ESSAY: Don’t Go Into the Basement; or, Viewer as Victim

Jeffrey Kalstrom offers his True Account of the Haunted House in the Soap Factory basement. Through (of course) Halloween.


This article was originally published in October 2007. This year’s Haunted Basement at the Soap Factory takes place nightly from 6 pm-midnight, through November 2. Tickets are $15

I REALLY HAVE NO OBJECTIVE BASIS BY WHICH TO JUDGE THIS or any other haunted house, as I have never been in one before. I avoid horror movies like the dentist. (I like to take walks in the woods at night and find this to be a more relaxing experience without images of “the hook man” floating through my fragile psyche.)

At the Soap Factory Haunted House, I laughed, I cried, I screamed like a twelve-year-old girl, and clung desperately to my friends (thanks Diane, Arden, Felicia).

If you have ever wondered what wonders, architectural or otherwise, lurk in the basement of the Soap Factory, this is your chance. Armed (sometimes) with a dim flashlight and several soon-to-be-closer friends, I found this subterranean lair a bit smelly, often dusty, damp, dark, then very dark, and at times even scary. (Avoid this haunted house at all costs if you have fear of clowns in the corn, clowns in the corn, clowns in the corn, clowns in the corn, clowns in the corn, clowns in the corn, clowns in the corn, clowns in the corn, clowns in the corn….)

As this haunted house is at one of the Twin Cities premier art spaces, let us ponder the relationship between art and horror. Hmmm … Have I ever been frightened while looking at a work of art? No. Some bodies of work, like Goya’s “horrors of war” prints depicting torture, rape, and murder, make me angry, disgusted, nauseated, but not frightened.

Haunted houses frighten in that they create a lived experience. One is “in” a haunted house, not observing it. It is this sensual immersion that gives the haunted house its power to move us. Works of art tend to calmly lie in wait on the wall or floor to be activated, to be turned on by our gaze. As such, art works are under our control – we choose to look, or not. In entering a haunted house or scary movie, we relinquish control; horror feeds on our passivity. With art, control is in the eyes (and feet) of the beholder,

But, you are thinking, what about experiencing an environmental art installation? Yes, I have seen installation art that was as fully sensual as the Soap Factory Haunted House. But installation artists typically seek to evoke a more nuanced set of reactions than terror, and succeed when they engage the whole brain, not just the hippocampus. It’s viewer as participant, not victim.

But sometimes, for some reason, it is a little fun to be the victim. And so, I offer these reasons to undergo the rigors of the Soap Factory Haunted House experience:

To get the blood pumping (pant, pant);

To see the deep dark dank depths of the Soap Factory basement;

To finally confront your fear of clowns;

To have an excuse to hold hands with some certain cute someone;

To support the Soap Factory;

And, finally, to ponder the similarities, differences and potential for complex intersections between the worlds of horror and art.

About the author: Jeffrey Kalstrom is a sculptor and iron-pour impresario who also teaches sculpture.