Spectral Pumpkins: Cultural Icons and the Gothic Everyday

Lorna Piatti-Farnell
Lorna Piatti-Farnell

Hinging on inescapable notions of an occasion, ritual, and the every day — and being at once familiar and unfamiliar to those who encounter it — the carved pumpkin functions as a site of exchange and transformation.

Within the Gothic framework, the history of the carved pumpkin is steeped in both wonder and fear. Through its more recent associations with Halloween, the pumpkin has gained fame as a highly commercialised symbol of Autumn festivities, barely recalling feelings of dread and terror traditionally associated with the cult of the dead.

Nonetheless, and in spite of its highly commercialised contemporary nature, the carved pumpkin maintains a strong connection to systems of ritual, folklore, and spiritual beliefs that have served to establish its existence within the boundaries of the uncanny.

The carved pumpkin, also known as the “jack-o’-lantern”, stands for Halloween. It is, in this sense, a “living” entity, connected to both the festival and its multiple cultural narratives.

When it smiles jovially, it reminds us of children’s parties and sweets. But when it frowns, it immediately communicates a sense of “evil”, of terror. Taking the in-between status of the pumpkin as point of departure, this chapter analyses the history and folklore of the jack-o’-lantern figure as a “Gothic icon”.

The jack-o’-lantern, in this context, finds renewed vitality through the liminality of the Gothic mode. As a spectral presence in the pages of history, the carved pumpkin operates as a site exchange where Old World folklore and New World re-imaginings clash, mingle, and merge.

The journey towards identifying the jack-o’-lantern as part of a “living Gothic” tradition begins with seeing its presence in the collective unconscious as the result of merging cultural frameworks, historical iconography, and, of course, Gothic representation. Leigh Blackmore aptly suggests that a special brand of terror can be found in “inanimate but anthropomorphic beings” (Blackmore 2011, 95).

The shift undertaken by the pumpkin, from a simple, ordinary foodstuff to an anthropomorphic figure with a “face”, lies at the centre of its transformation into a Gothic icon, an important move from ritual practice to Gothic narrative.

Without a doubt, the anthropomorphised — and to some extent, fictionalised — properties of the carved Halloween pumpkin give us an insight into its fundamental ambiguity; in its incarnations as both food and a negotiator of terror, the carved pumpkin mixes touches of the mundane and the spectral.

Fred Botting has long argued that the Gothic condenses “the sense of an irrational and menacing presence pervading the every day” (Botting 1995, 104).

All Gothic narratives — fictional, cultural, or even political — are irrational in some way, but that irrationality is only made evident when it is presented with the lucid boundaries of sociological structures. History, in itself, becomes written in the hallway points of the weird and the strange; everyday life is not distinguished from the beliefs and superstitions that concocted the jack-o’-lantern in into the tragi-comic incarnation that we recognise today. The Hallowe’en pumpkin’s place in the framework of “living Gothic” is revealed in its constructed connections to the extraordinary and the every day, a mixture of fiction, folklore, and phantoms.

As a Gothic icon, the impact of the carved pumpkin on American folklore and culture has often been immortalised in representational forms, from film to literature, fiction and non-fiction, over centuries of American history. In 1820, Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ drew attention to the pumpkin’s uncanny properties, as the story uses a discarded harvest pumpkin to symbolise the head of the famous Headless Horseman.

And while Irving does not specify any form of carving on the pumpkin itself, nor does he make any mention of Halloween, the connection between the vegetable, the festivity, and the carving practice is almost impossible to avoid.

In 1898, Martha Russell Orne suggests, in her pamphlet ‘Halloween: How to Celebrate It’, that a Halloween party should be “grotesquely decorated in jack-o’-lanterns”, where a pumpkin is “carefully hollowed out until nothing but the shell of the rind remains. One side of it is punctured with holes for the mouth, eyes, and nose, and made nearly as possible to resemble a human face. A lighted candle is then fastened within” (cited in Morton 2012, 69).

In more recent years, the Gothic qualities of the Halloween carved pumpkin have been made even more visible as several films have used it as a vector for spectrality, hauntings, and disturbances.

In John Carpenter’s cult horror movie, ‘Halloween’ (1978), the pumpkin is given iconic status on the film poster, strategically placed next to a butcher’s knife to conjure the essence of fear. Similarly, in Tim Burton’s ‘A Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993), the protagonist Jack Skellington is said to be the “pumpkin king”, and is first seen to lead the Halloween celebrations wearing a spooky jack-o’-lantern pumpkin.

These instances – only an evocative few in a long and intricate list — play testament to the carved pumpkin’s hold on the collective imagination, and promote its role as both a benign and frightening cultural presence, encapsulating the dual nature of human rituals and festivities, entangled as they are with matters of life and death.

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