By Alex Bonus
Dried blood spatters the face and arms of 9-year-old Lydia Uhlar.
A jagged scar rips across her cheeks and lips, molding her mild grimace into a gruesome smile. While red droplets trickle off her purple dress — tattered and torn — Uhlar’s demeanor turns serious.
“Be careful of my shoes,” she said, trying to keep her blue Converse sneakers clear of stains. “This is the pair I wear to school.”
Fortunately, Uhlar’s wounds are artificial. The blood is just red paint and her scars will wash off in a few hours.
But until then, Uhlar will play the role of a ghost haunting a disturbing bathroom at one of St. Augustine’s biggest Halloween attractions, Warehouse 31.
“I’m the ghost who will be sitting on the toilet — give me some privacy!” she said, joking.
Uhlar is accompanied by her father, Brandon Murawski, who plays the eerie Dr. X in a scene near where Uhlar will be stationed. This evening, however, Murawski acts as his daughter’s make-up artist, applying blood, scars and other creepy embellishments to her costume.
“She loves to scare people,” he said.
Performing in the Warehouse for her first time, Uhlar said she convinced her parents to let her spend the night scaring guests by crossing her fingers and “begging with baby eyes.”
Murawski was all for it — Uhlar’s mother was less receptive.
“I’m not allowed to do it again if I get scared,” Uhlar said.
Although it might seem strange for a girl so young to perform in such a frightening atmosphere, there’s much more to Warehouse 31 than its terrifying visage reveals. Behind the blood, guts, monsters and terrifying clowns, there’s a rag-tag team of people investing their time and sweat to give guests a Halloween scare they won’t soon forget.
And beyond the flashing lights, glow-in-the-dark paint, blood-curdling screams and fog machines, the real secret to the Warehouse’s terror is something that attracts people as old as 60 and as young as Uhlar — a whole lot of love.
A Bedeviled Biography
Located off Norcross Drive in St. Augustine and tucked behind an otherwise commonplace construction site, Warehouse 31 is a young attraction with a vivid history.
Operated by Red Mountain Entertainment and Blue Deuce Entertainment, the unused warehouse was acquired from A.D. Davis Construction three years ago for conversion into a haunted attraction.
According to the Warehouse 31 website, the site was chosen because of its disturbing backstory. From tales of a sacrificial cult that once occupied the warehouse, to rumors of a beast that lurks in the nearby woods, Warehouse 31 had no shortage of thrilling legend.
In it’s first year of operation, the Warehouse featured one attraction — the Rigamortis trail.
Murawski, who worked as a volunteer on weekends that year, remembers the charm of the fledging organization.
“It was a lot different then,” he said. “All the scenes were kind of isolated and people would just walk by and look through a window at them.”
He remembers having a lot of freedom with his performance, however, since he was allowed to “float” through the hallways and scare people.
He also credits that year for generating his love for haunted attractions.
“The people here were just awesome — just a great group of friends,” he said. “And I learned how to make people wet themselves pretty effectively, so that’s fun.”
Since that year, Warehouse 31 was grown exponentially. In addition to an expanded Rigamortis trail, it now offers the 3D Clown Nightmare and the Eternal Abyss. It opens at dusk Thursday through Sunday until Halloween.
According to senior assistant project manager Kelsey Flynn, the warehouse attracts anywhere from 500 to 1,000 visitors on weekdays and between 2,500 to 3,000 visitors on weekends. Though many people come from St. Johns and surrounding counties, some travel from out of state to experience the warehouse.
“It changes every year,” she said.
And so far, these changes have supported a more shocking experience. The Rigamortis trail is longer than ever, offering an almost 30-minute walk filled with interactive, ever-changing terror. The Eternal Abyss is pitch black, with glowing faces, hidden monsters and unexpected animatronics lurking amidst the shadows. The 3D Clown Nightmare features psychotic clowns and bizarre artwork enhanced by 3D glasses.
“Even if you’re not afraid of clowns, you’ll have something interesting to look at the whole time,” Flynn said.
And though guests will likely be too paralyzed with fear to think about the intense attention to detail necessary to pull off such a seamless experience, a trip to the Warehouse before dusk reveals the extent to which nearly 75 employees and volunteers invest themselves to make the Warehouse work.
Fervor for Fear and Family
Performer Sarah Cole — who entertains guests as King Rot while they wait in line for the attractions — travels an hour and 20 minutes from Melrose, Florida to perform at Warehouse 31 four days every week.
Though she said she started as a spectator of horror movies and haunted attractions, her status changed about ten years ago when she agreed to take over a haunted house in Melrose.
“They used to have this small haunted house near the airport, and one year nobody wanted to do,” she said. “So I just said, well, I will.”
She and her brother took it over and ran it for five years, eventually turning it into an operation with over fifty workers and multiple attractions.
“It started to get too big for where it was,” she said. “You know, with traffic complaints and noise and stuff. I decided it was better to just go out on our own rather than having someone say ‘hey, you can’t do this anymore.'”
Cole eventually found out about the creation of Warehouse 31 and started the first year as a volunteer, offering the services of her own hearse and carriage. Her role has grown over the years, and she now works full-time over all 18 days of the Warehouse’s operation.
Her love for the holiday — and her passion to push through those long nights at work — stems from fond memories of Halloween from her childhood.
“My dad would carve a pumpkin and I would take the seeds out in the backyard and bury them, then water them to grow a pumpkin for next year,” she said. “But, being a kid, I would forget about it with Christmas and other holidays and I wouldn’t water it anymore.”
When the next Halloween came around, however, Cole would suddenly remember her seeds and race outside to check on them.
“I would go out there and there would be a pumpkin,” she said. “There was no vine or anything but I was a kid so I thought I grew it.”
Her father put the pumpkin there to feed her fantasy, but it was a tradition that continued through her childhood and lives in her memory to this day.
Cole also grew to love decorating the house and making it spooky for the season.
“If you go to my house now, though, there’s only like three decorations,” she said. “I used to love to decorate, but now I invest all that love here.”
Cole arrives around 3:30 p.m. to begin setting up for guests arriving between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. She prepares set props, puts on her costume and gets her makeup done. But her duties — like most of the employees and volunteers — cover a range of odd tasks. Amidst the hustle and bustle of half-dressed and partially made-up monsters, Cole can be found replacing batteries and tearing out hedges for use as props.
“You would not believe the amount of work that goes into something like this,” she said. “This is not an attraction that you can tear down and throw in the back of a semi truck … it takes a lot of people, a lot of manpower and a lot of time to put it together.”
Behind the scenes, this investment is obvious. There are security guards, ticket takers, actors, artists and other workers fixing things up and preparing for the night. In the make-up trailer, artists smear glow-in-the-dark paint, blood and other disgusting features on person after person, anticipating their 6:45 p.m. deadline.
But beyond this dedication to putting on a bewitching show, an even more prevalent investment is clear among the workers — a commitment to each other.
As everyone prepares for the night, they converse, joke and embrace as haunting carnival music sets the mood for the evening.
“It’s like a second family,” Cole said.
Murawski is pleased to know he’s able to offer something for the community to enjoy.
“My goal is to get people involved with this and bring something positive to the youth of St. Augustine,” he said. “Haunted Houses are just so much for everyone, but this is just so different. It’s not what we’re used to around here.”
And having his daughter around to experience it with him makes it that much sweeter.
Uhlar — who was originally afraid to enter Rigamortis trail — said her first night performing went better than expected.
“I love it,” she said. “The people made me laugh and feel comfortable, and working with them made me feel mature.”
“There was one point where she scared this kid into the bathtub and started dancing around him,” he said. “The kid was so freaked out and didn’t know where to go.”
And it wasn’t long into the night that Uhlar changed her thoughts about her shoes.
“Go ahead and get blood all over them,” she said. “I’ll wear them to school on Monday anyway.”