By Jeff Wagner

COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. (WCCO) – Standing on a farm outside a warehouse-like building on a soggy October afternoon, a white door in front of me swings open. The man in the doorway is wearing what looks like police riot gear and a bandana across his face. His eyes mirror that of a cat.

“Welcome to Cell Block 61! Bag him,” he yells before another person throws a burlap bag over my head. I am now being led into a sensory nightmare, and I signed up for it.

(credit: CBS)

Amidst yelling and maniacal laughter, I’m blindly led into the warehouse before being ordered to sit down. The bag is removed. My eyes adjust to the light and I’m surrounded by zombies in prison attire, an insane man dressed as a woman with deranged makeup, and a warden shouting orders into a megaphone.

I’m quickly hurried into a cell where coded messages cover the walls. The door behind me shuts. Escaping this terrifying ordeal is up to me. Preventing that is up to them. Suddenly, a man they call “The Bug” is tossed into the room with me and handcuffed to my wrist. He contorts his body as though he’s possessed by a demon, screaming for me to help him.

My personal space is gone. My anxiety is peaking. All the while, I’m trying to figure out the combination to a padlock.

“Most people just say this is an experience like they’ve never had before in a haunted house,” said Adam Peck. He couldn’t have been more correct.

This is Cell Block 61, the newest craze at the Haunting Experience on Highway 61 where Peck is one of the co-owners.

It’s an escape room inside a hands-on haunted house where customers become inmates for a 40 minute horror movie-like experience. Unsurprisingly, it’s for people 18 years old and up only.

“The only control that they have is the control that we allow them to have,” said Danny Jorgensen, who portrays the character Sgt. Buck Nutty, one of many actors who excitedly guides the event along.

Up to 35 customers can participate at a time, with more than 20 actors doing their exhaustingly best to distract, scare and overall entertain them.

(credit: CBS)

“[Customers] have to solve a series riddles and puzzles and then they have to work together with all their neighbors in the different cells to try to get out a final door,” Peck said.

From there they enter a maze of creepy rooms where comfort levels are continuously challenged. Actors will pull customers into closets, temporarily locking them inside. Others have yelled at customers to recite nursery rhymes. On top of that, most of the venue has you walking in near darkness.

“We’re pushing them, and if they push back a little bit we’re alright with that too,” Jorgensen said.

Unlike a traditional haunted house, customers must sign a waiver before entering, acknowledging they’ll be subjected to vulgar language and of course be touched. Actors will put their hands on customers’ shoulders, arms below the elbow and legs below the knee. Sometimes they simply grab a person by their wrists to put them in another room, or it could be a simple tickle behind the ear as you feverishly try to solve the padlock.

It’s why Peck said he only has his must trusted actors involved.

“[The actors] can read people. Everybody that we have doing this knows how to read a situation, and so they can go full bore intense on somebody but if they feel that that person needs a little bit of space, they know to back off right away,” said Peck.

“I can tell if [customers are] either scared or if they’re having a good time or if they need to have a little bit more of an intense situation,” said Tim Wessinger who acts as Warden Buckamuse Bushey.

There’s also a safe word customers can say to immediately be removed, something the actors take pride in hearing.

“I love the screams,” said Wessinger. “I feed off [the screams]. It energizes my batteries.”

But that fear is rooted in Halloween fun.

“The motto for the Haunting Experience has always been ‘If you can’t scare them, make them laugh,'” Wessinger added.

The ultimate goal for customers is to escape within the time limit, but Peck and his actors make sure it’s not an easy mission.

“It’s pretty slim,” Peck said how often people find the exits.

From freaking out to fan-girling, the reviews have been raving. One customer who just finished Cell Block 61 told the staff, “I feel alive! This is amazing.”

The company’s Facebook page is filled with glowing reviews of how terrifyingly fun and interactive it is to participate in an escape room within a haunted house.

Peck gives credit to the set design, which he said his staff spent countless hours putting together. But he said the majority of the fun comes down to the actors.

“All of our actors pulled this thing together, created their own sort of monster,” said Peck.

Unlike the haunted hayride and house, customers must reserve a spot ahead for Cell Block 61 since it’s only featured certain nights of the week.

Jeff Wagner