Dry leaves skitter across a darkened street. A ghostly moon floats amid tattered clouds. A jack-o-lantern grins on a sagging porch.
For weeks, the carved candle-lit faces have peeked from windows and stoops throughout western Montana. Tonight, as they have for years, jack-o-lanterns will silently witness the spectacle of Halloween.
But how did we come to endure those chiseled gazes? Why does light flicker in those vacant eyes?
Hints of the jack-o-lantern appear in a number of cultural traditions that converged on American shores in the 1840s and gradually evolved into an embodiment of the modern Halloween by about 1940, said Museum of the Rockies curator and pumpkin researcher Cindy Ott of Bozeman.
Ott loves to study and think about pumpkins. She wrote her dissertation on the subject. It’s called “Squashed Myths: A Cultural History of the Pumpkin in North America.” She’s editing the comprehensive 429-page scholarly work into a more accessible length for a general audience and hopes it will be available within a few years.
Unlike many other plants, pumpkins play an active role in folklore and art, more like an animal than like produce, she said. Scholars have variously categorized pumpkins as either fruit or vegetable over the centuries. Ott holds pumpkins as vegetable.
Either way, they aren’t like normal produce.
“Pumpkins grow like mad. They create huge plants. Some farmers say you can hear them grow,” Ott said.
That strangeness is reflected in folk stories, drawings and paintings from a surprisingly wide geographic area and over hundreds of years.
In art from the Americas and Europe, pumpkins often moved with their own sinister volition or somehow played a role in diabolical doings. Some rode atop human-like bodies and came running out of the woods to chase children. In one American drawing, two children trample another to escape a pursuing pumpkin-man.
In a Dutch painting from the 1600s, a troupe of evil imps pour forth from a split pumpkin to battle humans in a chaotic scene under storm-torn skies.
An American folk tale from the early 1900s features a man who was attacked by a pumpkin vine. He fought it off as if it were a boa constrictor.
Plus, the pumpkin itself shares some general features with people. Pumpkins can look a bit like a head or a pregnant belly.
Pumpkins also had historic connotations when it came to social class. Poor farmers ate the cheap and easy-too-grow pumpkin, Ott said. The terms “pumpkin-roller” and “pumpkin-head” were insults that meant the recipient was poor, dim-witted or brutish, she said.
It was the brutish aspect of the pumpkin-head, perhaps, that made the leap to Halloween when Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine brought the holiday to America in the 1840s.
Based on the Celtic New Year’s Day, All Hallows Eve on Oct. 31 marked the day the Lord of the Dead judged the recently deceased. Called Samhain, he decided who would be reincarnated as animals or humans, Ott said.
On All Hallows Eve, family members of the deceased left food and other offerings for Sanhaim and placed glowing turnips or potatoes carved into lanterns and frightening faces in front of their homes. They also lit bonfires and masqueraded as ghosts and witches to confuse and frighten the wandering spirits, Ott said.
The jack-o-lantern itself had a slightly separate history before joining the Halloween cast. Another Celtic character, Jack, had tricked the Devil and so was forced to roam the Earth with a lantern.
It’s interesting that those traditions from the Irish, who were treated with loathing by many in America, became adopted by the broader culture as a parlor game for teens and young adults by about the 1860s, Ott said.
“It’s confusing,” she said. But its popularity may have been the result of an idealization of rural life and general anxiety about urbanization and industrialization, she said.
One twist in the Irish tradition as it became Americanized was the appearance of the pumpkin. American turnips and potatoes didn’t fit the jack-o-lantern bill, but the big field pumpkins did.
The earliest image of a pumpkin jack-o-lantern was in Harper’s Magazine in the 1860s, Ott said. Seed catalogs didn’t advertise seeds to grow jack-o-lantern pumpkins until the early 1900s.
In the United States after World War II, the baby boom generation and the growth of suburbia changed Halloween into a playful children’s holiday.
Then, for the first time, pumpkins developed a gentler side, Ott said. The jack-o-lantern lost its body and became a cartoon character. No longer roaming the night, Jack simply keeps watch. His grin is kind or goofy as often as it is evil.
Jack-o-lanterns, those most popular and recognizable forms of the pumpkin in popular culture, are more often molded from plastic than carved with a knife.
Yet the jack-o-lantern remains a totem to the mystical spirits of the dark and the dead, Ott said, those scary and spooky qualities that people can¹t control on this night, or any other.
(This first ran on Oct. 31, 2005, back when I was business reporter at the Missoulian.)