Ordinary guys don’t spend too much time thinking about the best escape route out of a restaurant or a home or out of town. And while most people I know aren’t worried about the trackability of their IP addresses or burner phones or whether or not they’ve been recorded on too many security cameras in public, that’s not the case for Lee Wilson. But then again, Lee isn’t exactly having an ordinary moment. He has spent the better part of the last two years creating entertainment experiences for his business, Jackson Escape Rooms, where players come to enter into fictional scenarios which require them to work together to solve puzzles and mysteries in order to escape a room. But what’s even more unordinary is that he will soon be starring alongside his friend, Hilmar Skagfield, in CBS’s upcoming reality show Hunted.
“I looked at the email and thought, ‘I’m going to get my identity stolen. I don’t know about this,’” Lee says of being contacted by CBS’s casting department. After some investigating assured him it was a legitimate inquiry and not the kind of cyber scam usually targeted at our grandmothers, Lee began talking to casting about participating in Hunted.
Set to air on January 22, Hunted will follow nine two-person teams who are on the run as if they are contemporary outlaws. Tracked by hunters, recruited from various military and government agencies, the show’s fugitives are susceptible to being found out by the people they encounter and the technologies we rely on in our daily lives. The show’s grand prize of $250,000 will go to whoever, if anyone, can avoid capture for twenty-eight days.
“The show is custom-made for all of the weird things I’ve loved my entire life,” Lee says. “I loved get-away scenes in movies, and I love reading western novels that are packed full of chase scenes and possies and trackers and all of these different things.”
It’s this curiosity, this fascination with the chase—or, rather, being chased—that’s brought Lee to this unique point in his life, from starting Jackson Escape Rooms to starring in a reality show, and also, I imagine, to making the consumer decision to buy the copy of Survival Wisdom & Know-How: Everything You Need to Know to Subsist in the Wilderness that I notice on the coffee table in his living room where we meet for this interview.
“I think Jackson Escape Rooms has been one of the biggest disruptions to my normal, everyday life that I’ve ever experienced,” Lee says of the business he co-founded with Jared Dauenhauer while working together at Union University. “Working in the same job for eight years in higher education, investing in college students at Union University, that was just kind of my life. It was by accident that Jackson Escape Rooms came along and created this chaos.”
In 2014, Jared created an escape room on Union’s campus as a fundraiser for RIFA. When the turnout exceeded his expectations, Jared and Lee began to discuss the potential of the escape room model to expand into a business. They opened Jackson Escape Rooms in the summer of 2015 as a weeklong pop-up event, and the attendance was so high that the event was extended by two additional weeks. Since then Jackson Escape Rooms has become a permanent source of entertainment in Jackson, open four days a week, and has expanded to two new locations in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Waco, Texas.
It was Lee’s background designing elaborate puzzles for escape rooms that caught the attention of CBS’s casting department in the first place, experience which Lee says prepared him for his most ambitious getaway yet—Hunted.
“At Jackson Escape Rooms I create these experiences where I try to creatively control people’s movements and force them to do certain things when I want them to do it, how I want them to do it, and in a way that’s really enjoyable and surprising. . . . Being on Hunted is like a total roles reverse experience of that, and in some ways it's the same thing, right, because it involved a lot of creativity. It involved a lot of understanding of how patterns work, how people work, trying to get into the heads of the hunters in the same way that I get into the heads of people that are playing an escape room, but then I’m the one that’s trapped. I’m the one that’s inside a scenario that I can’t get out of or that I don’t know how to get out of. And I have to figure it out everyday. There’s always that element of uncertainty. ‘Is this the right decision? Is this the right move? Should we really go here, or should we stay here?’ You’re asking yourself 1,000 questions, and all those little, incremental questions are all escape room questions, just trying to figure out, ‘How do I get out? How do I not get caught?’”
One key to not getting caught: Have yourself a good right hand man. For Lee, this was found in Hilmar Skagfield, a friend since the EF4 tornado that swept through Union’s campus brought them together in 2008. Lee and his wife Beth had just moved to Jackson two weeks prior to the storm, and the couple invited Hilmar to stay with them when students were seeking temporary residences in lieu of Union’s destroyed on-campus housing.
“That’s kind of where we figured out how to live in the midst of adversity together,” Lee says of his friend. “And now Hilmar is like a much older brother or an uncle to my kids, and it’s all because of that experience.”
Lee recalls how Hilmar, upon hearing that Lee’s wife Beth was in labor with their first child, left a Florida State home basketball game and drove nine hours through the night to meet their new daughter. That morning Lee received a phone call from Hilmar, who had managed to sneak into a part of the hospital reserved for immediate family, to let Lee know he was there.
“Which is totally relevant to Hunted because that’s quintessential Hilmar—he can talk his way into almost anything,” says Lee.
In addition to being a smooth talker, Hilmar also had professional experience that a would-be fugitive might find handy. When Lee approached Hilmar about partnering for Hunted, Hilmar was working at a tech startup that collects and analyses metadata from social media, bank accounts, email, and other internet usage for marketing purposes.
“It was really helpful,” Hilmar says, “because as you go along, one of the biggest things when you’re a fugitive, you really have to understand what [the hunters] know about you. That was a big part of Lee and I trying to figure out what they were capable of knowing about us so that we were able to efficiently stay one step ahead, hopefully. . . . Because these guys are the boogeymen of the world. When you look at their roster, it’s U.S. Marshals, CIO of the White House, CIA, NSA, Navy SEALs. I mean these guys are some of the most serious people in the world, and we didn't know who was coming after us at all, so we affectionately called them the boogeymen.”
“I don’t know if it was that affectionately,” Lee chimes in laughingly.
Despite their innate curiosity and draw toward new experiences, the duo’s time on the lam had its moments of weariness. Unlike an escape room, which lasts an hour, Lee and Hilmar were attempting to evade CBS’s hunters for the month of June.
“It was intellectually exhausting because you are constantly processing a lot of information. You’re also imagining scenarios, and you’re trying to solve those scenarios, so you’re always saying, ‘What if? What if? What if?’” says Lee. “‘What if I see a suspicious looking SUV? Should I go down that alley? Or should I run back that way?’ At one point someone said something like, ‘Man, you guys are really getting paranoid.’ And my response to that is, ‘No, we’re not. You’re paranoid if you think somebody is chasing you but they’re not. We’re just being chased.’ It’s a lot of pressure. It’s exhausting. I think the emotional toll it took on us is the thing that surprised me the most.”
One source of consolation, however, was the partnership of Lee’s wife, Beth. Although they were separated during filming, Lee and Hilmar consider her a vital resource to their team. Beth says that her competitive nature helped with the month-long separation from Lee.
“I was all in,” she says. “If I do something, I want to be all in. To set up all the pieces and play to give your best effort.”
“There were moments when she just shone,” Hilmar adds, “and she didn’t let things phase her. She just hunkered down and made things happen, and that was just an incredible thing to see.”
Hilmar goes on to explain that in preparation for the show they researched cartels and high profile persons to learn how they stay hidden when millions of dollars in resources are being spent to find them.
“There were three things we found that you have to have to stay hidden: resources, power, and community,” says Hilmar. “If you have all those three things, you can stay hidden for a long time, but if one of those things breaks down, that’s when people come find you. For me, having to rely on community a lot on the run was really hard in a lot of ways, but actually it was Jackson where I really learned that. I really learned here, in my time as a student and then coming back quite frequently, how community works and what community will do for one another and how to trust community, how to trust people. That was something I was really thankful for my time in Jackson because it really did allow me to set up and think through community while on the run.”
“Something we realized pretty quickly when getting ready to be hunted,” Lee says, harkening back to Hilmar’s mention of El Chapo and al-Qaida, “is that there are not a whole lot of good guy role model fugitives.”
“Jason Bourne doesn’t count,” laughs Hilmar.
While Lee may not have the resources and power of an international drug lord, he has community covered. Choosing to alter the trajectory of his career to start a new business and, together with Beth, to raise a family here, the Wilsons have had to let their roots sink into the Jackson soil. But Lee says they weren’t always so eager to do so.
“It’s kind of like when we moved here, we were a potted plant,” he tells me. “We were set down in this geographic location, but it would have been very easy to pick us up and move us down the road to another place. . . . What broke the pot and changed that dynamic was getting involved at City Fellowship [Baptist Church] and having a deeper understanding of the impact a church can have on the local community and how important it is to give yourself fully to that. The second huge piece was being a part of a food co-op where we were with people all the time, and we were hearing what was happening in their lives. It represented to us a picture of what Jackson could be. Where there’s a lot of creative energy that’s directed at creating cool things that are going to make Jackson a better, more vibrant place.”
Lee and Hilmar are no longer running from CBS’s hunters, but the two have kept their communities in suspense of whether or not they were caught (we’ll have to watch the show to find that out). But despite being privy to the outcome of his role on Hunted, Lee says he’s as excited as the rest of us to watch the show and see how it unfolds.
“I know my firsthand experience of what I did, what I saw, what I encountered, but what was happening behind the scenes, what was happening with the other teams, I have no clue. There’s no contact, so we’re super excited to watch the show and see what the hunters were doing on the ground and what the other teams were doing in their attempt to get away.”
In the meantime, Lee plans to focus on constructing more immersive escape rooms. He’s interested in how narrative can play into the experience. He wants the players to feel like they’re stepping into a movie. He wants them to embody the characters, to break away from reality, if only for an hour, and experience the thrill of being on the run for themselves.
“I think escape rooms can be not just a new form of entertainment but that escape rooms have the ability to tell a story in a way that’s completely unique” he says. “You’re not looking at a screen or playing a game where you’re controlling the controller with your hands or even having a virtual reality visor over your face and imagining you’re in the scenario. You can physically be inside of the story, inside of the experience. I think there’s a lot of room to play with that aspect of escape rooms and come up with new, innovating, exciting ways to put people in scenarios that are out of their comfort zone and that are fun and can teach them things about themselves and other people.”
Josh Garcia is a commercial photographer who landed in Jackson in 2008. With a B.A. in English from Union University in his back pocket, he’s abandoned other adjectives for “home” when describing this city. He enjoys reading, writing, photography, and cultivating community around the dinner table. #INFJ
Photography by Josh Garcia.