MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — An elderly woman in hospice, in the end stages of Alzheimer’s disease, asks her nurse, in a moment of clarity, to write to her son with a desperate request.
Her last wish: Find her cherished necklace and earrings, a gift from her great-great-grandmother — lost in two rooms at her home — using clues hidden in her journals.
So goes the story line of a mind-boggling treasure hunt at the new adventure room Mind Puzzlers at 321 Main St.
A dream of Middletown natives and siblings Jonathan Gerolami and Melissa Monarca materialized this spring when they opened the business that inspires in their customers head scratching, rumination, a heavy reliance on gray cells, and the satisfaction of a game well played — and won.
“I love watching how people communicate with each other, seeing their faces after they’re successfully done with the challenge,” Monarca said.
The concept is a return to games enjoyed by the family — in the days before electronics captured everyone’s attention — “Whether they’ve had zero clues or multiple clues, seeing them having fun together,” she said. “Seeing everyone get together as a family and doing something simple is a lot of fun to watch and that’s how we get our joy,” Monarca said.
When the a group of between two and eight people first enters, it is presented with a narrative about a retired principal by way of a series of clues and puzzles with the mission of finding her jewelry in a race against time, Gerolami said.
It’s likely that each person won’t absorb all of the story, so that’s when group think steps in.
Many of the props are lovingly handmade by Gerolami, a “haunt” set designer, scare actor, puzzle enthusiast and artistic talent. In one room, an intricate circular slot puzzle hangs on the wall, which he created, with a key that must be maneuvered through pathways.
“It’s kind of funny when I explain it to (customers) because you’ve got to twist it because it’s still sort of new,” said Gerolami, who by day works in the insurance industry. “They’re playing with it and not solving it,” he said with a laugh, clicking his hand through the labyrinth-like tiny passageways.
Monarca, a nurse, said the two caught the mystery-solving bug after volunteering at a haunted house for seven years.
“We thought it would be really fun if we had our own business and be able to do this on our own,” she said, as a way to generate funding for what their big target is: a haunted house of their own.
The game is a step-by-step process of where to find the elderly woman’s four journals.
Each member of a team arrive at the understanding of facts presented to them at a different pace and level, which adds to the excitement and adrenaline rush of being the first to solve a conundrum.
Seemingly innocuous elements of a room have the potential to be clues that will unlock a padlock and eventually break open the mystery.
If participants are stuck on a puzzle, they can ask for clues, Gerolami said, and if they are lingering for a while on a certain portion of the adventure, he or Monarca will give them a hint that should move them closer to the final discovery.
“Sometimes they get so wrapped up that they forget to ask for clues,” he said.
Still, he and his sister aren’t of the callous type. “We want them to have a high success rate and family fun,” said Gerolami. “Our worst problem that we have is we want to help so often that we blurt it out. We’re too helpful at times, so we’re trying to learn how to scale back and wait for people to ask questions.”
The two started modestly with a story that plays out in two connected rooms.
“It’s not that we wanted it really big, we wanted it detailed because that would set us apart from a lot of the haunts that are out there now,” Monarca said. “My brother has a tremendous artistic ability, so we want to showcase that.”
Gerolami shows off the photo of a huge, gray brick medieval castle that was part of a set at the Haunted Isle at the Connecticut Trolley Museum around Halloween.
“It’s made out of foam and he had to carve it and then paint it and it looks real. It’s amazing,” Monarca said. “His ability to make something out of foam look real, it’s just crazy.”
“I start with a thumbnail sketch, then a grid build print, get my estimate for supplies and start building,” her brother said.
That is the kind of attention he gives to Mind Puzzlers, too.
“Some are physical puzzles, while others are logic-based puzzles,” he said, and clients derive pleasure from their ‘Aha!’ moments.”
For this initial premise, Gerolami said, “I didn’t want to do a serial killer (a traditional game show theme for haunters who go the escape room route). I wanted something fun, family-focused.”
“I didn’t want the bank robbery or the crypt,” Gerolami said. “I wanted something a little different.”
The duo arrived at the missing heirloom conceit after Gerolami read an article on how puzzles can help tame Alzheimer’s symptoms for a pace.
“You have to figure out why this woman would have so many puzzles in her house,” said Gerolami, a longtime Dungeons and Dragons role player.
“This is just bare bones and people are really enjoying themselves — it says a lot,” Monarca said. “It’s great. I love it.”
One woman who was about halfway through the adventure recently was holding exactly what she needed to solve the puzzle, Gerolami explained with a childlike excitement. “She walked around the room about 15 times, which was very frustrating.”
He had to fight back the urge to assist.
Gerolami is well-read, so the books in the wall case are carefully chosen, he said, for a good reason — which he declines to reveal, in case he tips off a potential client and ruins his or her fun.
By winter or early next year, he and his sister plan to concoct another scenario to change up the game a bit, about a paranormal explorer involving a ghost, but it won’t be scary, he assures people.
Talking about Mind Puzzlers evokes something Monarca remembers a mother of a girl on her daughter’s dance team saying.
“‘That is the first time that I’ve spent one hour thinking about nothing else than that puzzle. It was such a joy. Everything else just disappeared,'” she said, quoting the woman.
Information from: The Middletown Press, www.middletownpress.com
Information from: The Middletown Press, http://www.middletownpress.com