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Egan Escape’s Jason Egan discusses horror brands, genuine scares and the power of authentic immersion.
Jason, before we dive into Escape IT, how did you get started in the experiential space?
It all started with haunted houses. I had been doing haunted houses since I was a kid in my backyard and my basement. I would scare my brothers and build haunted houses out of couch cushions and sheets in the backyard.
Then I started my first professional business, which involved going to birthday parties and dressing up as characters. One parent asked me: “Hey, can you do a haunted house party?” I love haunted houses, so I said: “Sure, what’s your budget?” A normal kids’ birthday party budget was $49, or $89 for a really big party… She said: “How does $400 sound?” I almost fell over!
So, I did a haunted house party. We rented a fog machine, set it up in their backyard and the following day I got so many calls from parents… I was worried that they were going to scream at me for traumatising their kids, but they actually all wanted haunted house parties! I made thousands of dollars that month!
And how old were you at the time?
I was still in High School! I’d never made money like that. Anyway, that led to me coming out to Vegas to do haunted houses and then the Circus Circus casino asked me to create a haunted theme park for them called Fright Dome. We leased their space for 15 years; it was great. The owners then sold the property so that came to close, but I’d already started working with IPs at that point.
“I want you to have that uneasy feeling you only get from something truly immersive.”
I’d done a haunted house with Lionsgate back in 2009, then a My Bloody Valentine house in 2010… I also worked for the late George A. Romero on the only haunted house he put his name to. We did Halloween, Friday 13th, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Collector… Then this market of escape rooms came up and I thought it could be a great way for us to show off our amazing work all year-round, instead of just around October 31st.
Smart. And your first one to launch with that escape room-type experience in mind was The Official SAW Escape?
Yes. I approached Lionsgate and they let me get Saw. Then they let me do it with Blair Witch as well. And now we’ve partnered with Warner Bros. Discovery Global Themed Entertainment to do Escape IT, which has been amazing because It is an iconic horror brand, and one of Warner Bros’ and New Line Cinema’s biggest horror brands. I mean, it did over $1.1 billion at the box office between two films. That’s unheard of in horror.
We’ve mentioned Saw, It, Blair Witch… What does a brand need to have in order to suit what you like to do?
Well, it has to make sense monetarily for us; it has to be able to support itself. There are cult brands out there that might work, but needs to be big enough to draw a sustained audience. And it’s not just about horror – I like mainstream brands too! There’s so many fun brands out there that I’d love to get involved with.
I’ve just gone through the Escape IT experience and it was brilliant. One thing I wanted to ask you about was actually something that happens before you even start… When you pull up, there’s not a big neon sign saying ‘Escape IT’. There’s a ‘Welcome to Derry’ sign and the building looks like an old cinema… And next door looks like a Chinese restaurant, but that’s going to be the entrance to your It: Chapter Two experience. What’s the thinking behind that?
It’s subtle, right? And we get people coming to try and eat in the Chinese restaurant all the time!
Ha! I’m not surprised! You’d never know!
It’s great. I love it. I want you to have an uneasy feeling that you only get from something truly immersive. Yes, I could just project ‘Escape IT’ onto the wall outside but that’s not immersive. As soon as you step foot on this property, you’re in the experience. It’s also why for the outside scenes we’ve extended the ceilings – and why we have particular smells in each of the rooms. And for our It: Chapter Two experience we’ve built a whole Jade of the Orient restaurant. There’s a fish tank in there with real fish! I want people to feel it’s as real as possible.
And with this, I imagine that’s also key to creating genuine scares?
Well, that’s taken 20 years of trial and error – and scaring over a million people! It’s all about testing to see what works. This is not the same attraction that it was the day we opened. We are constantly tweaking things.
But to your point about scares, we know what’s going to work and we know what crosses the line. There’s always a line and I never want to cross it. I’m not going to cross it we want 99% of the audience. I don’t want that 1% that is into that more extreme type of experience – that’s not me. At our experiences, people have a good time and have some good scares.
Not too much, but still very effective! And you also separate the groups in smart ways. I don’t want to give much away but in one of the rooms I had to climb into a coffin – no-one else in my group volunteered! That both functions as a fun way to complete challenges, while also making people feel more on edge while they’re alone.
Exactly! I want to separate you. I want you to have that dilemma of ‘We’re not winning this room unless someone climbs down there!’ It freaks people out! We don’t do anything crazy, but I love the separation because it ramps up that uneasy feeling as you progress through the 16 rooms.
“A lot of this stuff starts life on a cocktail napkin at a Denny’s restaurant!”
And actors are with you throughout the entire experience, acting as a kind of hint system when needed. Why go down this route for hints?
People love having actors in the room. It’s such a fun hit system compared to what you typically get. There are escape rooms where you have to press a button if you get stuck, someone gives a clue through the audio system and you carry on. It completely takes you out of the experience! That’s not what we’re about.
What were some of the toughest things to get right about the Escape IT experience?
The front yard room. It’s always hard making the ‘outside’ feel real when you’re inside. There was actually a pillar in the middle of that room; we had to build a tree around it! It’s a great space and something we’re really proud of. The sewer tunnels also turned out excellent too. To sell those and make them feel real isn’t easy. It’s the same with all the fun unexpected reveals. Some of those curve balls are tough to pull off!
Jason, this has been great. Before we wrap up, where are you looking to open licensed experiences in the future?
The future sites we have planned are in Miami, Dallas and more in Las Vegas. Then hopefully some overseas as well. Vegas has been amazing to us. The city sees 40 million tourists a year, and it’s very, very aggressive in getting more tourists here. So as the city becomes more aggressive, we’ll continue building experiences. It might not be horror every time, but we’ll always create in Vegas.
Last question! How do you fuel your creativity? What helps you have ideas?
A lot of this stuff starts life on a cocktail napkin at a Denny’s restaurant! I sit there, get ideas and start jotting down a floor plan. Then I’ll think about the scenes we want to do. And even though it starts in such a rough outline, you’d be surprised at how close the final floorplans end up being! And we have an incredible creative team and creative partners. Those conversations inspire me.
Jason, a huge thanks and congrats on doing such a great job with Escape IT.
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