Who dunnit?: Mystery weekends, board games, and more
There’s something truly exciting about a murder mystery. From the classic stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 –1930) and Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976) to modern classics, like The Usual Suspects (1995) and Memento (2000), these works carry us through sly suspicions, heated accusations and, of course, murder.
While reading a Sherlock Holmes story or watching one of Hitchcock’s films may be satisfying in and of itself, there’s nothing quite like getting caught up in the middle of the intrigue provided by a thrilling mystery. The horror and heart-pumping adrenaline rush you get by following clues to find the killer before you become the next victim is incomparable.
Interactive murder mystery games have found popularity for many generations. These extend far beyond the board game Clue, but the classic who dunnit staple plays and important role. Players collect evidence, make guesses, and throw suspicions on their friends. “It was Miss Scarlet. In the Conservatory. With the candlestick,” you may say before opening the confidential case file in the middle of the board. "Or, maybe, it was Mr. Green, in the study, with the knife."
Since its release in 1949, the game has come into the homes of many, delighting players with dice rolls and a healthy dose of death. And, why shouldn’t it? The inventor of Clue, Anthony E. Pratt (1903 – 1994), knew his creation would fascinate players of all ages; the high stakes, the excitement, and the fun of competition make it irresistible. But, these days, playing the board game isn’t the only way to partake in murder mysteries.
Events where players take on the roles of shady characters – sometimes with the help of costumes, props, and professional actors – are becoming increasingly popular. And, they come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are dinners hosted by a cast of improv actors, like the Murder Mystery Co. in Los Angeles. Other companies create parties around exquisite locations, like the murder mystery weekend with upscale amenities at Twin Farms in Vermont. But, no matter their style, murder mystery games have evolved into a massive industry. One of the larger companies, Keith and Margo’s Murder Mystery, hosts dinners and weekend stays at over 30 locations all across the country.
Yet, some of the most memorable companies are rooted in reality, like the historic Harry Packer Mansion located in the tiny Victorian village of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. The gothic manor with old world-glamour, beautiful stained glass windows, and vines crawling up its columns, served as inspiration for Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion. It operates as a bed and breakfast, hosts wine tastings, and even special events like weddings. While it may seem like an unassuming tourist destination, on the weekends the mansion transforms into an overnight party filled with murder.
The game itself was created around factual events concerning the Packer family fortune, which consisted of millions made from the Leigh Valley Railroad. To solve the mystery of a sudden death, the players take on roles based on members of the famous family and their closest friends. Each weekend, up to eleven couples stay in the opulent guest rooms, embrace their assigned characters, and work to solve the conundrum at hand.
Though many may see an old-fashion setting, such as the kind provided by the Packer mansion, as the perfect place to solve a murder, it doesn’t mean these mystery games can’t have modern elements. In fact, as of late, the trend has shifted from all-inclusive weekend trips in historical mansions to a technology-based activity played in cities.
Murder at the Met, is played at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and is hosted on the game players' cell phones. Though this method may seem less personal than a weekend somewhere historic, there are some great benefits to the experience nonetheless. For one, the game is inexpensive, usually costing about $40. And, it's easy to play; all you needs is time, a few friends, and a cell phone to partake.
One company, Watson Adventures, hosts murder mystery scavenger hunts all over the country – usually pre-planned and personalized for museums, parks, and more. Let's say a team goes to a predesignated place, like a museum, and is given two hours to search for clues that may lead it to a plaque next to a painting or an old staircase to search for clues. Players get to enjoy exploring a new location as they make their way through the game, learning fun facts about the place as they go along.
It seems that no matter the era, people love the drama and high stakes of a good mystery. Fans relish the classic Nancy Drew novels and watch every screen adaptation of the work. Movie-buffs obsess over Rear Window (1954) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), appreciating each twist and unexpected turn. Even Clue enjoys considerable popularity more than half a century after it's debut.
Maybe what we love about murder mysteries has to do with the fun we experience seeing a puzzle unfold to reveal a secret. Or, perhaps, it's about all of the ways it could be put together – the clues we find and the red herrings we encounter. It may have something do with the satisfaction we feel at the end of a thriller, like The Murder on the Orient Express or "The Final Problem." And, of course, it may stem from the feeling we get when we pull out the three cards at the end of a game of Clue and realize we’ve won.
Some say murder is an art, but maybe more credit is due for what happens after the murder. It’s the complicated act of studying suspects, fitting all the pieces into one amazing experience, and expecting the unexpected. May that’s is the true art of an enthralling murder mystery.
Note* Images in the public domain (1,2,4); Image curtesy of the Harry Packer Mansion (3); Image curtesy of Amazon (5)