By Clifford Hart
For all of Halloween’s many well-known icons—from black cats to ghosts to witches—the traditional jack-o’-lantern may hold the prize for being the most emblematic of the holiday, which has risen in popularity to such an extent that it’s now not uncommon to see carved pumpkin faces in store windows by late August.
And perhaps nowhere on earth has the jack-o’-lantern been given such a chance to spectacularly shine as at the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Hard by the Hudson River, the historic pre-Revolutionary-era manse may seem to have more in common with the Fourth of July than with Halloween, but its graceful porches and grassy surroundings have proven a perfect playground for the event, which is now in its 12th year and will stretch a full 32 nights in fall 2016—from late September to mid-November.
“What started as a Halloween event has grown into a true fall festival,” said Rob Schweitzer, spokesperson for Historic Hudson Valley. “In fact, our November dates are no less popular than October. It’s an event that has truly transcended its boundaries!”
While a candlelit pumpkin or two are always a welcome sight in a doorway or windowsill around Halloween, the spectacle of thousands of them assembled in one spot is truly remarkable, and the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze has become such a sensation that it traditionally sells out every night.
To support such an effort is no small task. First there is the raw product, which comes in by the truckload from Wallkill Farm in New Paltz, with as many as five hundred fresh pumpkins needing to be carved each week. This is accomplished by a dedicated crew of artisans, who deftly work their magic using sophisticated carving tools. These real pumpkins are complemented by thousands of carved synthetic pumpkins, known as “funkins,” many of which also change from year to year.
And what may be the most interesting aspect of the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze is the way it embraces artistry and creativity over strict adherence to Halloween-related themes. Creative Director Michael Natiello originally envisioned the event as a kind of land art installation that would draw attention to the historic architecture and landscape of Van Cortlandt Manor. But beyond this, the specific designs and iconography of the pumpkins are often as much about sheer beauty and imagination as they are about spookiness.
Probably the best illustration of this is the underwater aquarium exhibit, which features dozens of pumpkins hanging within a giant cube and carved with images of seahorses, octopuses and other marine creatures. But there have been many other spectacular non-Halloween-specific themes throughout the years—including a Jurassic Park dinosaur installation, a pumpkin planetarium, a circus train and a buzzing beehive.
But don’t be concerned that you won’t be plunged headlong into the Halloween spirit. You’ll discover that installations such as a fleet of ghost pumpkins, a creepy assemblage of skeletons across the lawn, or even the region’s most iconic resident, the Headless Horseman, are truly the black cat’s meow and will go a long way to making your holiday complete. For more information on the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze or to buy tickets, go to www.hudsonvalley.org or call 914.366.6900.