In an era in which Halloween has become not just a tradition but a multibillion-dollar industry, would-be ghouls can spook friends and neighbors with mist machines, life-size twirling torsos and skeins of cobwebs fired from electric guns, all available on the Internet or in stores at the mall.
But in that most hallowed of All Hallows decorating traditions - pumpkin carving - even the most inspired artisans draw on principles as clear as a moonbeam at midnight.
"It's pretty basic," says Rhys Joseph, a student in sculpture and mass media at the Maryland Institute College of Art who is known on campus for his proficiency in pulp. "It's not like you have to worry about doing things wrong. How can you do things wrong when you're having fun?"
That doesn't mean there aren't rules-of-thumb. About 90 miles north of Baltimore in Chadds Ford, Pa., where the jack-o'-lantern trade has attained the proportions of myth and art at the annual fall festival known as the Great Pumpkin Carve, Chuck Feld, a professional sand sculptor who has competed there every year since 1976, says it all starts with selection.
"Test the side the pumpkin was laying on," says Feld, whose works over the years have included a pumpkin pelican, interlocking hands and several old-man creations. "That's the side that might be soft. If it's not firm all the way around, pick another one."
During a recent demonstration at The Sun, Joseph, a second-year MICA student from the Virgin Islands, doesn't have that luxury: He's assigned an ordinary 12-pounder. Like Feld, he tries to avoid knives, which can be dangerous and ineffective; his kit contains an ice-cream scoop from a dollar store and a pumpkin-carving kit (including two tiny saws) which cost him about $5 at Michael's.
His most rarefied item: an 8-inch drywall saw. "It's great for the big cuts," he says, nodding as if to music. "It goes through the walls like butter."
With it, he excises a circle from the pumpkin's top, making the incision at an angle so the piece won't fall in when reinserted. (He also leaves a notch in one side so he'll know exactly how it fits.)
"It pays to plan ahead," says Joseph, whose late mother, a ceramics artist, gave him his first pumpkin 20 years ago.
He's brought along four templates - original drawings of face designs, each on a sheet of paper - and chooses the one that best fits his gourd. (The pumpkin, a fruit, is a distant cousin to the cucumber.) "This is my `money' side," he says, rotating into view the portion with the fewest deformities.
Using the scoop, he shovels out the pumpkin "guts." At Chadds Ford, where the festival's monstrous specimens can weigh more than 300 pounds, that can be a massive task; Joseph dumps his few gooey handfuls into a garbage can. He shaves the walls to a uniform thickness of about an inch and a half - sturdy enough to work with, thin enough to admit good light once holes are made - and gets started.
Taping his drawing to the pumpkin, he uses a small, spiked tool - included in his carving kit - to puncture the lines of his design into the flesh (you can also use an awl or nail). He removes the paper. "You can get incredible templates online, too, or in the craft stores," says Joseph, who considered carving a Sun logo before deciding the eagle's feathers might be a bit delicate to try. "I like to draw my own."
With an artist's care, a surgeon's hands and the wide eyes of a goop-covered pre-schooler, he takes his larger tool (today, a small kitchen knife) and makes the biggest cuts - the eyes, the mouth - at a 90-degree angle to the pumpkin's surface, gently removing each piece. (The sequence - first big cuts, then small - preserves structural integrity and allows for small improvisations.) He proceeds to finer incisions - wrinkles, accents, his "funk," he says - and cleans out corners and edges with his tiny saws.
When he places a 2-inch candle inside, Joseph checks out how much light passes through each opening. In a few places, where he wants more illumination, he reaches inside and removes flesh, creating tapered angles for fuller passage. "He's spooky, but he's funny at the same time," he says, admiring the character with the crooked grin now coming to light. "The ambiguity is nice."
Joseph will never enter a contest, let alone sculpt a 400-pounder or design 3-D jigsaw puzzles, the way Feld is liable to do at Chadds Ford, which will draw about 10,000 spectators next weekend (Oct. 27-29). But in that way, the artists are actually alike. "We have incredible artists up here," says Feld. "You've got to come up, for the creations alone. But I don't carve to win. It's about having a great time."
Joseph couldn't agree more. "It's like playing in the mud," he says with a laugh, taking up a roll of paper towels to clean the mess off his hands. He takes a last, long look at his work. "Pumpkin guts are cool. If you're clean when you're finished, you just haven't done this right."