Expedition into the Haunted Basement


Sun sinks on Minneapolis, before I brave the Haunted Basement

I love Halloween in the Twin Cities; there always are so many things going on, it’s hard to choose. Last week, though, I finally conquered one of my Twin Cities Halloween mountains and set foot in the Haunted Basement, surviving to tell the tale.

It was a beautiful afternoon at St. Anthony Main. As the sun, and it’s partial eclipse, were disappearing behind the downtown Minneapolis skyline, I stood in the park and looked out over the river, the last gasps of the fall foliage bathing the sunset in oranges and yellows. Joggers were out enjoying the balmy temperatures of late October and as I strolled along the path, mist from St. Anthony Falls drifted into the air. I was waiting, however, to delve deeper into the dark heart of the neighborhood. St. Anthony is one of the oldest neighborhoods of Minneapolis, particularly along Main Street where some of the cities oldest buildings still cling onto life. The history of the state and the city is more evident here, I think, than almost anywhere else in Minneapolis. Here, by the banks of the Mississippi, logging mills, flour mills, shops, and hotels flourished in the nineteenth century.

One of the historic buildings that has survived the century is the former National Purity Soap Company factory, which has come to be known as the Soap Factory, one of the most interesting art venues and galleries in the Twin Cities, hosting a variety of intriguing and thought provoking art installations from artists local and elsewhere in North America and the world. However, for the past eight years, the organizers of the Soap Factory have put their venue’s creepy, 130-year old basement and considerable artistic talents together to make what is, reputedly, the most frightening “haunted” houses in the state, if not the country. I’ve been to the one out in Shakopee, in the same old quarries where the Renaissance Festival is, a few years ago, but this seems far weirder and far more harrowing. For almost as long as the Haunted Basement has been touted, I’ve been wanting to go in, but something always seems to get in the way; not least, my own nervousness, of course. Ever since childhood, I’ve been, well, a bit of a scaredy-cat. My sister used to torment me in the video stores by tossing me a few choice titles from the horror section; even the slightest bit of comedic blood would be enough to upset me for days.

I’ve gotten better over the last few years. Now I can even watch horror movies without getting up during the scary parts, even, so I deemed it was time to truly challenge myself by exploring the Haunted Basement. This year was the year! I gathered together a few friends who shared the desire to experience fear. We met up at the factory as the sun set and autumn night fell, and lined up to sign the waivers (wait, waivers? yep). The Soap Factory still maintained its industrial past in every stark brick wall and wooden rafter unchanged since all the soap manufacturing machinery was removed. Even without the actors and decor, this is an atmospheric place for creepy events to ensue. We were handed our creepy, face melting masks and waited to see what would happen.  One of our group had even been before, and she told stories that began to unnerve me. I scrutinized the chalkboard marking the number of people who had cried out “uncle!” thus signaling that they were too terrified to continue; 48 so far this year! Still, too late to turn back now. Every year, the artists at the Soap Factory choose a different, fresh theme in which to terrify and traumatize the visitors to the event in a completely new and unexpected way. This year, the theme was Unhinged, and I feel that it was, in particular, a great one to start with.

So what was it like, once we were escorted by sinister robed figures down stairs into the dark basement, our little groups separated, our hands grabbed by creepy ghostly people who dragged us deep into some creepy tableau or other and left us there with a handful of other masked, confused, visitors? I’ll say no more, except to say that, this year, it is up to the individual to find their own through the nightmarish chaos of the basement. The actors were experts at projecting menace, and the details were masterfully creepy. That’s all I’ll volunteer, for the adventure must be experienced first hand, and no surprises shall be ruined. Suffice to say, it was harrowing in the beginning, but quickly evolved to delicious, shivery fun. I could not help but cackle with dark joy as various strange situations occurred around me, along with the smells, the sounds. It all came together into one happily frightening whole; to me, the very epitome of a well conceived Halloween event and I will make it a tradition for years to come.

There are still a few tickets left for this Sunday, so grab ‘em while you can and in the meantime, see you next year! At $25 each, it’s an event cheap at any price (though they do offer special $10 “fraidy cat” specials on some days as well).

After the heart pounding adventure, we were all a bit famished, so we walked down 2nd Street SE into Northeast Minneapolis for some beer and brats at the New Bohemia: Wurst+Bierhaus, a nice, casual place for some comfort food; offering a variety of “meat in tube form” as Anthony Bourdain puts it, including some vegan brats for those less inclined to meat, New Bohemia also boasts a nice beer list. It was one of my friends birthday, so we celebrated on the patio, cooled by cool fall breezes, with a Boot of local craft brew, the aromatic, tasy “Shere Khan” from 612Brew. I had a roast duck brat with cilantro, while the birthday guy went a bit more adventurous with a rattlesnake rabbit jalapeno dog, pronouncing it delicious. Truly a great end to a great adventure.

Soap Factory Haunted Basement, 514 2nd St. SE, Minneapolis

New Bohemia Wurst+BierHaus, 233 E Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis


Having survived my visit, I escape the Soap Factory. Until next year…





My cousin’s story…

This will be a very different entry than what I have posted so far. It has taken me a bit to gather my thoughts. I am still just shocked, I’m still numb. One of the inspirations for this blog has been my cousin, who I mentioned here, an irrepressible explorer and consummate adventurer. We grew up together, a small, close knit family, he, my sister, and I, influencing each other’s tastes and ideas, his quest for knowledge and new experiences mirrored our own, but went so much farther than we ever felt possible  Through urban exploration, house shows, and a thousand other interests and skills, my cousin plumbed the heights and depths of the Twin Cities and afield. From anime to collage work, circuit bending to M:TG, and the vast artistic and social exploration of the punk subculture, his interests evolved as often as he picked up tattoos. He was a dynamic and awesome person to have in your life. Tragically, crushingly, he became a victim of a scourge that has been currently haunting Minnesota. It was not his plan to be done so soon.

We had plans that very weekend to enlist in the Ruination: City of Dust, and the expedition into the Haunted Basement. He had plans to jam with friends and start a new band, ride his new motorcycle and play his new guitar, a Fender Jaguar. He did not plan for this, but it happened. No one knew how far in he was, and everyone was shocked. He knew secrets about the heart of the city, and he shared many of them, but, it seems, my cousin kept a few as well. We all still wonder how this happened. Addiction is terrible, but to all appearances, he seemed full of plans for the future and was in a good place in his relationships.

At the funky old funeral home on Snelling, his memorial packed the place with more mourners than had EVER crowded into it before, and the mood was distraught. None knew how this had happened, though, and I have had no experience like it before. It kind of makes me question the meaning of this blog, though I know he would want me to continue. He never judged, which may be how he ended up befriending half the city, from the suburbs to the halls of the Minnesota Orchestra, from the mosh pits to the top of the Grain Belt Beer sign.

I can’t even begin to comprehend how my aunt and grandparents feel; personally, I feel lost. I guess I can only keep on exploring in his honor, though I am a poor study. It is still difficult to really comprehend that he is gone and we will never see, talk, or play Magic with him again. His zest for life made our lives seem static and dull. It was inspiring to see how many friendships he cultivated, how many people gained by knowing him, but, right now, it has been a tough week and a half and no day will go by where I won’t wonder where he is and wish we could still be adventuring together.

Farmer’s Market Recommendations courtesy of the Wake

Take a look at this article on Minneapolis’ hidden gem Farmers Market in the University of Minnesota’s student magazine, the Wake. Definitely puts me into a autumnal mood to see all of the fruits of the harvest available locally, and started getting me hungry as well. I have written in the past about the Mill City Farmer’s Market and the market at Midtown Global Market, but I have not been to the others. As may be evident in the course of my blog, the changing of the seasons, and the different seasonal produce that mark this change is one of my favorite aspects of living in Minnesota! Those beet sliders look delicious, and I need to grab some pumpkins for Halloween baked goods for the students at work, and for some pumpkin wine I’m thinking of starting up. I just started on some hard cider yesterday, so I’m feeling industrious! Thanks for the recommendations!

Minnesota Renaissance Festival: A Retrospective

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A crowd descends upon 16th century England in Shakopee

The other week, I made it out to that dusty, goofy shrine to creative anachronism in Shakopee, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, my yearly visit. It seemed that we were among a great multitude who also wanted to get in to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival on its closing weekend, Shamrocks and Shenanigans. Crowds of men, women, and children dressed in contemporary garb strolled the grounds, drinking beer or pop and chomping into giant turkey legs with abandon. It was a hot, almost stifling early autumn day on the outskirts of the Twin Cities suburbs, one last stand for summer. Yellowjackets patrolled the garbage bags and settled on the backs of the heads of audience members sitting on the rickety benches set up at stages nestled under ancient cottonwoods and oaks to watch performers belly dance or juggle. In all a typical Fest experience, and one that is always fun, if not always surprising.

I have heard that the Minnesota Renaissance Festival is among the oldest, and largest, in the country. I can believe it. My parents took my sister and I to the Ren Fest for years, and I have fond memories to traipsing around the place, watching enthusiastic comedy and gymnastics, becoming confused by random ogres or wizards who ask you if “you can wiggle your horn,” or buying didgeridoos in an attempt to learn to play an instrument. We went to the State Fair as well, but for some reason I do not recall finding it as compelling as the Renaissance Festival. My mom used to get a 70% discount on tickets from her job, but now that she is retired, we have to make do with scrounged up discounts from the backs of newspapers (though the City Pages has some good tips here on how to make it on the cheap). With my background in fantasy roleplaying games and later, the study of early modern history , the fest held a certain amount of interest to me, though I never ended up getting a job there or going multiple weekends. No, my interest remained casual, and throughout my time of visiting, it is nice to see that not too much has changed there as well

There have been rumblings for years that the sand upon which the festival sits is worth more than the festival itself, and that developers will soon be along to bulldoze the quaint Elizabethan style facades housing craft shops, carnival games, fried food stands, and drinking establishments and dig quarries, as they already have with much of rolling grassy fields which serve as parking lots. Every year, though, it pops up as usual, and I can’t see that stopping anytime soon, not with a crowd like the one on the last day this year.

Does the Renaissance Festival hold up? Yep! Sure, the food is generally rather overpriced and of dubious quality (I remember chowing down on one of those ubiquitous anachronistic giant turkey legs and feeling tired of pulling tendons out of my mouth). This year we had some falafel, which wasn’t too bad, really. You could drop a small fortune on such useful household tools as a zweihander that really could take someone’s head off, or some pretty awesome leather tunics. Personally, I my favorite is the historically accurate game store, MacGregor Games, which offers fairly reasonably priced cloth games like Morris, Hnefatafl, Mancala, and even knucklebones and period playing cards.

The real draw, of course, is the performances and the people watching, I’ve always thought it would be cool to dress up sometime, but I make excuses about lacking funds to get fitted out for something that actually looks good, or the ability to make my own, so I’ve always just shown up in civilian garb. Maybe next year, right? Aside from the period garb, the jerkins, kilts, cloaks, and bodices, T-shirts with phrases, Tardises, and many middle aged moms and dads seemed to enjoy the opportunity to wear their “politically incorrect joke” t-shirts in public. We were certainly not disappointed by the people watching this year, and we even saw some new acts as we tromped across the grassy fields in between the store fronts and the people hawking nut bars and giant pickles.

The theme weekends always vary the options a little; this one was Shamrocks and Sheninagans, of course, promising Irish-themed events mostly focused on drinking. I do have to wonder why so many people drink at the fest, though, or at least, drink what is offered there; it seems super overpriced even compared to the food; a cup will cost upwards of $6. This might be worth a cup of mead, depending on your taste for the sweet nectar. They were offering free samples of Guinness, though, along with free cake in honor of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday this year. It was surprisingly good cake, actually, though I’m not too sure what it had to do with the Irish.

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The Minnesota Sky Vault Theatre Company forces a pair of hapless audience members to dance for our amusement in a scene taken from a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As for shows, we saw some old standbys, the Whacky Chickens and their poultryish brand of comedy, and the Danger Committee, expert practitioners of blade throwing, tossing knives and geek references at each other with equal deftness, but we also saw some new stuff too. My favorite new act this year were the musical and comedic antics of a young group, the Minnesota Sky Vault Theatre Company, who performed several abridged Shakespearean adaptations using that old Ren Fest tradition of enforced audience participation- watch out, you could be next! Fake British accents were bandied, and some nice violin work was displayed. It is good to see some new stuff being shown, after all, you can only watch the same Puke and Snot routine so many times over the years. We also checked out Arthur Greenleaf Holmes, writer of wildly inappropriate poetry, for the first time. Wildly inappropriate is not a misnomer; he does not exaggerate and makes sure to preface his show with plenty of caveats and viewers advisories, which did not prevent people from bringing their kids. He then asked the audience to pick a number between 1 and 10, where 10 was the most inappropriate, to indicate the poem they wished him to perform; the audience, of course, chose 69. The funniest part was gauging the reactions of the audience to the poet’s ribald limericks, and his jibes should they be foolish enough to bring their children into the audience. Seemed a good encapsulation of everything the Ren Fest is.

Once you have had your fill of faux Elizabethan life, and your feet are begin to the ache, one of the most particularly interesting scenes at the Renaissance Festival for me is the walk back to your car (and a car is probably the only real way to get to the Fest). Similar to arriving, before you buy your ticket, dragging yourself out, you find a strange and bizarre scene, as tropes of people garbed for the 16th century gather around cars and mingle with 21st century tourists, while everyone is just trying to remember where the car is parked. Was it on this length of lawn, or further along on that length of lawn? In any case, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival always offers a particularly idiosyncratic bit of Minnesota culture.