, an escape room concept at Jumeirah Lakes Towers in Dubai.
We have heard that the "Maniac" room here is particularly gory and following last month's Imax cinema viewing of It, we're all in the mood for some more creepy thrills.
As we sit on a brown leather couch in the lobby, we overhear some eerie music – and the soft, haunting voice of a girl singing in hushed tones.
Shortly after, we hear a high-pitched scream. It is all coming from The Ring-themed room, where a ghostly girl crawls out of the television screen and scares visitors.
While this sounds more like a haunted-house setting, escape rooms in the UAE are a growing social trend and are generally more enigmatic than they are frightening.
For those who have never tried it, this means being trapped inside a room with two to six people and following clues to find the way out.
You have an hour to escape, and can ask for hints along the way. Cameras are set up all around the room, and a mystery voice guides you along if you get stuck.
Because everything that goes on in an escape room is meant to be kept a secret, so newcomers have no prior help with the challenge, I can't go into much detail about our experience in the Maniac room. But suffice it to say that 56 minutes later, after we have seen a severed head hanging by a rope, eyeballs in a microwave, teeth in a blender and lopped-off fingers on a counter top, our adrenaline levels are sky-high and we're already planning our next visit.
But it is not always fun and games. Go with the wrong people, or person for that matter, and you will be motivated to find an escape, just to get away from them.
When you’re trapped in a room for an hour with a person, you learn a lot about them – how they adapt to challenges, deal with teamwork and flourish; or fold, under pressure.
Dominant personalities will be at their loudest, while natural recluses may sit back and leave the mystery-solving to others.
And you may be surprised by how some handle the game. You could learn that a friend has severe anxiety, claustrophobia or panic attacks when closed off in a small cell or room, or that one of your peers is astonishingly quick to solve riddles and puzzles.
Depending on the group dynamic, fights and arguments break out, or you could leave even closer friends than you were when you entered.
It is a great team-bonding exercise for work colleagues and could even make for a somewhat unconventional date night.
Believe me, though, the thrill can be addictive. After trying out one escape room, you will want to see what others have in store. Research the different options to see what sounds the most enjoyable – brainiacs like to work their mental wheels, while thrill-seekers enjoy spooky effects.
From HintHunt to Escape Reality, Escape Quest and Phobia Dubai, the emirate has a range of options to choose from. There is also Challenge Chambers at Sunset Mall in Dubai and in the extension of Al Wahda Mall in Abu Dhabi.
I haven't tried them all but so far, No Way Out, with a fee of Dh120 per person, tops my list of favourites.
One week later, I am back – this time for the "School of Magic" room, which transports my family and I into the wizardry world of Harry Potter. Once we make our way through the first brick-walled broom closet by pushing a series of bricks in a winning sequence, we enter Hogwarts, claim our wooden wands and step inside the black robes that are hanging in a closet – though the slightly amused attendant later tells us that this was hardly a required task and only
Harry Potter super-fans ever think
to put the robes on.
But it did make the experience all the more magical and at their core, that is what escape rooms are all about. Your end goal is to escape the room but the whole reason you're there in the first place may be to escape your own reality – if only for an hour.
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