Jane Bradley: Competitive Halloween pumpkin carving – Nasa-style

Every year at All Hallows' Eve, researchers at Nasa's famed Jet Propulsion Lab forget dreams of Mars to concentrate on carving weird and wonderful pumpkin-based contraptions.
Every year at All Hallows' Eve, researchers at Nasa's famed Jet Propulsion Lab forget dreams of Mars to concentrate on carving weird and wonderful pumpkin-based contraptions.
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How can I possibly compete with Nasa’s finest space scientists when it comes to carving a pumpkin, wonders Jane Bradley

The shops are awash with orange. Parents are panic-buying witches’s hats, fake cobwebs and gigantic multipacks of Maltesers. My inbox is littered with press releases telling me how much people spend on “spooky” treats and sweets – or which are deemed to be the UK’s creepiest-named streets. We are at peak Hallowe’en.

There is one event, though, a fairly well-kept secret, which brightens up the October gloom – for me, anyway. Every year, the world’s top space scientists at Nasa put off thoughts of moonbases, finding alien life and Mars missions and instead team up for an annual pumpkin carving competition.

Splitting into groups to work on projects which are broadcast to the world via YouTube videos on Hallowe’en, some of the best brains from the organisation’s Jet Propulsion Lab compete to come up with the most elaborate and scientifically creative Hallowe’en-themed inventions. Of course, they put us normal mortals to shame, combining carved pumpkins with state-of-the-art robotics to create some weird and wonderful displays.

A Pac-Man pumpkin, a recreation of Darth Vader’s meditation chamber, a pumpkin black hole, a flying swing carousel, and a pumpkin-y take on a useless machine – a device which turns itself off with a robotic arm as soon as you turn it on – all featured in last year’s contest.

It is one of these happy little annual events which restores my faith in humanity. If international scientists opt to spend their free time inventing robotic pumpkins, everything must be OK with the world.

I am happy to admit that my own Hallowe’en decoration attempts are easily usurped by Nasa. They do use rocket science, after all.

What I am not so keen on is that even here on Planet Earth, well away from the glamour of space travel, the newest holiday on our calendars has turned into a serious creative competition, which I, with my best attempts at hacking out triangular eyes and a wobbly mouth, am undoubtedly going to lose.

I say newest holiday, but of course the tradition of carving vegetables to celebrate Hallowe’en began hundreds of years ago with turnips, when cheeky Scottish and Irish youths would carve “rude representations” of human faces into the vegetables and hide them in the hedgerows to scare passers-by.

Following immigration from the Celtic nations to the US in the 19th century, the tradition evolved on that side of the Atlantic into pumpkin carving, due to the fact that this glamorous orange squash was more readily available than the good old Scottish neep.

Over the years, however, the tradition has morphed from the traditional guising, where youngsters sang a song in return for a small treat, into a full-blown event known on the other side of the Atlantic as a “holiday”, where people really go to town on decorations and displays.

This year, my Facebook feed is already awash with friends’ pictures of elaborately carved pumpkins, each one more intricate and beautifully executed than the next – such as a cat complete with whiskers or detailed silhouettes of bats etched into the orange skin. One of my friends has been sending me daily pictures throughout October of the elaborate decorations she has been working on to transform her home into a Hallowe’en paradise that her two girls can be proud of as they prepare to trick-or-treat on Tuesday night. A colleague tells me that her 40-something husband (whose children are well beyond the age of ghostly costumes and guising) every year buys himself a special supermarket kit which allows him to carve his pumpkin with precision. Last year, she says, he was practically reduced to tears when some local spooks nicked his work of art from the doorstep. It was later found ruined in the street.

Meanwhile, it seems such a thing exists as professional pumpkin artists – if I’d known that was a potential career when I left school, I might not have made the foray into journalism – who use power tools, drill bits and stencils to create backlit haunted houses and ghostly writing, which they display on snazzy-looking Instagram accounts.

Some artists have even created pumpkin replicas of celebrity faces, including Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt – presumably in happier times – and Kim Kardashian.

When I was a child, growing up in the 1980s, we didn’t have any of these fancy orange globes with their electric candles and other mod cons. If I was lucky, my dad would scoop oput the middle of a slightly mouldy turnip, poke out some eyes and stick a bit of wire that had been lying around in the garage through its ears to allow me to carry it around the neighbours’ doors. The tea light candle would invariably go out within 30 seconds of leaving the house, tipping up on the uneven surface of the turnip’s base.

Now, however, if you haven’t taken your offspring to the local pumpkin patch to forage for your own Hallowe’en icon – shout out for Aberdeenshire-based Udny Pumpkins, run by former Scotsman journalist, Jenny Fyall – you are nothing. There is apparently even a day designated to carve your creations, National Pumpkin Day, which took place last Thursday. Yes, I missed it too. In short, Hallowe’en has become big business. From Nasa to Nairn, pumpkin carving is a major event. According to a survey from the Royal Mail, one in ten people spend more than £50 on celebrating Hallowe’en, splashing out on costumes, decorations and what they call “spooky snacks”.

Yet, perhaps the most scary news this Halloween is that a poll by Beano.com found that one of the top ten Hallowe’en costumes for youngsters this year – alongside Voldemort and Frankenstein – is Donald Trump. I’m already preparing myself for a troupe of miniature Trumps to turn up at my door. Perhaps I can ward them off with my own US politics-themed pumpkin creation – a Trumpkin.

Now, where’s my box of power tools?