“Observation is probably the biggest thing—noticing small details,” Fred Preddy says. He’s sitting in an evocatively lit parlour, wearing a waistcoat that would have been the height of fashion a century and a half ago. As one of the owner-operators of Escape Maze south of Peterborough, Fred’s used to fielding questions about how the experiences at his interactive gaming facility are designed. He and sister Jake Walling, brother Michael Preddy, brother-in-law Michael Walling, and mother Wilma Preddy have been making escape rooms and adventure games since 2014, taking the history of the region circa 1866 as inspiration.
“We usually start with a story we’ve heard that we think is really cool, and then we think about how we want it to end,” Jake adds. “When we give each room a mission, we want the mission to seem important enough to do.” For instance, the Apothecary Crisis escape room challenges players to find the right ingredients for an urgently needed medication. The plot is based on a real-life anecdote from the files of Dr. John Hutchinson, the prominent historical figure who lived in Peterborough’s Hutchinson House.
If some of the period details look surprisingly authentic, it’s because they are. Though the team has made a number of props in-house, many vintage artifacts were donated by locals. Fred is convinced those contributions help enrich the experience. “We kept finding that people liked the hands-on stuff,” Fred says. Through experimentation, the team found that players gravitated to tactile experiences that wouldn’t be possible even in the most immersive digital games. “The puzzles where you turn a big wheel, say—that’s way more interesting to them than figuring out something on a computer.”
Scenes from The Stalking Dead Halloween attraction
As you’d expect from a family-run operation, creating escape rooms is a collaborative affair. The siblings each have their specialties, with Jake handling most of the puzzle designs, Fred handling electronics, and the rest of the family involved behind the scenes. If it sounds like an unorthodox choice for a family business, Fred says planning family reunions actually gave them the idea to turn pro. “We could have anywhere from 50 to 200 people, so we’re used to developing games for large groups of people.”
The gamble paid off, with Escape Maze earning glowing reviews online soon after opening. Fred and Jake credit the success partly to their well-calibrated logic puzzles, which require no outside knowledge and adapt well to team-building exercises or school trips. When it became possible to run modified outdoor events during the COVID pandemic, curiosity and word-of-mouth led to visitors from surprisingly far away. “We were getting people from Windsor, Ottawa, North Bay, Sarnia, Sudbury,” Fred says.
Escape Maze has parlayed that success into a sideline selling custom designs for other companies, but keeps the focus close to home. “Part of our aesthetic is where it is,” Jake says. “We can’t transport this to Toronto—it’s got to be where you feel it’s out in the country.” That holds especially true for the outdoor attractions, which take advantage of the extensive property to create other types of adventure games and experiences.
Stuart Martin and an undead pal tour the Escape Maze grounds
A riverside glamping site is among the latest additions, and a new project called Secret Case Files set to debut in March 2023. After a theatrical intro on the Escape Maze grounds, the action will move throughout the region, with a briefcase of mystery items leading players on a self-guided tour. “Over the weekend they travel to different businesses in town and once they figure out all the clues then they solve the mystery,” says Jake, who feels that drawing visitors from out of the region has led to a mutually beneficial relationship with restaurants and accommodations. “We promote each other, and I think that’s great to have.”
At the time of writing, much of the energy was focused on the Halloween-specific Stalking Dead project. Now in its third year, the experience combines haunted house thrills with gamified challenges—and lots of zombies. The siblings say that makes it more substantial than a typical haunted house, but don’t recommend the experience for players under thirteen due to the ghoulish imagery and some choice jump scares.
On a tour of the grounds, Fred and Jake are clearly proud of the work that’s gone into creating something spooky and immersive. A ramshackle “Human Advancement Research Medicine” medical facility in particular looks like a gauntlet horror fans will be dying to run. Emerging dramatically from his hiding place among some battered mannikins, a zombie in a tattered black coat shambles over. Actor Stuart Martin steps out of character a moment to answer a few questions about what it’s like being a zombie. “Absolutely fantastic, I love making people scream,” he says, with a grin. “it’s always fun to know you’ve done your job well.”
Watch a video featuring the 2022 Stalking Dead experience at Escape Maze