The Dr. Phil-You-With-Horror-O'-Lantern

by Emerson Beyer

The jack-o’-lantern traces its origins to the Dark Ages’ British Isles, where once upon a time, as oral histories convey, they were carved from turnips, illuminated with swamp gas and held aloft to protest the excesses of the financial elite. In sophisticated neighborhoods, the jack-o’-lantern has evolved into a tool for clever parents to send amusing political jokes to one another and to demonstrate their artisanal bona fides. The puking pumpkin simply won’t suffice anymore. A range of genius o’-lantern alternatives exists, but these mostly work indoors only. I’m going to show you how to design and carve a spirited jack-o’-lantern for your stoop that will shock and mesmerize all who behold it.

An artful jack-o’-lantern is especially trenchant as part of a themed ensemble. I prefer themes that delight in nostalgia and the low brow; nothing too topical unless it’s amusingly stale. The figures should also be ghoulish — it is, after all, Halloween. In previous years, I’ve gone with demagogues and dictators. This year my theme is daytime talk shows. If unemployment is the plague of our era, then daytime television hosts are its apocalyptic horsemen. I’m starting with one who is so demonic and shudder inducing (and apparently trigger-happy with the lawsuits) that I dare not speak his name. Like many of our contemporary demons, he is from Texas and strongly disapproves of your parenting. (Shivers!!)

Are you ready to carve like Jason Voorhees? OK, let’s massacre some pumpkin!

Use Google Image Search to find a good black-and-white picture or a simple caricature of the nightmare visage you’ve chosen (for the latter, set search criteria to “Line Drawing”). Here’s my seriously low-tech way of doing this because I don’t have Photoshop (or computer skills): download the picture and put it in a PowerPoint presentation. Stretch it to a seven-inch square — it’s okay if the picture gets blurry or pixelated. Use “format picture” to convert the color to “Black and White,” even if it’s already monochromatic. Adjust the brightness and contrast settings until you get a highly schematic but still passable image of your ghoul.

Use a black Sharpie to outline and fill in the black parts of your picture and to add any obviously missing parts (top of head, jaw line). The carving method we’re going to use is fairly precise, but not surgical, so you can be sacrificing minutiae at this point. You will ultimately leave the “black” areas intact and carve out the white areas. You want to keep the telling details, like Doctor McGruesome’s moustache, dimples, laugh lines and soaring dome. You’ll also need to draw a “halo” around your figure — this is important and you’ll eventually see why.

Time to go shopping! Pumpkins grow everywhere and they are very hardy, so there’s a good chance your grocery store carries “local” pumpkins and that they’re grown without a lot of pesticides. No need to buy a giant pumpkin — in fact, something smaller will be more manageable, as long as it fits your seven-inch picture. The main thing to shop for is a relatively smooth surface without deep creases.

When you get home, stir yourself a Normandy, put on your crafting smock and cover your table with a drop cloth. Do not try to do this on the floor — you’ll hurt your back, which I guess would be fine if your costume is Igor.

If you learn nothing else today, let it be this: open your pumpkin from the bottom. This has so many advantages over cutting into the top around the stem. First, you can hack away, and no one will see your mistakes. You also don’t have to worry about your “lid” failing to fit or falling into the pumpkin as it dries out. Cutting out the bottom allows you to make a much bigger hole, and that will make it easier to clean out the pumpkin guts. You can also cut adjustments around the hole if the pumpkin isn’t standing up in the posture you’d like. Finally, when you’re all done, you can set the pumpkin down over the “candles” (we’re using the flickery fake LED kind) instead of lowering them in.

Get a big metal spoon and start digging and scraping. You’re not done when the gooey stuff and the seeds are out. (n.b., These seeds are not good for snacks, they are grody.) You need to keep scraping until the pumpkin chamber is immaculate. Then scrape a little more! Scraping the walls quite thin from the inside will make your carving on the outside much easier.

Tape your picture to the outside, snipping and folding at the corners to minimize distortion. Then, using a puncturing tool, outline all the black parts of the picture. (I use a nut pick, and have never attempted this with an awl, so don’t ask.) Warning: this is the most difficult and tedious part of the project. If you are arthritic, enlist the help of a fastidious youngster.

After piercing your outline, it’s time to connect the dots and start scraping out the image. Ah yes, scraping. Not carving! Surprise! That’s the whole trick! I use the nut pick and the back of a potato peeler. (Did I mention that this is actually very dangerous and not for kids?! Yeah, that.)

A few more cutting/scraping tips:

1. Start with the broad areas, because the vigorous cutting and scraping required can easily cause you to wreck more delicate, detailed areas if you’ve already finished them.

2. A lot of the detail is around the eyes. If you mess up, don’t sweat it. Your figure will just look more zombie-like. (See this Ahmedinejad from a previous Halloween.)

3. Scrape a lot of flesh away — it has to be thin enough for the light to shine through. But be careful not to make holes. Even too-thin spots will break open after the pumpkin dries for a while.

4. If your jack-o’-lantern doesn’t glow as brightly as you’d like, try thinning the flesh from the inside — you’re less likely to mess up your work or to make accidental holes.

Looks a lot like Dr. McGruesome, right? And when he’s joined by a certain Smizing Super Monster and the frighteningly chipper 30 Minute Poisoner to fill out the afternoon terror-talk lineup, the likeness will be even more obvious, and you will have made a name for yourself as the block’s mad genius of Halloween.

What’s your theme going to be? Send ideas! Send pictures!

K. Emerson Beyer, environmentalist and gadabout, lives in Durham, N.C. and tweets as @patebrisee.