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:
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Last weekend, Ogre and I ran away for the day to have a summery date. We drove to the quaint town of Stillwater, Minnesota. Our goal was to score some fudge, taffy and turtle bars from two of the three hand-made candy shops there. (Hey, if a shop makes the best of a certain kind of thing, you’re a fool to not take advantage of it.)
When we arrived, it was such a gorgeous day that we decided to look for something else to do first. It turns out there is a historical trolley tour available during the summer. We hopped on and settled in.
Stillwater – which is on the St. Croix River which separates Minnesota from Wisconsin – was founded as a lumber town even before Minnesota became a state. Its proximity to the river- which was an excellent avenue for transporting the raw lumber to the mills, and the milled lumber to its destination – quickly turned it into a wealthy city. As we cruised up and down the steep hills of the city, we saw dozens of beautiful 19th century mansions. Each was proof of the prosperity Stillwater enjoyed in the years just before the last of the towering white pines of Minnesota were logged out.
[To get an idea of the kind of logging that was done here, you might want to check out a video I made last summer: 1895 Hinkley Minnesota Firestorm.]
Perhaps the most interesting bit of information we gleaned from our cheerful tour guide was a story about The Worst Husband in the World. Allow me to explain.
Bedrooms: 3 Bathrooms: 3.5 sq ft: 4,588 Year Built: 1882
Last Sold: Feb 2002 for $375,000
Isn’t it charming? It was built by a lumber baron, Edward Hersey, as a gift to his wife. But there’s a catch. Do you see that porch and the bay window? From either of those vantage points, you see the following view of the opposing house:
Bedrooms: 9 Bathrooms: 9 sq ft: 7,000 Year Built:1879
Last Sold: Mar 2004 for $810,660
This house – 319 Pine St. W – was the first house that Edward Hersey had built for his wife.
In 1879, the Stillwater Lumberman [local newspaper] noted “Edward Hersey about to build on lots at Pine and Sixth.” Behind those few words are numerous associations: the construction of another opulent home for another of Stillwater’s well-to-do lumber families, the possible involvement of architect George Orff in his second home for a Hersey brother, and the abundant use of large, eye-catching architectural elements. The Victorian home offers a virtual laundry list of stylistic elements: a tower, a veranda, a gable, a large chimney, and a two-story bay.
According to our guide, the wife (whose name was Mary, but we’ll take a look at that in more depth in a moment) had a great deal to do with the planning of this house. It seems that Hersey himself was not as thrilled with it as she was. He had dragged his feet about commissioning it in the first place, and didn’t care for it even after he had agreed to have it built.
As the house was nearing completion, Mary went abroad to purchase proper furnishings for her dream home.
Edward Hersey promptly lost the mansion to his business partner, Jacob Bean, to settle a debt. Some say this debt was actually a high-stakes poker game. (The home is now known at the Ann Bean Mansion, after Jacob Bean’s wife.)
When Mary returned to Stillwater, Edward had already commissioned the building of the much more modest 320 Pine W house … directly across the street.
The tour guide said that Mary refused to live there.
I could have shared that much of the story with you the night I returned from the daytrip, but I wanted to do a bit of research to confirm the facts. I was able to do that – for the most part anyway – but my digging also left me with some lingering questions.
Above, I mentioned that I wanted to come back to the identity of Edward Hersey’s wife, Mary. Edward actually married TWO women named Mary in his lifetime: Mary Merrill in 1877 and Mary Haskell in 1894. A quick look at the dates of construction of the houses will reveal that the woman in the Stillwater story must have been Mary Merrill.
Just to make this easy for everyone, here the math:
- Edward was 23 in 1877 when he married Mary Merrill.
- He was 25 in 1879 when construction began on the big house, 319 Pine W.
- He was 29 in 1882 when the small house, 320 Pine W, was completed.
- There is then an 11-year gap in the story until 1894.
- He was 40 in 1894 when he married 25 year old Mary Haskell.
- (In 1894, he did something else as well, but I’ll get to that in a sec.)
- He was only 54 when he died in 1908.
- Mary Haskell Hersey died in 1950, at the age of 81.
Armed with the knowledge of the second wife, I was left wondering what had happened to the first. My assumption was that she died, so I turned to FindAGrave to discover her fate. Sure enough, I found the Hersey family plot, where Edward was buried, in a nearby St. Paul cemetery. Several members of his family also rest there, including Mary HASKELL Hersey. As for Mary Merrill, though, there is no sign of her in the plot.
Of course it is possible that Mary Merrill did die, and that her body was sent back to Maine from where both families hailed. I did do a search for her at FindAGrave and came up with two possible results. One has very little info aside from the name Mary E. Hersey. The other grave bears the name Mary M. Hersey, but it is adjacent to a man named Melville Hersey. Neither of these women died before Edward married Mary Haskell.
I have been unable to find any further reference to Mary Merrill Hersey. Mary Haskell Hersey, however, was the darling of the society pages:
In 1896, the St. Paul Globe expressed admiration for the new bride: “Mrs. Edward L. Hersey, who, by her charming personality and culture has identified herself with society in St. Paul and Stillwater, is a brunette of a very lovely type. Her eyes are large and beautiful, of a dark brown, her lashes, brows and soft, luxuriant hair corresponding in color. She is possessed of an almost perfect figure, and her carriage is graceful and stately. In her address one notices a fascinating little accent, peculiar to the East.
I mentioned that Edward Hersey did something else besides marrying the charming Mary Haskell in 1894. He moved into this:
Bedrooms: 11 Bathrooms: 6 sq ft: 7,586 Year Built: 1894
Last Sold: Apr 1993 for $170,000
Estimated current value: $891,813
I guess he really like Mary Haskell.
PS: Just FYI, Summit Ave. was THE ritziest neighborhood in Minnesota at the turn of the century. (It’s still pretty swanky, though this house has been converted to a multi-family rental property.)
ALSO: Edward’s daughter, Marie Hersey was a chum of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Apparently he spent a lot of time in this house, back in the day.
POST postscript: I just ran into a thing called Storify and I’m playing with it. I tossed together a test and am attempting to embed it below, so I can see what it is and how it looks. Ignore at will.