Fear Tactics: Scary times call for scary theater on Twin Cities stages

Dangerous Productions freaks audiences out on the Southern stage.

Dangerous Productions freaks audiences out on the Southern stage. Dan Norman

“Horror is a reflection of the times,” says Tyler Olsen. “Artists everywhere are going, ‘What the fuck is happening in the world?’ As artists, this is a way that we explore it.”

This past year’s headlines have been particularly horrific, but for more than a decade now, Twin Cities theater artists and audiences have been increasingly interested in scary stories, both in venues you might expect (the Southern Theater) and in places you probably wouldn’t (Valleyfair).

Theatrical horror is as old as the stage itself, from Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out in King Lear to the Grand Guignol tradition of disturbingly bloody shows dating from fin de siècle Paris. That said, shocks and frights aren’t necessarily what you expect when you buy a ticket to a play. More and more, adventurous local companies are challenging that expectation.

It might seem a little less terrifying to be “safe in a theater” versus “stuck in a dark room,” says Ryan Lear, board chair of the Twin Cities Horror Festival, “but I’ve definitely seen some shows at our festival that are just as visceral as a haunted house.”

This October, the Horror Fest will return to the Southern for a sixth year of delivering theatrical fright to an enthusiastic audience. It’s become a nexus for the growing number of writers, actors, and producers who are delving into darker onstage realms.

“When we started, it was just a loose affiliation of groups that wanted to get together and perform their work,” says Lear. “We’ve become sort of an institution at this point, which was not the original plan. We definitely have a lot of interest every year; people want to be part of the festival because they like what we’re doing.”

The Haunted Basement crew head over to their new digs.

The Haunted Basement crew head over to their new digs. Ashley Berry Photography

Sean Dillon, who’s produced eerie entertainments both at the Horror Fest and at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, says the festival organizers have “done a really amazing job getting a lot of horror on stage. The sheer variety of horror they’re putting on stage is inspiring, letting people know that horror is more than just ghost stories or monsters in the dark.”

Though it doesn’t have a proscenium, the classic haunted house is another traditional venue for theatrical horror, and local artists have been upping the ante in that department as well. The average “abandoned mansion” or “cursed dungeon” may startle, but it doesn’t really surprise. That’s not the case with the Haunted Basement, which enlists artists from a wide range of disciplines to craft a totally unique experience every year.

“What makes the Haunted Basement special is that it’s a marriage of fine artists, installation artists, and performers of every stripe,” says Christopher Barton, who’s returning as Haunted Basement director this fall after taking on that role last year.

When it launched in 2007 as a project of the Soap Factory, the Haunted Basement quickly exploded in popularity, becoming a seasonal must for thousands of thrill-seekers—many of whom would otherwise never set foot in (or under) an art gallery. It made headlines both locally and nationally for upending expectations about what an immersive Halloween experience could be, even enlisting scent experts to craft uniquely disgusting smells.

“We were strapped to these wheelchairs and we were blindfolded,” remembers Barton about his first foray into the Soap Factory’s depths. “I could hear one of the creeps whisper into my friend’s ear, ‘You smell like cigarettes and failure.’ At that moment, I stopped being scared and I started being fascinated. That wasn’t something I was expecting from a haunted house.”

After 10 years, it made sense for the Haunted Basement to become an independent organization with its own permanent space at 2010 E. Hennepin Ave. This year will mark the Haunted Basement’s first manifestation in the new digs, which will also allow for year-round programming.

Barton says the Basement proprietors are currently thinking about what, exactly, that might mean. “We’re talking about maybe starting a secondary theater company. We’d like to do a lot of Haunted Basement parties and events throughout the year.”

An especially ambitious intersection between the Haunted Basement and the local theater scene came in 2014, when a group of artists adapted Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment as a Fringe show staged in the Soap Factory basement. That fall, the sets and some other elements were repurposed for the Haunted Basement, and the following year the play returned as a standalone production.

“It made the basement grow a lot,” says Barton about Crime and Punishment. “It brought a lot of people in from the theatrical community.”

Noah Bremer, one of that show’s creators and also Barton’s predecessor as Haunted Basement director, articulates a key perspective that theater artists bring to a show like Crime and Punishment and that also informs aspects of the Haunted Basement.

“With a haunted house,” Bremer says, “you don’t really want the audience to be curious. Whereas with an immersive experience, you want them to be curious because that means they’re exploring and they’re interested.”

While Minnesota artists have been near the forefront of creatively immersive horror, they’re also part of a national trend. Barton says he and Bremer were “both blown away” by Sleep No More, an infamously unsettling 2011 production in New York City.

Bremer points to other examples of the boom in creative staged horror. “Universal Studios has a huge horror event they’ve been doing now for a couple of years. You see these zombie shoot-out experiences that are popping up. Escape rooms, especially the more frightening ones, are part of this trend.”

Locally, even Valleyfair is taking note of the possibilities: They’ve enlisted acclaimed stage director Joel Sass and the University of Minnesota Department of Theatre Arts & Dance to develop immersive encounters for the annual ValleySCARE experience. “We’re working on a zombie puzzle room, a Victorian mad scientist lab, a roadside attraction staffed by homicidal hillbillies, and a Wild West ‘rough justice’ encounter,” writes Sass.

One of the collaborators on Crime and Punishment was Tyler Olsen, whose name comes up in just about every conversation about horror in Twin Cities theater. He and his associates are known for astonishingly graphic shows like Itch, the 2016 Fringe hit about an infectious disease that causes victims to scratch themselves to death.

How did Olsen learn how to convincingly depict, for example, a woman tearing her own skin away? “Really, it was at my kitchen sink,” he laughs. “That’s just skills and techniques that I built up over 17 years doing it.”

Not that horror needs to be bloody, or even “scary” in a blunt sense. “It continues to surprise people every year what things you can accomplish onstage in the horror genre,” says Lear. “When you take away some of the visual cues, when you leave more things up to people’s imagination, that’s where the real terror can start to set in.”

Olsen agrees that tension and timing are everything. When it comes to onstage gore, “knowing when to use it is the real challenge. Blood has an amazing way of releasing pressure, so it’s about knowing: ‘When do I hit, and when do I pull that punch so it will hit even harder in five minutes?’”

One of this year’s most-talked-about movies has been Get Out, which takes a fantastical horror premise and uses it to comment on racism and white privilege. For this year’s Horror Fest, Olsen’s company Dangerous Productions is working with playwright Oya Mae Duchess-Davis to explore related territory in a play called Skin.

“It’s essentially the story of a white plastic surgeon who operates on black women, removing the pieces of themselves that society, or they themselves, have deemed ugly,” explains Olsen. “As you would imagine, this plastic surgeon has very dubious intentions. It’s really raw, it’s really brutal.”

Skin won’t be the only show at the Horror Fest that engages substantive issues, says Lear. “You’re going to see some shows that are tackling appropriation, race relations, underrepresented voices on stage. There’s a show that’s going to be dealing with indoctrination, talking about Sadie Mae and the Manson killings.”

Given all the interest in spine-tingling productions on the indie scene, are mainstream theater companies missing out by continuing to sidestep the trend? “Horror is one of those genres that doesn’t feel as respectable,” says Dillon. “I hope things like Horror Fest are helping that change. There just are so few contemporary horror plays out there. I think there was a much richer vein in the past.”

As the genre continues to grow, theatrical horror is sure to continue to spread beyond the Halloween season. “We’re talking about maybe doing a Christmas version of the Haunted Basement,” says Barton.

You better watch out, you better not cry.

Twin Cities Horror Fest

October 26 through November 6

The Haunted Basement

September 29-October 31; previews September 22-27


September 16 through October 28