Can you see this?

I don't want to P.T. Barnum this too much, but STEP RIGHT UP!

A blog post 21 YEARS in the making!

One of my earliest Halloween memories, and a tradition I’ve maintained over the years, was when I was taught how to carve a pumpkin.  I remember it vividly:  my mother had placed some newspaper out in the backyard (for easy clean up) on a crisp, late October day.  She pre-cut the pumpkin lid for me, and then gave me a slotted metal kitchen spoon and told me about the need to remove the ‘guts and seeds” from the inside.  The pumpkin had been purchased earlier in the month, but kept in the un-insulated garage, and in an upstate-pre-global-warming-Fall, the inside was frosty.  My fingers stung with cold as I scraped the inside out.  


After the hard work, came my favorite part:  choosing the face.  Inspired by many a Beistle bulletin board decoration and, perhaps, the Halloween party scene from It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, my young self was obsessed with a ‘standard’ jack o’ lantern face:  two triangles for eyes; a triangle for a nose; and a jaggy-zig-zag smile for a mouth.  To this day, the musty smell of a sliced pumpkin brings this memory and more rushing back. 


For all the years I've been carving pumpkins, I don't vary my output much.  I'm like Andy Warhol painting Campbell’s soup cans, or Monet's haystack period:  repeating the image year after year in an attempt to achieve the quintessential jack o’ lantern face— and therefore perfection.  



Once a parking lot, now magically a pumpkin farm.

Though the tools and technique originally came from necessity (my parents didn’t have anything else) I've kept the same routine year after year so I now have a set of standard practices that have become my modus operandi.  My norm.  My  “Pumpkin Code.” 


AllHallowSteve's Personal Pumpkin Carving Code:

  1. The pumpkin must be real.  No fake foam.  The real pumpkin can be purchased anywhere:  a pumpkin patch farm; a farmer’s market; a grocery store, a parking lot.  Doesn’t matter.  But it DOES need to be a real pumpkin.
  2. The pumpkin has to have a stem.  This is more aesthetic preference over function.  Though a full stem makes removing the lid to light and extinguish the candle MUCH easier.  

  3. No stencils.  The carving is to be done freehand.  I will allow myself to draw what I'm going to do on the pumpkin skin prior to carving.  This is done lightly with a ballpoint pen (because water and a paper towel makes 'erasing' the ink after the carve, easier).  

  4. No special tools.  No 'Pumpkin Punchers' or 'Pumpkin Master' sets of multiple saws, drills, hammers, and cookie cutters.  When I was a kid, my parents had these '60s (maybe '70s) kitchen knives with fake plastic deer antler handles.  (Was that a thing?  It was probably a thing.)  I scoured Etsy and found this pic which I believe are the exact ones we had.  Feast upon their kitschy glory...
    Afore mentioned kitchen knives. Reference pic from Etsy.

    So NO TOOLS!  Nope.  One steak knife.  Serrated.  That's it.  (And a metal slotted kitchen spoon for scooping out the majority of the pumpkin guts).  

  5. The pumpkin is always lit up on Halloween night. I usually point it out a window, or put it on the front porch, or some other type of sentry position.  Just to keep the monsters away.

I realize that these are my ridiculous standards.  If you use stencils and/or tools to make beautiful carved pumpkins, or ornate faces that look nothing like the three-triangles-and-a-jagged-mouth-look, you're amazing.  I envy you for creating such novel, different things.  This, this 'process' I detailed above?  It's my gift.  It's my curse. 



Here's how this works:  the photos are side by side for each year below.  Left side is the inspiration, right side is the actual carve I did.  If I couldn't remember the inspiration, I included a photo of the pumpkin in the light.  If I only had one photo, I just duplicated it in both boxes.   


To be honest:  I don't have 21 consecutive years.  Various reasons for that:  taking pictures pre-digital camera was difficult, and costly.  Now, we always have a camera in our phone.  Then?  Notsomuch.  

Also:  sometimes events occurred that prevented me from either capturing the carve or carving altogether.  Weddings, funerals, parties, family, friends, events.  To quote Professor Dumbledore, "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live."


I'm going to start with last year, and work my way down.  Enjoy the ride...



I love it when a new Halloween-themed movie comes out and locks in to my cinema-sense.  (Side note: try a little dash of cinema-sense on top of your latte.  Delicious.)  2023's entry that scratched that itch for me was Cobweb.  And wouldn't you know it, there was a great (if critical) jack o' lantern that shows up in the film and as soon as I saw it I knew it would be this year's inspiration.  My self-critical eye tells me the eyes and nose were a little too big on my carve, and the ratio was off.  But overall, I love the simplicity of this design and it'll help me remember that I saw Cobweb in '23.


This entry was added long after this original posting.  After all, I had to carve it, and obey my Pumpkin Code mentioned above.  For inspiration, I've already raved about Mountain Dew's Halloween soda offerrings (VooDEWs) and why they matter.  So when VooDEW4 showed up on shelves, I jumped in with both feet.  Marveling at the brightly colored, intricate artwork, I spotted the jack o' lantern with a backwards "4" for a nose on the case artwork and knew that that was going to be my 2022 carve inspiration.  In making the carve a physical reality, I realized that I borrowed a little from the jack o' lantern that appears in the opening credits of John Carpenter's Halloween film.

Still from the opening credits of John Carpenter's Halloween.
See that little slice going from the nose to the mouth?  I made a similar slip cut on my design.  I'm happy with how it turned out and this 2022 carve brought my total to an even 20 years of immortalized pumpkin carves.


I decided to re-watch Trick 'r Treat, one of my all-time favorite Halloween movies, in 2021 but realized that somehow I had gone 14 years without ever having watched it with commentary.  I rectified that immediately, and the experience gave me a new found appreciation for the film.  The opening shot features a jack o' lantern sitting on the ground and I knew immediately that THAT was going to be my inspiration for my 2021 jack o' lantern.  There's an extra big gap on the pumpkin's right tooth that I think I nailed.  No one would ever notice it.  But I do.  



It was Pandemic Halloween.  I was trying to think of a kinder/gentler face for my jack o' lantern this year.  Just felt like I needed it.  I was getting really sentimental about some of the Halloween t-shirts I have.  Some were getting a little threadbare, but I couldn't yet part with them.  And that's when I decided to base 2020's carve on a Target jack o' lantern shirt I have, with glow-in-the-dark eyes, that's probably 15 years old.  I figured by making the carve, I would photograph the pumpkin, and then (eventually) blog about the pumpkin immortalizing the shirt in various ways for the day that I need to thank it for its service and send it to the great laundry bin in the sky.  The 'eyeballs' in the triangle eyes were slightly challenging--trying to make a round dot in a triangle hole-- but it's a wide-eyed, crazed, look that I enjoyed.  





For whatever reason, the season got away from me and suddenly it was Halloween night and I had a blank pumpkin staring at me and the clock was ticking.  It was getting late and I still had to get my pumpkin lit up, still had It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown to watch, and --knowing myself-- I knew that I would be getting tired soon.  I started popping around on the internet trying to find inspiration, when I realized I had seen an Instagram post on Pixel Elixir's account that was just so spot-on.  So clean, and simple.  Simplicity meets perfection.  I snapped a screengrab and used that as the reference for my own. The carve went quickly and, if I do say so myself, was just as simple and perfect.  A jack o' lantern that would look right at home in Charlie Brown's party scene, or sitting on Odie's head.  Special thank you to Pixel Elixir for the inspiration, and for finding and sending a better quality photo for this post!




It was the year that the movie Halloween 2018 came out.  Those who have seen the movie will recognize the heart-eyed pumpkin, and those who haven't will just appreciate the Halloween love I was trying to conjure.  I took some liberties by substituting the rounded teeth for more square ones.  And in an effort to give my hearts a clear 'point-pinch' in the middle, they are much bigger than the source material.  Trivia:  the pumpkin seems to glow yellow because I used some yellow glow sticks that were a few years past their prime.  Snapped two or three of them, dropped 'em in, and grabbed a photo.



I had picked an apple-shaped pumpkin in 2017, and it's appearance made me think I needed round eyes.  In clicking around Pinterest, I saw a photo of some skull-shaped bath-bombs that had a friendly, child-like face to them.  In doing some reverse-image searching, I found the blog post on how to make your own skull bath-bombs using a mold found on Amazon.  I used the mold photo as the inspirational material, and proceeded to carve the round-eyed fellow you see there.  


Sometimes inspiration strikes way early in the year--- like June.  I was flipping through a slideshow on IGN or Kotaku (or one of those pop culture video game sites) looking at photos from that year's E3.  And there, in Nintendo's booth, was this super cool stone-skull-helmet-THING.  The eyes lit up too!  And my first thought in seeing the photo was, "Geez that would make a great jack o' lantern."  I filed away the image (what's cool today, can seem stupid come October) and forgot about it.  When October hit, I opened up my 'inspiration folder' and that skull still hit me as cool.  I thought about either getting a 2nd pumpkin to strip for parts to make a helmet, but that went against my code.  So I created the face based solely on what I could do with a pumpkin.  I made sure to include some little details like the crack over the left eye, the strange bite, the bend in the nose triangle, and the unsymmetrical hexagon right eye.  Pretty happy with this one, and the photo (using a real candle) came out great.  


Avengers: Age of Ultron was one of my favorite summer films in 2015, and while watching Thor and Cap trash the Ultron Mark 1 (right after the 'did he move the hammer or didn't he?' scene) my mind foresaw the future:  the tattered, almost zombie-like, Iron Man helmet was going to be a perfect jack o' lantern carve.  I took some liberties in adding a thin and pointy nose, but the jagged eye sockets and mouth really were a lot of fun to figure out.  This was the most free-hand pumpkin I had carved, I just sorta winged it while staring at the reference image, which was liberating.  The photo at twilight on Halloween night also came out perfect.  This is one of my all-time favorites. 



I had purchased this cookie jar at Target's Halloween offerings, circa 2006-2007ish because I had circled it in the store.  Then circled back.  Then left Target.  And then returned the next day to get it.  It made me gloriously happy.  Seven years later I decided to base my 2014 carve around it.  The things that make this carve unique are: the tilted face; the triangle pupil in one eye, round pupil in the other; small nose; and squarish teeth.  Lit up on Halloween, it was maniacally happy.  And so was I.



Found these vintage cocktail napkins at the Vine American Party Store in Los Angeles (I've written about them before).  I liked them so much that I used as few as possible so I could get multiple seasons of use out of them.  When I got down to my last one, I figured it was time to immortalize it in my gourd... and now this blog.



The picture on the left was a bowl (Target, again) that I never purchased.  It's one of the "ones that got away" that I may blog about someday.  Though I didn't own the bowl, I DID keep the photo of the bowl and once again immortalized that skull-like, jack o' lantern face in my own pumpkin in 2011.  Looked great lit up on Halloween night.


Way before Disney realized what a cool thing they had and started churning out the 'poisoned apple' merchandise in mugs, scented candles, ornaments, and more--- well, *I* knew what a cool thing they had and wanted to see if I could turn my jack o' lantern into a 'poisoned pumpkin.'  The key to this one was making it look melty/drippy in the eye, the nose and the mouth most of all.  One of my all-time favorites.


If you know Halloween, you know Beistle and their wonderful wall decorations.  This cut-out was part of a reprint pack I bought at Vine American (again) and I had to make my 2D joy into a 3D pumpkin. 



No reference photo for this one, so I included the day and night shot.  It isn't too often I say this, but I think the day is more sinister--- the teeth look sharper.  I like the contrast of the smiling eyes with the scary mouth.  


No reference photo for this one.  Going from memory, I believe I based it on a Cost Plus metal tea-light jack o' lantern that was in the house.  I was visiting family members on the east coast in October so that pumpkin was picked out of an actual farm field, and is soaked with atmosphere from a bright orange, red, and yellow Fall.  Although I didn't snag a photo of the reference material, I DID still grab the lit up pumpkin photo on Halloween night.  I always liked the symmetry of this one.  So much so, it almost looks like the mouth has two fangs.


I was a big comic book collector in the '80s & '90s and on the 'direct' (i.e. comic book store) versions of the comic covers, Marvel would place an image over where the UPC would be.  Usually it was Spider-Man or Captain America's face, but sometimes it was the Punisher skull.  I always wondered if carving a skull into a jack o' lantern would be do-able and/or look good, and in 2003 I finally attempted it.  

Remember:  this was long before this symbol took on negative connotations, so it's here just for history and commentary in the context of this exercise.



I've always been a fan of Disney's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow animated film, and I wanted to see if I could make the pumpkin that the Headless Horseman throws at Ichabod in the climactic chase across the bridge.  This was early-internet days, so I had to try and pause the DVD to get a clear look at the pumpkin.  But what I really went for in the carve was the feeling of the flames pouring out of the thrown pumpkin.  What I came up with on the actual jack o' lantern was a very abstract interpretation of that moment.  This would have looked great hung from one of those invisible floating pumpkin holder chain things.  


No reference photo for this one, but I'd like to point out that this photo was taken on FILM.  Good old-fashioned Kodak 110, if my memory serves me correctly.  I was traveling in this particular October, so this was carved somewhere in the mid-west.  This was also the year when I learned the valuable lesson that the earlier you carve your pumpkin, the more it starts to get cartoon old-man gums by Halloween.  This photo WAS taken on Halloween night, however the jack o' lantern was about a day away from the end of its life.  



This photo is a little weird, but I'll explain why.  It's a still from an old VHS tape of mine.  

But first the inspiration:  anyone who's read Ray Bradbury's classic The Halloween Tree will recognize the author's frequent artist/collaborator Joe Mugnaini's work.  This happens to be the mask that appears at the start of Chapter 1.  I was infatuated with this mask.  I would often check the book out of the library month after month just to be able to access that mask whenever I wanted.  So when it came time for me to carve my pumpkin in October 1987, I took inspiration from it and the 'sock & buskin' (classic comedy/tragedy) masks.  What made it onto the pumpkin was an idea of a split face:  an evil grimace on one side, with a bright happy smile on the other. 

Then came how I was going to capture it.  1987 was a time long before digital cameras, and I knew my crappy Kodak 110 wouldn't capture anything in the dark.  So I went to video.  My parents didn't have a camcorder themselves, so I would often talk my neighbors into loaning me theirs.  They were early adopters, for better or worse, so they had a JVC GZ-S5 camera, probably the last video-CAMERA that wasn't a CAMCORDER.  Meaning the camera was a separate thing that had a long cord that plugged into a 'portable' VCR.  I say portable because it wasn't the lightweight aluminum and plastic VCRs that were around toward the end of VHS.  No, no.  This was a VCR made of metal.  Steel, and lead, and probably gold bricks or something.  It was HEAVY.  

The JVC GZ-S5 with VHS-C deck. Photo: eBay

I tell you all this because if you watch THIS VIDEO, you'll see my clumsy, freezing cold, handheld camerawork, trying to capture this jack o' lantern.  I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't inspired by the opening credits to John Carpenter's Halloween 2.  Watch the footage, you'll see what I mean.

In looking at the footage myself, and recalling that it was a full moon that night, I remembered that this was filmed the week AFTER Halloween.  In doing a lot of research, I've deduced that it was Thursday night, November 5th, 1987 to be exact.  It was 40 degrees outside.  Great for preserving a pumpkin... also great for freezing my fingers while carrying a giant metal VCR on my shoulder, and holding a video camera.  Yes, this is me in the dark of my parents' front yard.  Probably around 11:30pm.  If you listen closely you can hear my shivering aspiring-filmmaker breath, while cars whish by on the road next to the house.  Time travel.



Well there it is.  My first jack o' lantern.  I'm not going to --literally-- date myself, but if you look at that browning photo above you can probably figure out the time period. That memory I detailed at the start of this post, with my fingers stinging with cold as I dug out the seeds?  This photo was taken that very night.

Trust me when I tell you that my face has as big a grin on it as the Halloween Thing logo pasted atop it.

No inspiration for this one, obviously, but it's interesting to see the nose has a similar upside-down "V" as I included on my '96 carve.  The mouth is hard to make out, but if you look at the reflection in the table, it looks like a tight zig-zag pattern.  And there's that 'good stem' I mentioned I like.    

I tried doing my best Blade Runner "zoom and enhance" on the pumpkin itself, but this is the extent the photo apps I have were able to do:

So what about you?  Do you still carve pumpkins?  Do you keep track of them to this nerdy an extent?  What are your traditions?

Thanks for taking this excursion through 20+ years of jack o' lanterns with me.  I will, of course, add all future carves when I make them on Halloween night.

Just remember:  Never extinguish the flame of a jack-o'-lantern before midnight.

1 comment:

  1. I love them all! And I have to say, some of your interpretations are improvements - or great homages to - the original inspirations. Especially love your take on 2011 for some reason. Thanks for sharing, and keep carving.