The thought of starting a business in the middle of a pandemic would send chills down anyone’s spine. But that doesn’t mean the timing can’t be eerily, utterly right.
That’s certainly how it feels for Lisa Bernstein and Chris McMillan, two Red River College grads who opened the horror-themed Killer Noob Escapes at the start of October.
Not surprisingly, Killer Noob is a perfect match for the spookiest month of the year. After their shared love of all things scary led to some business-idea brainstorming, Bernstein and McMillan served up a fresh spin on the escape-industry standard.
“We’ve always loved escape rooms,” says Bernstein, who graduated from RRC’s Creative Communications program in 2010. “Three years ago, we went to a horror-themed escape room in Las Vegas and we could not stop talking about it. We loved the aesthetics, we loved how it looked. It was like walking on to a movie set.
“But we also talked about what we would do differently, partially because we found the puzzles to be lacklustre. So that started the ball rolling of planning what types of rooms we were going to do, what our theme was — and in January 2018 we bit the bullet and created the business, and slowly started chipping away at props and puzzles.”
While Killer Noob’s room names (“The Funhouse,” “Buried Alive,” “The Chamber,” and soon “The Upstairs”) might make the squeamish nervous, the goal isn’t jump scares or dumping guests into a haunted house. Rather, the set-ups require visitors to make skillful escapes, solving all manner of puzzles to get out of stressful situations.
As long as group sizes are limited, escape rooms can provide a safe form of COVID-era entertainment — so business at Killer Noob has been steady, with over 100 bookings in the first month.
Bernstein and McMillan also have in effect, including a mask mandate, waiving their cancellation policy for those who are sick, cleaning all high-touch surfaces between bookings, and using UV germicidal lamps while sanitizing.
“It’s a safe, fun option for people to do something spooky for Halloween,” says Bernstein. “The reception’s been great, people are laughing or they get a little spooked — it’s fun to watch for us.”
While they’re ready for business now, there was no shortage of stress in getting Killer Noob Escapes off the ground, including the frustration of not knowing when the facility would actually open.
“In the summer of 2019, we secured a space and we were hoping to open the following March, which obviously didn’t work out for us,” says Bernstein.
“Similar to other small businesses, COVID-19 really took a hit on us and we knew that our next goal would be to open for Halloween. Our themes are creepy and horror-related, so we knew that would be our bread and butter.”
Going with the flow and managing a workload (both Bernstein and McMillan have careers outside the escape room) are behaviours that are ingrained in the two, and both credit their RRC experiences for helping them prepare.
Since graduating from the fast-paced CreComm program, Bernstein has turned her diploma into a successful career in contract public relations, with clients including Bell MTS Place and True North Sports & Entertainment.
Planning events, working in media relations, and writing copy also set her up perfectly for marketing her own business, as she’s taken the lead on getting the word out about Killer Noob.
“The environment we’re in now — you have to think on your feet, there’s problem-solving, creative solutions, and just being flexible — the program helped strengthen those characteristics in me,” she explains.
“Even during the pandemic, we’ve had to adapt, pivot and learn some patience. You have to have all those attributes to succeed in [CreComm].”
McMillan, meanwhile, graduated from RRC’s Electrical Engineering Technology program in 2008. More recently, he’s been taking the puzzles he and Bernstein created and turning them into fully formed, immersive escape experiences.
“Chris does all the programming for the escape room, so it’s pretty intensive. All the wiring, all the building, he focuses on all of that. It’s kind of his niche and I know he learned a lot of those skills doing the program.”
Full-time jobs and a new business are just the tip of the iceberg for Bernstein and McMillan, who were engaged last year and are planning a wedding for next fall. The Killer Noob ownership family is set to expand, too: the couple’s first baby is due in the spring.
“We’re just doing everything all at once,” Bernstein says with a laugh.
For those looking for some pre-season scares, Killer Noob (740B Century St.) is open extended hours prior to Halloween. Bookings are required and can be made online.
Profile by John Gaudes (Creative Communications, 2012)