When art scares

By Hazel Schaeffer

And remember, the safe word is ‘uncle’, a man in an orange jump suit and bib told me before I descended into the depths of a 120-year-old former soap factory. As his partner shut the iron gate and clanged on it a few times with a hammer for good measure, my group of four preemptively clung to each other as we entered the Haunted Basement – the latest interactive exhibit at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. Voluntarily wandering around in a strange dark basement is something I would never have consented to under normal circumstances, but apparently paying for the privilege makes it acceptable to me.The Haunted Basement is an artist designed “performance project”/ haunted house in the basement of a historic factory turned contemporary art gallery. Named after its former occupants, the Soap Factory is located in an under-populated neighborhood of the warehouse district in Minneapolis on the west bank of the Mississippi River near Dinkytown. Admission is $15 on weekdays (perfect for the Wednesday or Thursday of Fall Break) and $20 on weekends. Expensive? Sure, but make an evening out of it by checking out the neighborhood and heading to Dinkytown (a 15 minute walk down University Ave.)

The Haunted Basement is the brainchild of experimental artist Chris Pennington, who teamed up with a large group of volunteers to clear up the Soap Factory’s basement and created the project with the help of other artists. The event, now serving as a fundraiser for the non-profit gallery with free admission, has gone on for several years now, drawing in crowds of people ranging from those in-the-know about the Twin Cities contemporary art scene, to those completely unaware of it. Though this month the basement is the main attraction, peruse the collection if you have time to kill. The space is very open and kind of grungy with exposed pipes and scuffed wooden floors. The art on the walls may be too obscure for your taste, but it’s still interesting.

Before you enter, don’t expect to hear a hundred-year-old legend involving the gruesome death of a young girl at the hands of a sadistic factory worker, whose ghost still haunts the basement. No additional hyping up is necessary to make it scary. Unlike most haunted events, you’re not expected to get into the right mindset or believe in anything supernatural to enjoy it; the terrors of the Haunted Basement are sufficient enough. Safety first, the volunteers will hand you a waiver upon payment, point you to the waiting area to form a group of four, and tell you the safe word to blurt out in case you can’t take it. After three minutes pass since the last group was seen alive, it will be your turn to climb down the stairs, leaving natural light and open space, to face the terrors of the Haunted Basement.

How to describe the experience of wandering through a haunted maze of a not completely emptied soap factory in a group of strangers? When conscious thought was allowed, it brought to mind the Hell depicting paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and simulated being released into the dungeon of some deranged serial killer. Certain sections are more like exhibits of, or shrines to, fear, featuring dismembered dolls, rotting food, and rusty blades.

The basement’s dank chill, background noises of rustling corn stalks, machinery, or worst of all, silence, and disconcerting smells subtly add to the horrific atmosphere. Though sometimes the horrific confronts you outright when you have to crawl through tight spaces in the near pitch black, or are grabbed by strangers you don’t even see, or are separated from the rest of your group.

The basement is filled with “vampires,” paid actors dressed up ghoulishly that beckon you into rooms or suddenly appear to scare you. Personally I found this to be the weak part of the experience. The threat of them lurking unseen was much scarier then my actual interactions with them, and my imagination of what the natural inhabitants of the basement would like was much creepier than a paid actor could pull of.

If you finally make it, don’t rush off back to Mac. You will have an opportunity to watch live feed from hidden cameras on the gallery’s main floor. The Soap Factory is also located in a fascinating area, if you haven’t been already. Exit the building for a great view of the neighborhood’s large historic warehouse, the Mississippi River, and the multi-colored lights of the Minneapolis skyline. With hardly a soul in sight, you might find it hard to believe that the experience is over, half-expecting to have people jump out at you from the tall grass on the sidewalk and the deserted alleyways. Weather permitting, consider walking the few blocks down to the river to check out the Hennepin Island Park, whose lush bramble-flanked paths weave through scrap metal and boast great views of the river and skyline. (You might want to do this before you go inside to make sure there is still light, however.)

Don’t let the admission price or the two bus transfers scare you off. The Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement is a must for anyone who wants to face their fears in a decrepitly beautiful part of Minneapolis.

Just remember, the safe word is ‘uncle.’

Go online at http://www.soapfactory.org/ to purchase tickets for times through Nov. 1st, 6:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m., nightly. They are selling out quickly so buy soon. The “tour” is about 20 minutes long, with a new group of four entering every three minutes. The trip takes about 45 minutes. Take the 84 to University, transfer to the 16, and switch in Stadium Village to the 6.