When Chris Christie invited me to descend into the basement of his West Seneca home, it seemed innocent enough.
After all, I was there to write about the jack-o'-lanterns that Chris and his son Alexx carve for Halloween. For 10 years they have honed their craft, spending hours paging through arcane manuals and fashioning their own sharp, specific tools. Long ago they'd left behind triangular eyes and gap-toothed smiles for fully realized icons of horror, like Michael Jackson's "Thriller" zombie and the "Exorcist" demon girl.
"We're going to take you to the viewing room," Christie said at the basement door. "When we're carving we're up and down the stairs a hundred times because it's the darkest place in the house."
In a movie theater the audience would be screaming "Don't go down to the basement." But I took the last stair, turned the corner and holy sweet mother of pearl. (That's it on Page C1, next to "Carving a Niche.") Flattered and horrified, I said, "If you want to save on candy, definitely put this in front of your house."
"I wouldn't go that far," Christie said.
> Pumpkin party
For Christie and his merry band of pumpkin carvers, that's saying a lot. The weekend before Halloween, the entire Christie family will host a jack-o'-lantern party for about 20 people at their West Seneca home.
Their guests, including lots of young nieces and nephews, get to choose their designs from books of pumpkin stencils, and their carving weapons from the basketful that the Christies have collected over the years. They better bring some game, though.
"As the people roll in, we joke that last year you got away with doing an easy one," said Christie, who works as a United Parcel Service supervisor.
Chris' wife, Kelly, an imaging technician, manages the affair, organizing refreshments and decorations. Alexx, an analyst for Snyder Industries, works on more elaborate pieces. Last year, he carved a Ryan Miller figure, detailed down to the jersey's Sabres logo and REEBOK on his pads.
Daughter Corinne, a first-year student at Fredonia State College, helps guest carvers with their technique, and will also tackle a more complicated piece. Kaylee, the youngest, is the designated pumpkin gutter, or "slime master," as well as "a midlevel carver with solid fundamentals."
When everyone's done, "We do have a mini-competition going," said Christie. "We line up all the pumpkins, 15 or 20, and our neighbor comes down and judges them." He and Alexx are in a separate category, which is only fair.
> Carving large
The family's high-grade carving started humbly, like most jack-o'-lanterns do: triangle eyes and gaptoothed mouths, Christie said. Then they started using stencils from Pumpkin Master books. When the ghosts and spiders and witches started getting boring, they started scouring the Internet.
"Five or six years ago we were looking online, and we were like, ‘We can do that,' " he said. "That morphed into more detailed carvings. We decided to try shading, which is peeling the skin of the pumpkin back so you have a third color."
Or fourth, if you start carving out pumpkin flesh from the outside with clay sculpting tools. Using four shades – uncut, peeled, carved, removed – Chris and Alexx craft one-of-a-kind artworks that won't last a week before rot has its way.
"We've gone from a simple template that you would get out of a Pumpkin Masters book, and said, ‘Why can't we take any image – any picture from the newspaper or off the Internet – and make it into a template ourselves?' " Christie said.
They blow up the photo, then transform it into a line drawing by tracing it, or using a graphics program. Then it's decision time. "What stays in? What stays out? How do you get the hair right?" Christie said. The best part, he said, "is understanding that we can take any picture now and turn it into a pumpkin. There are no limits."
> How they do it
After years of coaching beginning carvers, the Christies were spookily happy to share their hard-won lessons:
Research. Decide what you want to carve. Buy, download or make a stencil.
Buy your pumpkin. Take your stencil with you. There are general size and different shapes to consider: taller and skinnier versus shorter and wider. Bigger is not necessarily better, and the stout walls of huge pumpkins can complicate carving. Make sure the pumpkin has at least one smooth face to work on, without holes, spots or discolorations, and that it will sit up on a flat surface. Also, press it near the stem. If it gives, it's close to rotting and won't be pleasant to carve, or last as long. You want the freshest pumpkin you can get.
Gut it. When you cut the top off, go in at an angle, like the side of a funnel, to keep the cut top from falling inside. Remove the seeds and pulp. Scrape the sides to remove any strings that could interfere with carving. It usually doesn't matter how thick the pumpkin is, unless you're doing shading or detail work.
Attach your template. Position it on the pumpkin and tape it on. As you do, cut slits in the template so you can tape the paper to the curving surface. The stencil must touch the pumpkin everywhere.
Poke holes to mark lines. You will connect the dots when you cut. The poker should go through the skin, not the entire pumpkin. Take the template off and save it. Rub flour over the poked lines to fill the holes, making them easier to see.
Start cutting. Keep the template handy for frequent reference. Pay careful attention to which parts need to be cut out, and which stay in. To the extent possible, work from the center of the design to the edges, start with smaller details, and then the larger chunks. "Eyeballs come out first. You don't want to be working on them while the thing is dangling," Chris said. The last things to cut are the pieces that leave a piece of pumpkin suspended by a thin line or connecting point.
A few other notes: Eyeballs, skeleton ribs and spider legs are especially prone to falling out. Stick a toothpick through the loose piece to tack it back in place. It doesn't have to be sturdy. The pumpkin isn't going anywhere.
Then you're done. Put a candle in it.
You can use artificial light, but then you have to run electricity in there or worry about batteries. The Christies prefer votives or tea lights.
"Again, bigger is not necessarily better," Chris said. "You want the light shining from the bottom of the pumpkin to see the details, not from the middle or top, like with a taller candle."
Pumpkins with shading need a brighter light, like two or three candles. Pumpkins with mostly shading need holes punched in, or they might run short of oxygen.
No matter how careful you are, there's always going to be some freehand work. "I messed up on your goatee a little bit so I had to widen your face," Christie said about my doppelganger. "You originally had teeth on your pumpkin, but it looked really bad, so I took them out."
All I could say was "Thank you?"
GRAPHIC: PRECISION PUMPKIN PROCESS
Three important steps in taking
your pumpkin to
the next level
* Tape stencil firmly to pumpkin, cutting slits in paper so it fits to curved surface.
* Poke holes through pumpkin skin along stencil lines, rub flour over surface to highlight dots.* Connect dots to cut pumpkin, starting with details and pieces at center of design.