Pumpkinheads of Halloween

by Graham Edwards

Halloween is nearly upon us. That means it’s time to open the kitchen drawer, pick up your sharpest steak knife and start hacking away … at the nearest convenient pumpkin.

Some of the earliest pumpkin-carving rituals took place in Portugal, where super-sized squashes were traditionally shaped into skull-like effigies representing El Coco – a breed of Iberian bogeyman.

Depending on which folklore you follow, El Coco can take many forms. Given the demonic appearance of those carved squashes, it’s no surprise that one of those forms is a man with a perforated pumpkin for a head.

El Coco’s sinister appearance – and Hollywood’s propensity for horror – means it was only a matter of time before the image of the pumpkin-headed man made it on to the silver screen.

One of the earliest cinematic pumpkinheads appeared in 1937, in the animated short "Skeleton Frolics".

One of the earliest cinematic pumpkinheads appeared in 1937, in the animated short “Skeleton Frolics”.

Animated Pumpkinheads

As early as 1937, Ub Iwerks directed the animated short Skeleton Frolics for Columbia Pictures. The film riffs on The Skeleton Dance, a Silly Symphony which Iwerks had animated for Walt Disney some eight years previously.

In the film, a band of skeletons performs a musical number in a gruesome graveyard setting. As they start squabbling, one of the skeletons has his head replaced by the ubiquitous Halloween pumpkin.

Nearly sixty years after Skeleton Frolics, Tim Burton brought another animated pumpkinhead to life in The Nightmare Before Christmas. His name was Jack Skellington.

Animator Stephen Buckley works on the Pumpkin King sequence from "The Nightmare Before Christmas".

Animator Stephen Buckley works on the Pumpkin King sequence from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.

Cel- animation was used to make Jack Skellington – also known as the Pumpkin King – burst into flames.

Cel- animation was used to make Jack Skellington burst into flames.

While Jack spends most of the movie in his natural skeletal form, he also appears in his traditional Halloween Town role as the Pumpkin King. An early scene shows him riding around on a straw horse while sporting – you guessed it – an enormous pumpkin head.

The making of The Nightmare Before Christmas is chronicled in Cinefex 56, in Mark Cotta Vaz’s article Animation in the Third Dimension. In this extract, mold maker supervisor John Reed describes how hundreds of replacement heads were created in order to generate the multiple expressions of the film’s many puppet characters:

“To ensure exact registration, we’d sculpt the replacement parts using a frame grabber system – a video camera setup which digitized the image in 2-D.

“In Jack’s case, Victoria Lewis, one of our moldmakers, would set up a master head on a registration pin that came out of the neck, with a couple of mirrors next to it so we could freeze-frame and get a look at all sides of the digitized image at the same time. Then we’d take another head and stick it on the same pin and compare that image with the digitized image to make sure we had a good match.

“We ended up making eight hundred copies of Jack’s head, a process which took four to five months. To help with the main expressions, the nostrils were carved as a constant feature, working as a registration key so the audience could read that the character was changing expression.”

Jack Skellington poses with some of the 800 replacement heads used to bring him to life.

Jack Skellington poses with some of the 800 replacement heads used to bring him to life.

Return of the Pumpkinheads

In "Return to Oz", full-scale puppets were used to create the character of Jack Pumpkinhead.

In “Return to Oz”, full-scale puppets were used to create the character of Jack Pumpkinhead.

When it comes to live-action, you have to dig deep into the pumpkin patch to find good examples of El Coco’s squashy visage. One of the best is gangly Jack Pumpkinhead, who accompanies Dorothy Gale in her quest to defeat the Nome King in Walter Murch’s Return to Oz.

In defiance of Halloween tradition, Jack is actually one of the good guys. He first appeared in Frank L. Baum’s 1929 book Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, but didn’t hit movie screens until Return to Oz opened in 1985.

For the film, Lyle Conway’s creature crew developed a set of full-sized puppets manipulated by Brian Henson and his team of operators. “Floppy Jack” was operated out of frame using long poles, or from beneath the stage with rods. “Trolley Jack” was a waist-up version of the character.

In this extract from Brad Munson’s article Return to Oz in Cinefex 22, mechanical character designer Chris Ostwald explains how Jack’s pumpkin head was constructed:

Chris Ostwald examines the squash and stretch mechanism by which Jack's face was articulated.

Chris Ostwald examines the squash and stretch mechanism by which Jack’s face was articulated.

“The head was completely fabricated – not fitted to a core as you would an ordinary mask – in order to get the size right.

“It was first cast up as a solid piece – with mouth, nose and eyes modeled in – and then recast in a foam rubber mold that was welded from within to reinforce the structure.

“The movement of the head was manipulated by cables attached to plastic strips hinged together inside the face.

“By pulling the cable about twice as far as the operator wished the movement to be, two pulleys came closer together, making the mouth open.”

For a handful of full-length walking shots that couldn’t be achieved using the puppets, the filmmakers turned to Stewart Larange, a street mime with a notably spindly physique. In Munson’s article, Lyle Conway says:

“The head was completely fabricated – not fitted to a core as you would an ordinary mask – in order to get the size right. It was first cast up as a solid piece – with mouth, nose and eyes modeled in – and then recast in a foam rubber mold that was welded from within to reinforce the structure.”

King of the Pumpkinheads

Pumpkinhead was realised as a full-body foam rubber suit created by the team at Stan Winston Studio.

Pumpkinhead was realised as a full-body foam rubber suit created by the team at Stan Winston Studio.

Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut of legendary special effects artist Stan Winston. The film’s titular antagonist is a grotesque revenge-monster brought to life by a witch.

Does his head look like a pumpkin? Well, not much, except maybe in his newborn form. But the humanoid demon is damn scary, and his name and pedigree are more than enough to earn it a place in this round-up.

The Pumpkinhead character was designed by a team at Winston’s studio led by Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff, John Rosengrant and Shane Mahan. Its creation – and the story behind the film – is detailed in the lavish book The Winston Effect by Jody Duncan.

This brief extract is a great reminder of what it takes to perform inside a rubber monster suit:

“From the sculpture, studio artists and mechanics created a suit and head, which was worn on the set by Pumpkinhead performer Tom Woodruff. To avoid wear and tear on the suit, Woodruff was glued into it at the start of the shoot day, and remained in the foam rubber construct for up to eight hours at a time.”

Watch a video on the making of Pumpkinhead:

Read more about the creation of Pumpkinhead in this article at the Stan Winston School website.

Give Us Your Pumpkinheads

Now it’s your turn. What classic pumpkinhead gives you the heebie-jeebies?

Perhaps it’s one of the above. Perhaps it’s Sam, the grotesque, pyjama-clad demon from the 2007 Canadian anthology film Trick ‘r Treat. Or maybe it’s the pumpkin-masked slasher from the 2006 gore-fest The Pumpkin Karver?

Whatever your choice, now’s the perfect time to share your pumpkinheads. It is Halloween, after all!


Special thanks to Matt Winston. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas photographs copyright © 1993 by Touchstone Pictures. Return to Oz photographs copyright © 1985 by Walt Disney Productions. Pumpkinhead photograph courtesy of Stan Winston School of Character Arts.