The Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement: Unhinged (2014)

Be aware, this a review of the 2014 Haunted Basement.

My understanding is that every year it totally different from previous years. I have no inside information about what the 2015 Basement will be like. I’m leaving the post available, so that you can get an impression of the LIKELY quality you can expect. The Ogre and I have decided not to go this year … we had such an amazing time last year, that we are afraid this year’s can’t possibly be as good. (Besides that, we trying to save money toward our eventual relocation to North Carolina.)

Here’s the trailer for the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement: 2015:

Visit The Soap Factory website by clicking this link, to buy tickets. I have confirmed that the price is still $25-27, as it was last year.

ORIGINAL POST CONTENT FOLLOWS:

I’m not giving you much notice on this, but I do want to pop up a review of The Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement: Unhinged because there’s still time to go this week. (The basement will be open from today through November 2nd.)

QUICK FACTS: The tickets cost $25 – $27, depending on whether it’s a week night or a weekend night. You should wear comfortable and tough clothes and shoes that you can move in. You should be as unencumbered as possible. There is a coat check. The bar serves craft beer and wine and accepts only cash. You will have to wear a light-weight, plastic mask which the venue provides — for this reason, you should wear contacts rather than glasses.

This was like no haunted attraction I’d ever attended. It is one of a new genre of haunts which are often billed as “extreme”. This is the kind of place where you have to sign a waiver and prove you’re 18+ before you will be admitted. Here in Minnesota, even people who don’t like horror, or go to Halloween attractions, have heard of it. Most of them will tell you it’s the scariest haunted house in the state.

As I’ve browsed the websites of such attractions, I’ve seen hints that each has its own definition of “extreme”. It’s hard to tell, though, exactly what you’re getting into. I feared that the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement would lean toward the gross-out. Happily it did not … at least not for me.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it wasn’t intense. When I was talking to a friend about my adventure, he suggested that it sounded like a visit to an S&M club. Though there was no obvious or overt sexual content, I could not deny that there was something about it that did feel distinctly submissive and, perhaps, masochistic. Maybe it would be best for me to just describe the experience I had so you can understand what I mean.

From this point forward I will be revealing many details about what happened to me. If you want to go in with about as much information as I had, stop here and go read the venue’s webpage.

BEFORE:

We tried to go to The Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement last year, but when we got to the venue on a lovely mid-October date-night in 2013, it was sold out. (They’ve since changed the way they do things, so I don’t think that will be a problem this year.)

This year, Ogre surprised me with tickets for a scheduled presentation. I found out we were going when I woke up one morning in early October to find that he’d left a browser window open on our desktop PC. From the moment I saw that digital receipt, to the night of our experience, I veered from being excited to being scared to death and back again.

On Friday, October 24th, we left more than an hour before our 8 o’clock show time. We knew that parking was limited (street parking) and we didn’t want to be rushing. We made good time, though, and finding a spot wasn’t too bad. We had to walk three blocks or so to get to the Soap Factory.

soap factory exterior

Photo obtained from the Soap Factory website, for promotional purposes.

[NOTE: this is the site of the former National Purity Soap Company—a historic, 48,000-square-foot warehouse built in 1884. It is now an art gallery.]

When we stepped into the industrial-looking building, we were greeted by a bouncer-type who told us to sign a waiver and present our IDs. He stamped our hands and pointed us toward the ticket table. A young woman there scanned the QR codes on the the tickets we’d printed out at home. Two more women were handing out plastic masks and repeating general instructions and directions.

We were told where the bathrooms were, that we MUST wear the mask for the entire time we were in the basement but could choose not to wear them in the lounge area, and that we’d receive further instructions in a little bit. When Ogre and I stepped up to the table, we caught most of the spiel, but waited for another round of repetition so that we’d hear the first few second’s worth of info.

Unhinged masks

Photo obtained from the Soap Factory website, for promotional purposes.

That pause must have made us stand out a bit, because one of the women took my mask back from me and scrawled some sort of symbol on its forehead with a blue marker.

I asked, “what’s that for? Why do I get a mark?”

She smirked at me and said, “Because you’re special.”

Then we were waved into the lounge area.

IN THE LOUNGE:

There was a makeshift, cash-only bar, where patrons could buy craft beer or wine. Twenty or so small bistro-style table and chair sets were scattered around the dimly lit and echo-y space. A shabby sofa and a half-dozen worn-looking, upholstered chairs faced four large video monitors which were arranged in a grid. These monitors each showed a night-vision view into the haunted basement. We must have arrived before the first show, because for a long time there was nothing happening on the monitors. (After the 7:20 group went in, however, we were able to watch folks going through.)

One monitor showed a wide corridor lined with closed doors. Another showed a straight-backed, wooden chair which appeared to be sitting in the middle an otherwise empty room; I got the impression that this room was pitch black. Two more monitors showed simple hallways.

At 7:20 the group before us was summoned to gather around a woman who then explained how the experience was to work. In essence, she said,

  • You must wear your mask for the entire time you are in the basement.
  • You are not allowed to speak while wearing the mask.
  • The actors will touch you … in fact they will HANDLE you.
  • You are not allowed to touch the actors.
  • Groups of three or more will be punished.
  • Don’t try to stay with your friends. The actors will work to separate you from your friends.
  • If you get too scared to continue, the safe-word is “uncle.”
  • To use the safe-word, remove your mask hold it over your head, and repeat “uncle” over and over. Someone will guide you out of the basement.
  • There is no path. There is no destination. You will know your experience is over when you hear the birthday song.

Then the group was lined up single-file at the head of a stairway that went down into the basement. Actors (in slightly menacing street-clothes) directed 1-4 people at a time to descend.

For the next 20-30 minutes, Ogre and I sipped at the beer we were sharing and watched the monitors. The hallway views seemed pretty standard. Ogre mentioned that it must be terribly dark, because people were moving through with hands outstretched. Occasionally a costumed actor would pursue or pester a victim as they moved along the hall. Every once in a while, we could hear a loud crash or bang or strain of music from below us. The victims visible on the monitors would all jump in response. Periodically we would also hear screams drifting up the stairway.

The monitor that showed the view of the chair was the most riveting for me. The resolution of these screens was not good, so it was hard to make out the details of the costume worn by the Keeper of the Chair, but he/she/it was reminiscent of a madwoman or a Shakespearean witch or a ghoul. It had long, stringy hair and moved in a hunching, clutching way. This Keeper would appear in the frame, tugging or pushing a victim toward the chair. The victim would be placed in the seat and left alone for an indeterminate period of time. Sometimes the Keeper would come back and move around the victim while petting and/or nuzzling him or her. It appeared to be chanting or whispering as well. Sometimes the victim would be simply abandoned. It was fascinating to see how long a patron would stay in that chair before deciding to get up and move along.

The view of the corridor of doors caught Ogre’s attention. He was surprised that everyone who entered the space treated it like a dead-end and turned around to backtrack out. No one checked to see if the doors would open. Sometimes this space was occupied by an enormous man in a dirty-looking clown suit and smeared makeup. He appeared to be fond of yelling at the patrons who came into his area, but often it seemed the guests were calm so he must have spent some of the time elsewhere.

A young man approached our table and asked if I’d fill out a survey. I said sure. He was friendly and sweet. When he saw that this was our first trip to the basement, he became invested in making sure we’d get the most out of it. He said that my blue mark (you didn’t forget my blue mark did you?) was a very good thing. He also advised us to get away from the other guests and look for side areas to explore. He suggested we take our time to really LOOK at the installations and reminded us that the basement was put together by artists. Then he was gone and we went back to talking and watching the monitors.

I noticed that over time more and more “orbs” (swirling dust motes) were visible on all the cameras.

I had time to regret my decision to leave the cell phones in the car. (I had been worried about them getting lost or broken.) I realized I very badly wanted to take photos of the lounge area and of us in our masks.

When the 7:20 group returned, they looked flustered and exhilarated. As far as we could tell no one in the group called uncle. Most of them milled about for a little while then disappeared into the evening. The folks Ogre and I were going to be with had been arriving steadily. Before we knew it, we were being called over to form a ring around the speaker who was to tell us the rules.

ENTERING THE BASEMENT:

We put our masks on, got into line and waited to be sent in. Ogre was leading, but we weren’t holding hands or anything.

Earlier in the evening, on the drive to the basement, I had finally decided that I needed to let go of the idea that we had to stay together. I had realized it would be just one more thing to stress out about — especially for Ogre, who tends to want to protect me. It turns out I’d made a wise decision.

As we filed past a hooded figure, a baton came down between us. I watched Ogre continue down the stairs before I was directed through a side archway. Entirely alone, I followed a well-lit hallway that led to an exterior door. With nowhere else to go, I went outside. There was another figure that guided me and a handful of others (some of whom, but not all, had marks on their masks) around the building to another entrance. We were allowed to enter the building in ones and twos. A slim, blonde woman was sent in with me. I didn’t really notice her until I realized she was clinging to he hem of my shirt.

Here’s where things are going to get more free-form. The experience was so disorienting that I can’t describe exactly what happened, in what order, while I was in the basement. I know that the young woman stayed with me for a while, and even followed me to a dead-end. At some point later, she was just gone.

In fact, what I have is mostly impressions, and I think that’s the way I’ll present the next section–with descriptions of those events that left the strongest impressions on me.

The beginning.

My least favorite part of the experience was the first few minutes. I believe everyone is released into the same general, maze-like, extremely dark area. There’s not much to see. A few actors wander here but there’s little real characterization. This is the part where you become disoriented and lost. The worst of the jump scares happen here. (And some of those are caused by other masked victims like yourself as you stumble around, trying to find a way to somewhere.)

Coming out of the black.

Upon emerging from the part that felt like a maze to me. I was met by a tall character.

It’s hard for me to describe what any of the actors looked like. For one thing, the illumination is intentionally bad everywhere. There’s a lot of flickering and strobing lights and sudden black-outs. Also, It seems that one of my survival strategies is to avoid looking directly at an antagonist. Thankfully, in exchange for losing the ability to take in the details of any given character, my sensitivity to peripheral motion was increased. Another instinct was to move slowly, quietly and gently. Because of these two accidental strategies, I was rarely surprised by the sudden appearance of an actor. (Or maybe I was just lucky.) In any case, it was far more likely for me to come upon an actor who was otherwise engaged than to be startled by a jump scare.

The tall character came forward to meet me and curled a hand around the back of my neck. He ushered me to a wall. He was not rough, but insistent. He pressed against the back of my head until the nose of my mask was in contact with the boards. He released me and stepped back. No one else was around, so I could tell he hadn’t moved far away. I stood obediently for a minute, until I sensed he’d slipped away. Then I stealthed to the side and deeper into the basement.

The altar.

I found myself moving down the center of a hallway. It was rather narrow, but the lighting was a little better than other areas so I had my hands tucked against the center of my chest, in prayer position. (This wasn’t intentional, I just didn’t need them to feel my way forward and I didn’t want them dangling.) The light was fading and a pool of darkness was ahead. I slowed and looked hard into the shadows. There was a small, skinny creature half-crouched in the darkest corner. When I saw it, I stepped backwards, thinking I could go another way. The creature kind of hissed the word “pray” at me and scurried forward. She caught me by the hands and molded them back into prayer position. Then she led me through a few turns, all the while muttering, “Time to pray. Must pray. We all have to pray.” She pushed me into a room lit by flickering electric candles. Someone — maybe her, maybe someone else — guided me to kneel.

I wish I could better convey what was on the altar but all I have is the the memory of artful clutter that included chalices and photo frames. I looked up to see what was on the wall behind the altar and thought I saw old shoes, maybe hubcaps, and a large golden angel. The display may have been ten feet tall. Someone from behind me clasped the top of my head, bent my neck and told me to pray. Near my knee I saw a black and white photograph. I reached to pick it up, but it was glued flat to the floor. I was going to bend lower to see what the subject of the shot was, but someone took my elbow and tugged me to feet, gave my a light shove, and said, “You’re done praying. Get out.”

The chaos.

Though I’m attached to the dreamier events I experienced in the basement, there was a lot of other stuff going on too.

PARLOR: One of the first full scale rooms I came to was a disordered, dusty-looking, blood stained parlor. It was clear to me that there were many different ways the scene could be used, and many different places for actors to hide. When I entered it, though, there was nothing going on and no one there. Much later, I ended up in a place where I could look into the parlor as our time was coming to an end. By then, the basement was full of loud music and shrieks. Many characters were in the parlor, gyrating and posing in a frantic strobe. Each seemed to be herding a victim (or several) through the room and toward the eventual exit.

DANCER: When I turned a corner from a hall into a large open space, someone immediately grabbed me from behind and rushed me toward, and pressed me against, a chain link fence. I automatically curled my fingers around some of the links. A spotlight lit the space on the other side of the fencing. A whirling spiral pattern was projected onto the floor. A thin character in tights spun into the spotlight and danced. Behind me, the actor who had grabbed me was pressed into my back. He was gibbering into my ear, but I have no idea what he was saying. The dancer lunged toward me then stopped short. At this point I was making very good eye contact with him. He looked into my eyes for a long moment. I felt something graze one of my fingers. the dancer deliberately dropped his gaze. So did I. He was tracing a knife blade along my skin. I didn’t jump, but I did withdraw my hands. The guy behind me had released some pressure. I slipped sideways along the fence and he didn’t follow. The dancer bent at the waist and appeared to retch. A dribble of clear liquid spattered into the space where my feet had been. The scent of vomit bloomed. (Apparently the Soap Factory employs “scent artists.”)

SHEETS: One large area was simple, and beautiful and wonderfully suspenseful. From what must have been a grid of high-strung clotheslines, many pale sheets hung. I moved through the space thinking of the days we used to hang the bedding out to dry on breezy days when I was a child. Mostly, the sheets were clean and neat-looking, but as you wandered from one sheet-box to the next, some were tattered or stained. I encountered one character who just loomed at me until I faded back and away. I also encountered several other guests, all of whom stopped to look at me the same way I was looking at them. Once we both decided the other was no threat, we just passed each other and moved on.

BATHROOM: One installation was a grimy, blood-spattered bathroom. Ogre later told me he saw it too, but there was no one there at the time. When I came across it, though, there was a large, woman-shaped figure in a red dress, in the corner, curled up into the smallest ball she could possibly make of herself. She was softly and piteously sobbing. It was the only time I was tempted to break the rule about touching the actors. She seemed so sad that I actually started to move toward her to soothe her, before I remembered I was in a haunted basement.  It occurred to me later that she could easily have been waiting for my sympathy to draw me closer so that she could achieve an incredibly effective jump scare. I still feel sort of bad about not comforting her though.

DUCT TAPE: Though I was not taken by the character who wielded the duct tape, I did see him in action as I slunk through his area. He seemed a bit rougher than most of the actors. He’d grab a victim and bind him or her at the wrists or around the torso, with the arms pinned down. I sort of wanted to follow a victim once he or she was released, to see if they would free themselves or just tolerate the handicap. I got either lost or distracted so I never learned what happened to any of them.

Maybe the blue mark made a difference? 

After it was over Ogre and I compared experiences. He pointed out that the installations were dynamic. (Remember how the bathroom was empty for him?) He also noticed that he was touched less often and more aggressively than I was. In particular he was taken by the hair and head-butted in the chest. (In neither case was the experience rough enough to be painful, but it was clearly different from the way I was handled.)

I mention this because I suspect that each visitor had a unique experience in the haunted basement. I also believe this review will only be truly useful for the remaining days of the 2014 season. This year’s theme was clearly insanity. I know in years past the themes have been entirely different.

THE BEST PARTS, SAVED FOR LAST:

The corridor of doors.

I never came across the straight-backed, wooden chair which I’d seen on the monitors in the lounge but I did stumble into the corridor of doors.

When I first entered the space, I didn’t recognize it. For one thing, it was not a corridor. It opened out  on one side to an installation of a mad person’s bedroom. One that might be in the basement of an old factory or a run-down suburban tract home. Cheap framed prints of normal subjects hung on the walls, but someone had painted over the original images. There were books, and pages torn out of books, everywhere. They looked as though a breeze would set them in motion, but they were in fact each firmly attached to whatever they rested on. The bed was one of those wrought iron twin-size jobs, and it looked like someone had just thrown back the covers to rise. The scene was incredible detailed and I marveled that none of the people I’d seen on the monitors had stopped to really look at it. When I was there, there was no sign of the enormous clown. (And, yes, of course I tried all the doors.)

The girl with the swing.

This was my favorite experience of all. It was almost tender. A female character joined me in a murky, narrow space and took my hand. It felt as though I were the one who was leading, but that’s probably because I was heading in the direction she wanted to go. We were moving from darkness toward a softly glowing area. When we turned the corner, I saw a plank swing. I followed its ropes up with my eyes. I could not see the actual ceiling; the ropes simply disappeared into the shadows.

The girl put me on the swing. She wrapped her hands over mine and started to push me gently. With her face half-buried in the side of my neck, under my ear, she murmured at me incessantly. I caught no particular words but her voice was melodic. I tried to pay attention to the setting around my, which was actually quite visible, but nothing could really register over that breath on my neck and her nonsense litany. I have no idea how long I was on that swing. Other guests came through the space and stared at us as they sidled by. I realized I had become part of the installation.

Ogre tells me he saw the swing girl, and that she had a victim at the time. He thinks it’s possible it was me.

Go here. Buy tickets.

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7 Comments on “The Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement: Unhinged (2014)”

  1. Meagan says:

    The cliffhanger is killing me! I can’t wait to read about the rest of your experience.

    • That was a fun comment to get, Meagan 🙂 I didn’t really mean to write such a long review, but it apparently made a mark on me.

      (For those who happen upon this later and don’t understand this comment: I actually wrote about half of this, then had to go to work so there was one a “cliffhanger.)

  2. There is nothing better than a good haunted house! I loved your description and could just imagine how surreal it all felt. Most haunted houses I’ve gone to either have been with a few friends or I grouped up with a few strangers that (oddly enough) we’d end up sticking together as if we knew each other for years. Yet, there is something to be said about going it alone.I’m lucky enough to live close enough to Niagara Falls, ON, which has several walk-through, year-round houses. One year a friend dared me to go it alone (mind you they frequently change the interiors and experience), so I didn’t know what I was in store for. But, how could I not take the challenge? It was in the middle of the week, with no one else entering the house except me – so there was no chance of “grouping” up during my experience. So, I went willing in. I might add that in their lounge, they have speakers that transmit all the screams and sounds occurring in the house. I gave myself the mindset of being a survivor at all costs – that nothing could take me down. I soothed myself through the sweat and fear by continually talking to myself with positive affirmations – which totally worked – especially when the live characters came out to touch me. I’m leaving this long comment because there is much to be said about going it alone – because it was one of THE best haunted house experiences and the exhilaration felt from surviving it alone was priceless. Thanks for sharing your experience – I truly enjoyed the post.

    • I’ve never been to a year-round attraction. (Unless the Haunted Mansion at Disney counts.) As I figure out exactly where I want to move when I leave Minnesota, I’m going to have to keep that in mind. (ON probably isn’t an option, though, because I’m fleeing winter.)

      I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who took a lot of joy from going it alone. Kindred spirits 🙂

  3. Boy, haunted houses sure have come a long way. I don’t remember anything even remotely like that growing up! Happy Halloween – your day has arrived!

    • Yeah. I remember the one at the county fair grounds, which was mostly just dark with a few teenagers in there to provide jump scares.

      For the last couple of years, I’ve been going to a better one, but the Haunted Basement was even more intense than that.


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