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Maniac Pumpkin Carvers

11 Tips for Carving a Better Jack O'Lantern

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Maniac Pumpkin Carvers

Forget two triangles and a toothy grin; this Halloween, take your jack o'lanterns to the next level. We asked Marc Evan, co-founder of Brooklyn-based Maniac Pumpkin Carvers—whose crew carves everything from corporate logos for Martha Stewart and the Yankees to replicas of Escher, Klimt, and Van Gogh paintings on as many as 400 pumpkins a season—for a few tips. "We look at it as this new art medium," Evan says. "For us, it's this really fun material to work with, and we’re always trying to push the boundaries of what we can carve into a pumpkin." 

1. GET A PUMPKIN WITH A STEM.

Pumpkins grow on vines and rest on the ground, so the stem is never meant to support the fruit’s weight; a pumpkin without a stem means it’s been handled—or more likely mishandled—a lot. To ensure you’re getting the freshest pumpkin, look for one with a greenish stem. “If a pumpkin has been sitting around, the stems will dry out and get brittle,” Evan says. “The greener the stems the better. We also like when they have a big, thick stem, which is an indication that the walls of the pumpkin will be thick as well. The thicker the stem, the heavier the pumpkin and the better it is for carving or sculpting.” Also avoid pumpkins with blemishes, soft spots, or bugs, as you would when picking out any other kind of fruit.

2. DON’T DISMISS A WEIRDLY-SHAPED PUMPKIN.

“Part of the fun of pumpkin carving is that pumpkins come in so many shapes and sizes,” Evan says. “We actually almost prefer some of the really awkward ones. They can inspire some unique designs.”

3. HAVE A PLAN.

Evan recommends drawing out what you plan to do before you ever make a cut on your pumpkin. “We’ll print out a bunch of references to get inspiration,” he says. “And then we’ll draw our design with a pen onto the pumpkin and start carving away.”

4. WAIT TO CARVE—BUT WORK FAST ONCE YOU START.

You can buy your pumpkin whenever you want—“they should last a really long time until you carve them,” Evan says—but wait until you want display to start carving. He and his crew at Maniac Pumpkin Carvers usually create a pumpkin just 24 hours before an event, and once they start carving, they don't stop until a pumpkin is finished, which can sometimes take 10 hours. “We’re working with a perishable food item,” Evan says. “As soon as you cut into it, it’s starting to decompose. It's unpredictable—we’ve had some carved that last three weeks but then others three days. At home, it’s kind of safe to carve it within two or three days of when you really want it for. But if you want it for Halloween, you shouldn’t carve it at the beginning of October.”

5. KEEP A WATER BOTTLE HANDY.

“Pumpkins don’t oxidize as fast as an apple or avocado would, but if you leave it out on the counter over the course of just one day, you do see the change in the structure of the pumpkin,” Evan says. “It’s losing a lot of moisture, so one thing we do while carving is we’re constantly spraying it, trying to keep it wet. That helps it to stay workable.”

6. THINK BEYOND THE TYPICAL PUMPKIN CARVING KIT.

Evan and the Maniac Pumpkin crew will use whatever it takes to carve a pumpkin, including paring knives, lemon zesters, rasps, Exacto knives, saws, and clay sculpting tools. “Ribbon hoops that are normally effective on clay work great on pumpkins,” Evan says. “One of our favorites actually is a linoleum cutter, normally used in print-making—it’s great for doing intricate designs and line work. Really, anything that is sharp can be useful.”

Still, for scooping, you can’t get much better than what comes in a kid’s pumpkin carving kit. “We love those little plastic orange scoops,” he says. “But you can also use big spoons—we have a couple of big, wide salad serving spoons that we’ve snapped the handles off of, and those work really great.”

7. LEAVE THE TOP ON.

Removing the top not only messes with the structural integrity of the pumpkin, it also cuts off the vine, which supplies the fruit with nutrients and moisture until it's all dried out. “When you cut around it, you’re kinda cutting off that lifeline that’s keeping the pumpkin fresh,” Evan says. “So we like to keep that intact.” Likewise, cutting off the bottom is a bad idea because “pumpkins give off so much water when you cut them that all that liquid can start oozing out onto the table or whatever surface the pumpkin is on and really make a mess.” Evan favors cutting a hole in the back of the pumpkin instead.

8. WEAR RUBBER GLOVES.

There’s no getting around it: You’ll have to get a little dirty scooping out the inside of the pumpkin. But if you find the goop that gross, Evan suggests donning rubber gloves.

9. SCOOP EVERYTHING OUT. AND WE MEAN EVERYTHING.

Leaving bits of pumpkin goop inside your jack o’lantern is a big no-no. “Those are gonna start getting moldy and then it’ll spread to the walls of the pumpkin,” Evan says. “When we scrape the walls really thin and get every last little stringy bit out, the walls are almost drier and seem to stay that way longer before they start to break down.”

10. USE ELECTRIC LIGHT.

Evan recommends LEDs or CFLs. “They get really bright, but they don’t give off heat,” he says. “You want to keep the pumpkin as cold as possible, and if you have a heat source inside of it, the pumpkin is gonna start to cook inside. Which actually can smell nice, but doesn’t help with the longevity of the pumpkin.”

11. PUT IT IN THE FRIDGE.

Nothing you can do will add weeks to your jack o’lantern’s life, but there are things you can do to add a few days. “Our favorite thing to do is, when it’s done with display, we’ll wrap it up really tight with plastic wrap and keep it some place really cool, preferably a refrigerator,” Evan says. "If it’s cool at night, near a cool window or in a garage will also work.”

Check out Maniac Pumpkin Carvers’ incredible work on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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8 Awesome Halloween Displays From Around the Country

Looking for some Halloween decorating inspiration? Look no further than these spooky displays. From New Mexico to New York, here are eight creepy homes worth going out of your way for each All Hallows' Eve.

1. THE PUMPKIN HOUSE IN KENOVA, WEST VIRGINIA

C-K AutumnFest—an annual fall festival thrown by the West Virginia towns of Kenova and Ceredo—offers scarecrow-building contests, tractor shows, and home-canning competitions, among other activities. Its highlight, however, is probably the Pumpkin House. The historic Victorian abode once belonged to IRS commissioner Joseph S. Miller, a friend of President Grover Cleveland. But when Ric Griffith moved in, he put it on the map with elaborate jack-o'-lantern displays.

Each year, in late October, the onetime Kenova mayor festoons the home’s yard, porch, rooftops, and gables with 3000 glowing pumpkins, some of which sit on specially built displays with music and lights. The laborious project begins in earnest around a month before Halloween, when Miller and his daughter start drawing faces on the gourds. Then, around five days before AutumnFest kicks off, local volunteers help the duo scoop, carve, rinse, and arrange the jack-o'-lanterns into tiered rows around the house and yard.

You can check out the Pumpkin House in person at this year’s festival, which runs October 27-28. “Due to the shelf life of a carved pumpkin, carving will not begin until October 23,” organizer Kim Layman tells Mental Floss. “Once the pumpkins are carved and set into place, they remain lit 24/7. The best time to see the greatest number of pumpkins lit is the weekend of AutumnFest. Weather permitting, the pumpkins will remain lit through Halloween.”

2. DANIEL'S HALLOWEEN HOUSE OF WARWICK IN WARWICK, RHODE ISLAND

The annual Halloween display at 69 Darrow Drive in Warwick, Rhode Island is so over-the-top that it has its own Facebook page for local fans. Past iterations have featured Halloween props designed by homeowner Mike Daniels, spooky interactive figures, and multi-colored lights synchronized to more than 14 songs. This year’s clown-themed yard show won’t be complete until around mid-October, but there will be “new designs and props and music,” Daniels tells Mental Floss. “We’ve added some awesome new stuff!”

Proving that Halloween isn’t always about tricks and/or treats, Daniels typically leaves out a bin for charitable donations. This Halloween, the collection will be donated to the Spirit of Children hospital foundation, which funds art, music, and other therapeutic projects for children receiving medical care.

3. “OPERATION: SCARE ‘N SHARE” IN WELLS, MAINE

In 2006, Stanley Norton of Wells, Maine, began competing with his brother to see who could build the best Christmas light show. The winner gained bragging rights, and the loser was required to hang a portrait of their sibling in their home with the words “I wish I was my brother” underneath. Norton got so into the challenge that eventually, the satisfaction of beating his brother was no longer enough. About two years after the inaugural lights contest, he also began regularly decorating his home for Halloween, an endeavor he’s since dubbed “OPERATION: Scare ‘N Share.”

Norton’s annual display runs the week before Halloween, and features spooky props and thousands of lights synced to radio music. (They're erected with help from the local Wells Soccer team, which Norton used to coach.) The tunes and lights change each year, but visitors are always asked to bring canned goods to donate to a local food pantry. In 2015, Norton’s Halloween house had so many visitors that they collected close to 1000 pounds of food.

4. THE CUNNINGHAM HAUNT HOUSE IN FARMINGTON, NEW MEXICO

When a prospective career in the haunted house industry didn’t work out for him, Darrell Cunningham, a software programmer in Farmington, New Mexico, decided to turn his passion into a hobby by decorating his own home for Halloween. The project soon morphed into an ongoing tradition that's now six or so years running.

Today, Cunningham, with help from his father, constructs elaborate Halloween displays at his parents’ more spacious abode. The Cunningham Haunt House, as it’s called, features handmade props that Cunningham builds himself. (They've included grim reaper, witch, and angel statues fashioned from chicken wire, plastic pipes, paper mâché, and "monster mud," a special mixture of paint and drywall compound.) There are also plenty of spider webs and fake tombstones, as well as projectors that play music videos like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller."

Since Halloween props are expensive, the father-and-son duo is always soliciting either online cash donations or crafting materials—“decorations, webs, pumpkins, wagons light posts, poles, wood, anything that could make cool props,” according to the Cunningham Haunt House’s Facebook page.

5. 84 MAIN STREET, CAMILLUS, NEW YORK

Trick-or-treaters in the greater Syracuse, New York region visit the town of Camillus to admire (and score candy from) Mickie and Bill Hendrix’s house on 84 Main Street. The homeowners are fans of classic horror films, so each October they transform their residence into a spine-tingling attraction complete with a fog machine, orchestral music, a giant barrel of "toxic waste" that pumps out green goo, and life-sized figures of skeletons, clowns, mummies, and vampires.

The display surrounds the house, and trick-or-treaters are forced to navigate their way through a sea of monsters and ghouls to receive candy at the back door. There, they're greeted by jumping motion-sensor creatures. (Some kids are too scared to come to the door, in which case Mickie Hendrix will toss candy out the window, or go downstairs and hand it to them personally.)

The couple have been decorating their home for more than 16 years. "It started out small and just got bigger and bigger," Mickie Hendrix told Syracuse.com. "It's getting out of control and we're getting older. Thank God for our grandchildren. They helped us get everything out." However, the display might be in its final years, as the couple is planning to eventually move to Florida.

6. TERROR ON TILLSON IN ROMEO, MICHIGAN

Halloween is a community affair in Romeo, a tiny 19th century village in Macomb County, Michigan, where residents transform a single two-block street into a spooky wonderland each October.

It’s said that the seasonal spectacle on Tillson Street began with longtime homeowner Vicki Lee, whose birthday falls on Halloween. To celebrate the occasion, she always decorated her home with pumpkins, corn stalks, and scarecrows. Her enthusiasm for the holiday spread, and as more families with young children moved into the area, other neighbors began building handmade Halloween scenes in their own front yards. Ultimately, around 30 homes joined in on the fun, resulting in the street-wide affair that the village knows and loves today.

Today, an estimated 80,000 visitors are said to visit Tillson Street each year to experience the spectacle—nicknamed Terror on Tillson—for themselves. On Halloween, the street is blocked off so kids can safely trick-or-treat under the watchful eye of a makeshift security team of high school athletes. (In a separate event, Tillson Street residents also team up with the Kids Kicking Cancer organization to provide a safe daytime trick-or-treating event for around 50 children with cancer.)

Terror on Tillson has become so famous that it’s spawned souvenir T-shirts, a neighborhood cookbook, a food drive, and a scholarship fund dedicated to Lee’s late husband, Buzz Lee, who passed away from a brain tumor in 2002. Paying the street a visit, however, is always free of charge.

For more information, visit Terror on Tillson’s official website.

7. EDWARDS LANDING LIGHTS IN LEESBURG, VIRGINIA

For the past seven years, Brandon Bullis of Leesburg, Virginia has created a musical Halloween light show, covering the front of his house with thousands of lights that are synced to blink along with popular tunes. Past examples include Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Handclap” by Fitz and the Tantrums, and "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” by Norwegian electronic group Ylvis, the last of which caused the home to go viral in 2013.

The show—which Bullis has branded “Edwards Landing Lights”—is technically silent, but viewers can listen to its tunes by turning on their car’s radio. They can also add money to a driveway donation box, the proceeds of which are donated to Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

To see Edwards Landing Lights in person, drive along Woods Edge Drive Northeast in Leesburg, Virginia after dark.

8. EAST 30TH STREET AND TACOMA AVENUE IN LORAIN, OHIO

Ricky Rodriguez constructs Halloween displays that look like movie sets. In 2013, the Lorain, Ohio resident teamed up with his brother Tony to built a giant two-story pirate ship, designed to look like it was crashing through the side of his home. The pirate ship returned to East 30th Street and Tacoma Avenue in 2014 (and presumably 2015), but last year, Rodriguez replaced the vessel with a fabricated steam-powered locomotive, inspired by the final scene of Back to the Future Part III.

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12 Halloween Traditions From Around the World
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Although most Americans spend Halloween dressing up and trick-or-treating, other countries have their own celebratory rituals. Here are 12 Halloween (and Halloween-like) traditions from around the world.

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