On pumpkins

Do you think that carving horrifying and creepy faces into large orange gourds and illuminating them from the inside out with a candle is odd? America’s fascination and obsession with this bizarre, if not oddly repressive, tradition is, without a doubt, weird. No one carves faces into other large vegetables, so why mess with pumpkins? Sure, they are about the same size as a human head, they are hollow, and they are this striking orange color, but how does all of that add up to the tradition of carving an ugly face into the front of the thing? I understand that as human beings we need safe avenues of expression for our fears, repressed memories, nightmares, scary visions and the like, but carving pumpkins for Halloween is a bit of a mystery even if you invoke a completely Freudian interpretation of the carving act. The kids tend to love this activity, and as a child I always tried to outdo myself by making the fangs sharper, the eyes more evil, the nose more fiendish. In Spanish we have a word for the distorted pumpkin heads which are created: esperpento, which speaks to the exaggerated monstrosity represented by the disfigured and hideous face of the pumpkin. It’s as if we need to create something truly ugly and display it for the whole world to see. The creation of the monstrous face speaks most clearly to a series of ancient harvest celebrations and the superstitious traditions associated with it that have grown into the practice of Halloween. Many sources will defend the Christian associations with the celebration of Halloween and ceremonies for the remembrance of the dead, but the actual practices of Halloween proceed from a much murkier past that has long since been forgotten that has to do with forest spirits, monsters, ghosts, and fear. The “Jack-O-Lantern” or illuminated carved pumpkin seems to embody this fall festival as people make light of what scares them, admitting that they not only fear death, but that they also fear those things that go “bump” in the night. Halloween is that opportunity to recognize our basest fears: the dark, death, wild animals, nuclear weapons, the economy, and even fear itself. People express their fears and repressions in different ways, not the least of which is carving pumpkins and later dressing up like their favorite superhero. All of this is very irrational, but who ever said that fear is rational? We carve the pumpkin because we want to control that which frightens us, so the pumpkin becomes a mirror for us as we probe the dark side to our souls in search of those things that have no face, that reside in the shadows, the moan and growl, that have sharp teeth, that shape-shift and change. The fact that we do this once a year just before the onset of winter suggests that although most of our community is populated by rational empiricists who reject all superstition and irrational practices, there are still a huge part of the human experience that is at once irrational and inexplicable—logic falls short of its goal, and we end up scooping a bunch of pumpkin innards out on the kitchen table. I think that carving pumpkins into Jack-O-Lanterns serves some psychological purpose of letting the carver “get it out of his/her system” so to speak, that carving pumpkins is a healthy psychological practice that points to mental health and a firm grasp of reality. That said, I haven’t carved a pumpkin in ten years.