by Juleana Enright
So, maybe you’re familiar with this local Halloween-related interactive experience, the Haunted Basement. It’s just this little annual event that exploits your every childhood fear and pairs nefarious-themed scare rooms with an explosion of fetid olfactory odors, sinister artist-conceived visuals, and costume pieces so grotesque and cadaverous you may never be able to sleep with the lights off again. Basically, it’s designed to scare the shit outta you.
Now in its sixth year, the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement is your worst nightmare realized, with fresh terrors lurking around every caliginous corner. This year, The Haunted Basement welcomes renowned local theater director, Noah Bremer who’s enlisted a talented team of local artists including special effects makeup artist Kristen Leigh, smell engineers from The St. Croix Sensory and costume designers, to craft a performance so gruesome and offensive it sacrifices your senses to the evils of the underworld. When demented minds collaborate, what emerges is an unforgettable ‘ode to evil.’ Move over Karen Carpenter – or the corpse thereof – because turns out what the world really needs is the macabre, sweet macabre.
I caught up with Haunted Basement costume designer Alli Olwell to chat about what it’s like to be behind-the-scenes, what goes into constructing a collaborative vignette and how she preps her mind to unleash an exhibition horrors.
l’étoile: Tell us about your experience working as part of the Haunted Basement crew and how long you’ve been involved?
Olwell: This is my third year with the basement. I started as a costume intern for the fantastic original costume director of the project, Liseli Polivka. Last year, unfortunately, I just came in as the pinch-hitter for some unexpected problems and made some costumes on the spot. This is my first year as a costume director. It’s such a fun project and the amazing team of people I’ve met doing this are what really keep me coming back year after year.
l’étoile: What is your role?
Olwell: It’s my responsibility to work with the various artists who’ve designed the rooms and help them actualize their vision as far as creating anything wearable.
l’étoile: How many designers collaborate to produce the show and how were they chosen?
Olwell: I think this year it is 11 lead artists who have designed and are creating their rooms. There’s about five of us on the production side and, of course, hundreds of dedicated volunteers who give countless hours to the basement.
l’étoile: How do the themes get selected and how do the designers and the artists work together within that concept to create a vignette? I.e. the director wants a “satanic” motif, how would you develop that theme into reality?
Olwell: Every year in the spring, the Soap Factory puts out an open call for people who have an idea for creating an environment for the Haunted Basement. They’re chosen based on their creativity, feasibility and general horror-inducing potential. If their room is selected, they are then responsible for creating it, with help of course from plenty of builders, makeup artists, and myself on the costume end. When we’re developing an idea we really try to go through all 5 senses and find a way to engage everyone. “How should this satanic room smell?” “What sounds would be most un-nerving in this environment?” etc.
l’étoile: What have been your favorite designs over the years?
Olwell: This one was a year before my time, but the room that was all covered in a pink, black and white patterned fabric with the clown characters wearing the same fabric head to toe. The way they came out of the walls was unreal.
Olwell: Another would be the stilt costumes of last year. The credit for that one really goes to Francisco Benavides. He spent so long getting the basics of the stilts to work. It was also my all time favorite to act in. The shape and movement of those 4-legged stilt costumes just freaked people out so easily!
l’étoile: What inspires your creations? Do you rewatch specific horror films? Read disturbing novels?…
Olwell: Haha, this is a great question. Something about fall just brings out the macabre side of me. I always find myself studying and being inspired by some new dark thing or another. My first year my inspiration was really heavy on serial killer Ed Gein, the movie Deliverance, and I was watching a lot of prison documentaries so some white power prison gang tattoos got thrown in the mix. All in all just a gross, disturbing combination. This year I’ve been really fascinated by Leonardo DiVinci’s studies of the deformed. His series of sketches of “the Grotesques” really got my wheels turning.
l’étoile: Are there any limitations as to how macabre you can take the pieces? How dark is “too dark?”
Olwell: Not on the Soap Factory’s end! Any limits that exist are our own individual constructs. I was dabbling in some ideas involving Nazi uniforms made out of a patchwork “skin” fabric with concentration-camp number tattoos on them but took it another direction eventually. I consider myself pretty un-offendable but even I wasn’t really comfortable with that.
l’étoile: Do you have a budget per costume or a budget for all? Do you produce everything by hand?
Olwell: There’s an over-all budget set aside for costumes and I have to decide which ones will take up more resources then others, time included. Not everything is made by hand, usually just the key characters. This year a lot of things could be thrifted so I spent more time just gathering things and altering them. Making them from scratch is really the most fun part though. There’s always 100% original handmade costumes in there as well.
l’étoile: I’ve always been really impressed with your fashion design skills. Have you ever thought about branching out into other costume design arenas like local theater?
Olwell: I don’t consider myself a fashion person. I can’t deal with “fashion people.” I have no interest in making things people want to buy and wear. To me, that’s boring. I really only enjoy creating things that are over the top. With costumes, you put them on and become something else, someone else. It changes how you interact with others and how others interact with you. It’s a vacation from who you are on a day-to-day basis and that suspension of real-life is what really holds interest for me.
Artistic design for above images credited to Costume Director Liseli Polivka.