I’m sitting in an empty corner of the Soap Factory with Brian Watson-Jones, a core actor in the Haunted Basement who is not yet in costume, and Shannon Thorson, who is showing me around. She has turned on a light, but it only illuminates a five-foot circle. Everything else is black.
While we wait for a few more actors to join us, Thorson says, “Just to be upfront, we don’t want any spoilers. That’s a little bit of our caché—anything could be down there,” Thorson explains. “[Patrons] will swear there was a giant red monster chasing them when we have no giant red monster. We call it basement brain.”
Three more actors file in. Becci O’Kane is wearing bloody scrubs. Beside her sits a pair of sooty, burned characters who obviously share a scene—Grace Christenson is dressed like a little girl, and Garrett Volmer wears a tattered Santa costume.
Patrons will arrive soon, so we begin.
Minnesota Monthly: What do you do to get into character?
O’Kane: Nothing. [laughter]
Volmer: Sometimes I focus on a backstory. If you can add nuggets of a story, it makes the scare really powerful.
Christenson: A lot of it is finding what works during the run. There are so many people, so you get to try hundreds of things.
Thorson: You can jump in and wait for the patron’s energy to inform you, or like [Volmer] said, if I can create a character with goals, then it’s scarier and weirder because I’ve created my own set of rules, which are inhuman.
MNMO: Why do you act in the Haunted Basement?
Watson-Jones: It’s fun to create this world, this darkness for people who have paid you to do your best. Figuring out the weak point in their armor is a joy.
Volmer: When you perform on stage you don’t necessary get the response that you want or get to observe it. Here, you get a response inches from your face.
Thorson: It’s amazing how many absurd things you can get people to do.
MNMO: What’s the best thing you’ve gotten a patron to do?
Christenson: Oh! [raises hand] A couple years ago we had this room with two lizard people in it and a hole in the roof in the corner of the room. One night I got the idea to jump down, which was terrible for my legs but it was super scary. One group of frat boys just freaked out.
O’Kane: We had a lot of fun in that room.
Thorson: There was one year where we put patrons in coffins and, uh [laughs] one person got left behind on accident.
Watson-Jones: I had one patron this year who I blind-folded. I was backing her up into something and she was like “No! If it’s a coffin I don’t want it!” The legend lives on.
MNMO: Has anyone ever died of fright?
Thorson: No, but you know, it’s supposedly haunted.
Volmer: It is haunted.
Christenson: It’s the weirdest thing when you see an actor come back stage freaked out because they saw a ghost and can’t continue scaring people.
Thorson: There’s two coal rooms in the basement and one of them is the most haunted place in the basement. One night, I was looking for a spot to hide when I saw this little figure run past—just a flash of a white hand. So I called my [partner’s] name and she spoke from across the room. No way she could have moved that quickly. I was like “OK, that was a little ghost girl who just ran past me.”
Volmer: One year when you went into the coal room, a motion sensor set off a car alarm. I was standing there and the car alarm went off. I turned around and a girl was standing there. The figure was complete black. There was a little bit of light so I should have been able to see features, but I didn’t. I said, “I’m going to wait for other people. Bye.” And I left. When I went back she was gone. If she had left, the car alarm would have gone off but it didn’t. She just disappeared.
MNMO: What’s in that room this year?
Thorson: It’s blocked off. It really is just a pile of coal—we haven’t built an environment in there in years.
Volmer: It’s a really fun room to work in, but it’s also a really weird room because you go to weird places.
After our conversation, Thorson invites me to go through the Haunted Basement. This year, for the first time, the Soap Factory is offering a ticket upgrade: a solo experience.
Out of respect for Thorson’s wishes to avoid spoilers, I won’t say what happens on-stage in the Haunted Basement. I will, however, give two pieces of advice:
- Be careful who you go with. The ticket seller told me her favorite up-selling tactic is to get a group to buy the solo-experience for a hapless friend.
- Buy the ticket upgrade. It can get messy down there, and the upgrade comes with a disposable plastic smock.
The Haunted Basement is an 18+ attraction and runs all Halloween weekend. Visit the Soap Factory’s website for more information and ticket reservations.