“It’s organized chaos down there.” Director Noah Bremer smiled as he emerged from the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement last night. Then he hesitated. “I’ve said too much.”
The best thing I can say about this year’s Haunted Basement, as a reviewer, is that Bremer was right: this year’s paranormal activity in the basement of the Minneapolis art space is carefully organized to be extraordinarily chaotic. After this—show? experience? happening?—and this summer’s Crime and Punishment, Bremer and his collaborators will be ready to teach a master class in the fine (and very difficult) art of moving crowds through a space in what feels to the audience like a free-choice environment.
Crime and Punishment—a Fringe show that was also held in the Soap Factory’s basement, and also directed by Bremer—was in part a testing ground for this year’s Haunted Basement. Last night he told me that the Haunted Basement turned out to be surprisingly different from both Crime and Punishment and last year’s underground terror, and I agree.
That said, the lucky few who caught the Fringe show will recognize certain key elements, returning in a re-contextualized way that only enhances their nightmarish quality. The ghoulish masks are back, and so is a lot of the subterranean set. The goat that was disemboweled during Crime and Punishment is back, and last night I saw it at the receiving end of an act that was better than disembowelment—if you had to choose—but still wasn’t consensual.
One of the hallmarks of the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement—the reason sell-out crowds keep coming back, year after year, is that it completely changes with each iteration. If you saw it last year, you have to see it again. While to some extent I miss the utterly—sometimes terrifyingly—random quality of the first Haunted Basements, which had different teams of artists tackling each room, it’s impressive how Bremer has reinvented the experience in a way that emphasizes its theatricality. This year’s “organized chaos” is in a sense the biggest change yet—but a change that feels right, by which I mean it feels very wrong in all the right ways.
Last night I certainly had the most intense physical interaction I’ve ever had with performers at what might even conceivably be regarded as a theatrical production. The free-form quality of this year’s Haunted Basement means that the performers are taking more cues from you, so in a real sense things go where you cause them to go—and, in a sense, where you’re ready for them to go. Does that sound creepy? Precisely.
As with previous years’ Haunted Basements, sometimes you’ll feel utterly alone and other times you’ll feel unexpectedly intense companionship with the other customers who descend. One of my favorite moments last night was when a monster jumped out at a big group of us, and two dozen people screamed and scattered like bowling pins.
After we emerged, my sister certified this year’s Haunted Basement as the scariest she’s been to in years. I said it was the most fun I’ve ever had at the annual frightfest. Those were two ways, of course, of saying the same thing.