Getting festively fearful with Screamworks

Chloe Bell
By Chloë Bell, Content Journalist

Bionic caught back up with Gary Stocker, who heads immersive experience business Screamworks. We found out what his team have planned for the festive season and how they’re planning to bring more ambitious ideas to life.

When we spoke to Gary last year, he told us all about Bloodbath, the intense horror experience that had just launched in Bethnal Green.

The event ran for a limited time and was hugely popular, it revolved around fictional (or not, you decide) brothers Jack and Abel. Brave customers would get the chance to uncover the sibling’s murderous secrets as they made their way through the experience, meeting various other characters along the way.

But it’s been a year since Bloodbath launched and although there have been some challenges, Gary is confident that Screamworks is going to keep growing and developing. But what is his latest idea and how does it differ from Bloodbath? He said that as a business they’re still using the same premises in Bethnal Green, but they plan to overhaul it for each event, so the story and vibe is completely different.

“After Bloodbath ended, we took September off to completely update the set for our Halloween Ghost Hunt event. We changed the premises into an old house from the 1900's and we actually got the inspiration from houses that used to be built under railway arches.”

He went on “So we cobbled together a story about a family living in the house back in 1937, and customers would pass through and meet their ghosts and find out what happened to their characters. People really loved it and a lot of the reviews said that although it was completely different from Bloodbath, they still enjoyed it.”

So why the shift from Bloodbath? If the idea was working well, what made Gary want to try something new?

“We wanted to access a broader audience.” He tells us “Bloodbath was deliberately very immersive. It was so immersive in fact that lots of customers were wondering if maybe it was real, that maybe they were in a real serial killer’s home!”

He continues “But with our Halloween ghost hunt, we wanted to try and access a bigger audience and it worked, I think. One of our reviews said we’d still achieved the same level of intensity even though it was a different story. So that was a big success for us.” Gary says proudly “It’s difficult to try something else when you’ve got fan favourites like Jack and Abel, but the marketing this time around was much broader.”

So, did he think the change in characters worked well?

“Yes, I’m glad we made the decision to try something new. This is the strongest cast of characters we’ve ever had. With us being such a new brand, it can be quite scary to try something new but every single person in their role was perfect. We found a rhythm and it was financially profitable as well.”

Escaping business limitations

Bionic was eager to ask how long it takes to plan a new event and discover if the creative process is different for each.

“We started planning for the Halloween event back in the summer” Gary says “So that included doing the research and writing the story. We knew we didn’t want to keep rebuilding the set each time so we thought of ways we could overhaul and change what we already had to make it different from Bloodbath.”

Gary went on to tell us that after the success of Bloodbath and the Halloween Ghost Hunt, he is excited to unveil an even more ambitious project in the run up to Christmas; a spooky nonlinear escape room that will test the brain power of eager adrenaline junkies as they try to uncover what happened to six missing ghost hunters lost in the house.

“Whereas Bloodbath and the Ghost Hunt were about customers making their way around and learning the story, the escape room is about trying to find out about what happened to six ghost hunters who went missing in the house.” Gary explains before adding:

“Their job is to use the ghost hunter’s abandoned equipment to see what they saw and hear what they heard before they went missing. It’s a nonlinear escape room, so you have a blueprint of the house and are free to do it in any order you like. Each room is all intricately themed with different puzzles. You’ve got 90 minutes to solve the nine rooms.”

He continues “The cool thing is that, standardly, there are only around ten ways you can ‘talk to a ghost’. So, each missing ghost hunter has different approaches to talking to ghosts and the individual rooms reflect this. But I love this escape room, I love the juxtaposition between the old house and the new-ish ghost hunting equipment. Plus, I think we’re now one of the largest escape rooms, with nine rooms.”

The escape room has been open for a couple of weeks now, and Gary said that early reviews have been hugely positive.

“We ran a game yesterday and the group said they had an amazing time. But I could also see the level of immersion, the way I see it is if each person is doing something related to the story at all times during their experience, then they’re totally engrossed, and this group were.”

But what is the most difficult part about bringing the concepts to life? Does Gary struggle with that at all?

“We’re in a research and development phase and it’s our responsibility to make sure the game can be completed in a specific amount of time. But it’s also hard to find ways to relate each puzzle to the story, I never want to put objects or puzzles in a room unless it means something to the story.” Gary says “But I think the immersion helps bring the concepts to life, if you can start the immersion early on then people feel part of it.”

Immersed in the story

Bloodbath was inspired by Gary’s love of horror movies (think Psycho, SAW, Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) which are referenced throughout the event. But what was his inspiration for the Ghost Hunt and the escape room?

“Overall, I want to create the kinds of events that I’d like to go to.” Gary explains “With Bloodbath, it was a little more niche and although lots of people loved it, a lot of others thought it was going to be too scary for them or it hit too close to home. I think the supernatural element is a little more accessible.”

 And what is Gary’s favourite part about his experiences in general?

“My favourite part is just watching how customers interact and learn from each story. But it can be difficult, the other day, a member of my team said they didn’t think people realise the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes!”

So, what’s the overall plan for the festive season? Gary says he hopes the escape room will encourage corporate bookings for Christmas parties.

“Are we doing anything festive? Not really, other than we’re trying to put on something that the whole office can come to as a Christmas party or teambuilding exercise.”

And what about his local area? Does Gary think being part of the community is a valuable part of being a small business owner?

“Yeah, I love it here, we have a real community. All the local businesses really help each other out. Whether than be borrowing each other’s vacuum cleaners or offering a discount at a local restaurant or bar if a customer has just finished at a Screamworks event.”

He carries on “It’s nice that we have the ability to do that. A few of our neighbours have unfortunately gone out of business recently, a great Japanese restaurant that seemed to always be full and a local cocktail bar.”

“So, it’s important to shop small, the more businesses are here the more we’re seen as a destination place. We’re all really keen to support each other, I think that’s why I feel a responsibility to keep changing the shows. It costs a lot of money, but I want to help create that destination area.”

Speaking of money, how is Gary adapting to the cost-of-living crisis as we approach the festive season? Has he had to cut back or change the way he’s spending on his business?

“We make sure every single one of our rooms is well insulated, so we never need to have the heating on in there. It’s more the actors that need the warmth when they’re waiting around in between shows, so we heat one room for them rather than heating six areas of the premises. And that saves money.”

“But it’s about being thrifty” He tells us “Thinking about props and ideas and whether they are really necessary. We need to make sure we’re still being fair to our staff as well. So, we are still paying them well and we give them extra money for travel and to get something to eat. My view is that we need to make sure that the actors are happy, especially when we’re asking them to give the performance their all each show.”

Being kind to smaller businesses

And what does Gary think the best thing about Christmas for small business owners is? He says the fact that the festive season is when many people let loose and go out to spend is a plus.

“I suppose in the hospitality sector, Christmas is a time where people are out looking to celebrate.” He says “It’s the time where people are willing to treat themselves, so that’s good for restaurants. bars and experiences like ours.”

And in the spirit of Christmas, Gary wanted to emphasise showing kindness to your local business owners. He opened up about the divide between big and small businesses and told us that a recent experience has had a huge effect on his mental health.

“Recently, I feel the way some big businesses treat small businesses is off at the moment, especially as we’re in a cost-of-living crisis,” Says Gary thoughtfully “I think that automated systems can be great but sometimes they take away that personal feel and can make a business appear aggressive. It can be stressful; you’re thinking about all the bills you have to pay and making sure your staff are happy, and then you get treated like that.”

He tells us “I had an issue a few months back with the local council. Screamworks is classed as a theatre, so we don’t have to pay for certain things. We’d had no prior bills issued to us, then suddenly the bailiffs turn up saying we owe £22,000. Even though it was clearly a misunderstanding, I instantly noticed how aggressive they were. I’m finding the same thing with our current energy suppliers.”

“But after two months trying to bypass their automated systems and get through to a human at the council offices, it turned out they’d gotten our address wrong and that’s why we hadn’t received any prior letters. Plus, the amount we owed was wrong too, it was £200, not £22,000. It was just frustrating that they’d failed to communicate with us and become so aggressive.”

“So many small business owners are suffering from poor mental health at the moment, I just think that bigger businesses are unaware about how their automated systems and aggressive behaviour can be pushing smaller owners over the edge.”

Gary thinks the people should be making an effort to shop small this Christmas, as it really goes a long way to showing your support.

He said “It can be very lonely being a small business owner and everyone is relying on you. Right now, in this economy, people don’t have a lot of disposable income, so small businesses are taking the hit on that.”

So, whether you’re looking for a secret Santa gift, a work Christmas outing or just want to try something scary this December, why not check out Screamworks escape room experience and book your tickets now?

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