The Haunted Basement’s Soft (and Sticky) Underbelly

In a new space after 13 years, the artsy Twin Cities scare fest has a radical mission—and, despite what you’ve heard, it’s not to make you throw up
The Haunted Basement, 2018
The Haunted Basement, 2018

Photo by Dan Norman/Courtesy of the Haunted Basement

The Haunted Basement no longer haunts a basement, but much like the creatures that have inspired it over the past 13 years—Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Carrie—it simply refuses to die.

The spooky, adult-oriented crowd-squeezer—probably the most written-about haunted-house attraction in the Twin Cities—moved a couple Octobers ago. Its original owner, the Soap Factory art gallery, lost its old-bones warehouse in northeast Minneapolis. There, dank subterranean passages had made the artist-crafted frights feel authentic.

So, where has the Haunted Basement put up shop this year? Where, until Nov. 2, is it now hosting choose-your-own-adventure tours of gory edge-pushing and multi-sensory subplots? A shopping mall. The former Herberger’s department store, that is, attached to the Rosedale Center, in Roseville.

Some have cracked jokes (“Scarier than Black Friday”). But aside from first-ring digs, not much has changed. The Haunted Basement still brings in fresh blood, with eight room designers this year. Staff have prepared a smorgasbord of deliciously awful smells, including beef (“like if you wrapped an old tenderloin in a sweaty shirt,” a co-director told me), feces (“even worse than it sounds”), and gangrene. The odors still come from St. Croix Sensory, in Stillwater—either spritzed on fabrics or propelled into rooms via small, fan-outfitted tubes called “smell cannons.”

And this year, Haunted Basement staff really had to angle those cannons just right. The erstwhile store extends uninterrupted, without the old basement’s twists and turns. They improvised some walls out of piled furniture and hung sheets. Stenches risk intermingling across nearly double the Soap Factory’s surface area: 20,000 square feet, where designers have toiled to perfect 19 rooms since June. They brought in countless props (patched-up taxidermy, a caged toilet, a bloody aquarium). Actors get to use them in a newly cavernous space, for committed-yet-liberated improv (crawling out of recesses, rushing in for a catarrhal snarl, administering Halloween baptisms, dancing like Hi-NRG maniacs, squealing, “I’ll take off mine if you take off yours!”).

All in all, it takes 30 to 90 minutes to complete, a front-of-house staffer told me on opening night. That depends on how much you interact, and on how much of the shadowy storyline you choose to uncover.

But first, examine that front-of-house space. Makers hawk spooky crafts while employees box up coats, phones, wallets, watches (lest someone shake you by the ankles, they say). This holding area alone is the size of what the Haunted Basement had to work with in its interim venue. (After the Soap Factory, it spent the past two years in a defunct General Mills facility.)

Its new space, the old Herberger’s, shuttered last year, prompting Rosedale to reach out. Now, ticket takers don’t have to stand out in the cold, actors have dressing rooms, mall security is on hand, it’s in a well-known spot, and drivers get multiple tiers of parking. Dawn of the Dead taught us that malls are the suburban equivalent of creepy castles, but the perks, overall, skew more practical than petrifying. There’s no more stomach-churning descent.

Instead, we get something only the high ceilings of a shopping center can evoke: Stumbling into a room that felt open, intimidating, and monastic, I hailed a relatively benign creep (“creep” being the pet name used internally for actors’ characters) to ask, “What is this place?” He was mostly non-verbal. Other patrons obediently held their palms against a column. A different creep—shirtless, with black X’s taped where it counts—ushered them through a screened door. She came back; they were gone. I stood beside a pool. The distracting self-soothe of a waterfall. “Kneel,” she said.

The Haunted Basement, 2018
The Haunted Basement, 2018

Photo by Dan Norman/Courtesy of the Haunted Basement

Progressively Scarier

Another thing that hasn’t changed: The Haunted Basement is a nonprofit driven by the artistic ethos of its original owner, and it prides itself on a legacy that patrons might merely guess at.

“We call ourselves a radically inclusive organization,” co-director Garrett Vollmer says, “so we’re very cognizant of issues concerning gender and LGBTQAI issues and marginalized groups of any nature.” Everyone on staff signs a community agreement. “It basically says that we are a community, and you will respect each other, and you will hold yourself accountable, and you will make sure everyone is respected in whatever way they need to be”—by calling out other staff members if necessary.

This might sound counterintuitive. How do you reconcile respectful inclusivity with the boundary violations inherent to the Haunted Basement experience (granting that you don’t purchase “No Touch” or lights-on “Fraidy Cat” tickets)? Guests accept a litany of risks: fetid offenses, sudden noises, uneven walking surfaces, projectile liquids, grabby hands, PTSD triggers.

But a threshold does exist. “We don’t want to deal with anything revolving around racial violence or anything [traumatic] in that vein,” Vollmer explains. “But we like to make sure that we allow the designers to explore whatever avenues that they can.”

And they do. Safe spaces here are nonetheless designed to be punctured—by a shrill child, a beaked weirdo, a masked proselytizer insisting you read from a paperback entitled The Case against Natural Childbirth. One grim cellar dweller roared, in what sounded like a rebuke of so-called snowflakes, “We’re all going to burn down here—what makes you so special?!

At the same time, there’s something apt about a socially progressive or queer reading of all of this. Think of campy, crypt-ified androgyny a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Marilyn Manson; the gay-icon status of Elvira and the Babadook; or how pop singer Kim Petras, part of the LGBTQ+ community, embraces spookiness in October.

The symbiosis between horror and marginalized status is too delicate to articulate here. But it seems to involve feelings of otherness. It appears to tie into the sort of narrow-minded rejection that Mary Shelley’s monster faces early on in Frankenstein. As Vollmer carefully puts it, “[Horror is] for marginalized groups to really get together.”

In that way, the Haunted Basement exposes interesting tensions. Toward the end of my run, a rowdy group of 40-somethings gabbed loudly about getting chided earlier for touching one of the creeps whose costume involved going topless. The creeps have to sign community agreements. Patrons, meanwhile, bring in a scourge of outside values.

“We will probably have more ejections on a Friday or Saturday than we will on a Thursday and Sunday,” Vollmer says. “You have to make sure that no one’s making any sexual remarks toward our performers. We have to make sure that our performers feel safe, and that we can make sure the people coming through have a good experience.”

Everyone else I witnessed seemed respectful. They went along with Blair Witch Project scenarios—standing alone, stroking weird textures. And when they were done, I watched them high-five with the wholesome, childlike energy of all-in teamwork.

The Haunted Basement, 2018
The Haunted Basement, 2018

Photo by Dan Norman/Courtesy of the Haunted Basement

Social Vomit-ary

Eight years ago, you might have run from Garrett Vollmer. In his first round with the Haunted Basement, he was the creep in a flesh suit, waiting with a flashlight at the end of a system of cattle pens.

Today, when he’s not working for a data company, Vollmer performs and writes with St. Paul theater company Dangerous Productions, known for over-the-top comedy and horror. He wrote Home for the Twin Cities Horror Festival last year, delving into toxic, small-town masculinity and overseeing a lot of “blood rehearsals.”

“I personally deal with issues of anxiety, and horror is a really good avenue for that,” he says. “When you’re watching a scary movie, or when you’re working on [projects like the Haunted Basement], it’s nice because you can watch and identify the source of anxiety, and then you have a release for it.” In this way, horror is therapy, or exorcism.

Before the season starts, prospective room designers submit to a slush pile of personally identified fears: obscure mythological beasts, Armageddon, a political plague, common birds. Actors perform monstrous warm-up exercises at group auditions—trying to scare one another, picking up tricks to “not walk as a person, potentially.” Vollmer’s preferred method comes from clowning: Start with your normal gait, then lean into tics. “Like, I know that when I walk, my right arm moves more than my left arm. So, how do you accentuate that? How do you bring it to a place that’s thoroughly wrong?”

Exorcism occasionally goes for the gut. DMDS, from the St. Croix Sensory, may or may not make a return this year. Redolent of corpse, the scent has caused patrons to vomit in the past. “We don’t necessarily want that,” Vollmer says.

If they do use DMDS, they’ll likely spray it on fabrics, rather than pumping it out. “That makes it feel a little bit more organic, too, because as you walk around, you’ll be like, ‘Oh, there’s a smell coming from that thing,’ rather than, ‘This entire room smells.’”

From the beginning, the Haunted Basement has eschewed rote scares for the “art of horror”: those odd details that enthrall the thoughtful, as in a high-intensity art exhibit. When I went, my two friends seemed more interested in the 30-minute gauntlet, dodging arm-grabbers, readily scaring but never trilling the safe-word, “uncle.” Even they said it felt, at times, more like a house of themes than a house of screams.

To take the 90-minute crawl means to pursue a trail of crumbs. It means to turn over the cracked egg that a vulture-cretin has handed you, to find the soft, sticky spot. It’s to participate in something strangely enriching.

And if Vollmer’s right, that horror serves as therapeutic commentary (for example: how zombie-movie motifs have morphed along with social anxieties, from hive-mind communism to dead-eyed capitalism), then the Haunted Basement sinks its fangs into issues many of us may otherwise explore only subconsciously.

“Since there are a lot of folks from marginalized groups in our community, it really offers up a unique experience,” he says. “A lot of other haunted houses—which are great still—will have things a little more along the lines of ‘normal scares,’ whereas we pride ourselves on the ability to think in different ways.”

The Haunted Basement, 2018
The Haunted Basement, 2018

Photo by Dan Norman/Courtesy of the Haunted Basement

“Do you have bones?”

I had a minor meta-mission in the Haunted Basement: to find the peanut butter, which my ticket listed as an allergen. Weird, but I had a guess. (Now, part of the Haunted Basement’s intrigue is that it’s new every year; it feels curmudgeonly to spoil anything, so I’ll settle for a little vagueness.)

Designers typically build rooms around characters, Vollmer says, assisted by an extensive costume department. What’s this creep’s home environment? Where would this “bone beast” live, obsessively digging, gesturing toward visitors’ heads and asking, “Do you have bones?”

“There’s a long story behind that room and the room after it, concerning ‘Who is the hunter beast who lives in there, and how are they related to every other room in the basement?’” Look for the room with the paintings, Vollmer advises. You might make some connections.

I sure didn’t. I was too busy squirming away from a John Waters lookalike who demanded to know why I, “Janet,” had left him with our 20 kids, one of whom dragged my friend to the floor for a card-flipping game.

My time there involved weaseling out of a snuff film, trying not to get wet, watching footage of phobia-tripping medical extirpation, waiting for something to happen while hiding in a nest, telephoning Rebecca, palpating through darkness, catching a pleasantly earth-toned waft from a deceptively elegant dinner table, taking the blame for killing someone’s preciously maintained flora, and then—was there peanut butter in these turds?

It was the funniest, most Freudian room. The designer maybe wrote “germaphobia” on their application. But, no, people with severe peanut allergies: The risk lies in fake blood, where peanut butter can work as a thickening agent.

Sometime soon, you might see it all over Vollmer; he’s eager to get back into scaring after his first year as co-director. And if you do, he recommends opening up. “If people try to get through as fast as possible, because they’re scared or maybe it’s not necessarily their jam, that’s totally fine,” he says. But for those who are game? “[The creeps] sometimes will take a shining to someone, and they’ll play with them for a lot longer.”

The Haunted Basement
Through Nov. 2
Herberger’s “Corpse” at Rosedale Center

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