Normally if the person I was speaking to over the phone told me that they were driving to Chicago with a baby-eating yard monster in their back seat, I might have reason for concern.
But the person on the other end of the line is Tom Nardone, founder of ExtremePumpkins.com, a popular website which turned the Michigan man’s passion for pumpkin carving into an online oasis for those interested in perverse pumpkin design. The website begat two best-selling Extreme Pumpkins books, as well as Nardone’s latest tome, Extreme Halloween, which bills itself as “The Ultimate Guide to Making Halloween Scary Again,” and who can fault him for such a noble ambition?
Extreme Halloween takes Nardone’s creative pumpkin concepts and supersizes them, presenting plans for “all kinds of crazy Halloween crap,” including ambitious yard-centric pumpkin sculptures like the Creepy Millipede, the Killer Scorpion and the Yard Serpent (which requires 30 to 40 pumpkins) as well as Extreme Party Tricks (a Haunted Lavatory, anyone?) and Party Food like the Roasted Human Being and Roasted Squash Skulls.
When did Halloween become a sport for you?
About 14 years I bought my first house, and I was just outside of the city limits of Detroit in a town called Ferndale. And what happens is the city of Detroit is not a great place to live, and it’s especially not a great place to have your kids trick or treat. There’s no street lights or anything like that.
So what people do is they load their kids up into a van, like 20 kids in a minivan, and they drive to the first big neighbourhood they can find, and I lived in that neighbourhood. The neighbourhood would be split. Some of the neighbours didn’t like it because they just thought of the people as freeloaders. People like me, I loved it because they’re not like 12-year-olds; this is like a van full of 5-year-olds. So it’s like all the cutest kids, like the Luke Skywalkers and the Cinderellas. It was just a lot of fun.
So the neighbourhood turns into this big kids’ party. But I was like a single guy. I started to be maybe the scarier house, because when I was a kid there’d be people who were scarier when you’d go trick or treating. So I started making crazy pumpkins and having a bonfire, something like that. Anything to entertain the masses. And the people were super-cool; nothing would offend them because they lived in Detroit! They knew there was no way they could complain: ‘Yeah, I bootlegged my kids into your city for some trick or treating, and this guy had a fire in his yard!’ They would never say that. They were just happy that no buildings were on fire.
Do any of your neighbours even try to compete with you when it comes to Halloween or do they just not bother?
Oh no, they don’t bother. Not at all. They’ll join in the fun. They’ll come over – like last night we had friends over to carve pumpkins. They imitate, but they never really try to jump in.
These books have become something of a cottage industry for you. At what point did this hobby turn more serious?
I’m not really sure it has, to be honest with you. You’re right, it has turned into a revenue stream, and not a small one either, but I’m too stupid to realize that I should do something corporate or something like that. I still think it’s hilarious.
Like the other day, I was up until midnight welding up… I call them ninja pumpkin tools. I guess they’re a cross between brass knuckles and cookie cutters; these things are used to punch the face of a pumpkin out. One is like a triangle for the eyes, and then there’s one that’s a circle for the nose, and one is a crescent.
So you grab them and you smash them into the pumpkin’s face. But no one wants to see this. I’m doing TV appearances, I show all the producers and they go, ‘Oh God, no! You can’t show that on TV.’ Oh my God, it’s the coolest thing! You’ve got to see it. I punched the face of the pumpkin. It’s awesome!
You should sell them in Home Depot.
Oh, Home Depot, that’s my shrine. That’s where I buy all these basic materials.
But I did a book signing and I brought the ninja tools and people loved it but the media doesn’t. Even the book publisher, I’d do like a bunch of ideas and some things don’t make the cut.
But books, actually, you can get away with a lot. With TV, they have to make assumptions that people will imitate what’s on the [screen]. You have to figure there are stupid people out there and they’ll do stupid things. Whereas book people, they’re like, ‘Well, you have to be able to read to figure this shit out!’ So you can get away with how to soak a roll of toilet paper in kerosene and light it on fire. That was one of the things I didn’t think they would put into the book, but they’re like, ‘Yup! This is Book 3 now. You can get away with this kind of crap. No one’s screwed us with Books 1 and 2.’
How much does Halloween preoccupy your thoughts?
That’s more than you can imagine. But I always try to stick to what people want from me. I don’t get into other people’s deals. I don’t do home haunting or any of those things. I just try to stick to the pumpkins.
But I’d say I put anywhere from between mid-August until the first week of November when it finally goes away, it’s usually like 30 or 40 hours a week for me. It’s a lot of time, but on the other hand everybody makes it worth my while. Everybody I talk to likes it, nobody really hates it. Everybody sort of thinks it’s funny. I get addicted to the rush of it. A lot of positive reinforcement, which is nice.
Is it your favourite holiday?
Oh yeah. It’s funny because it is my favourite holiday. However, I’ve kind of ruined it for myself. Like last year, I did not get to take my kids trick or treating. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bellyaching. I was actually on Late Night with Conan O’Brien that night. So it’s not like I’m missing something, I’m having like a lifetime experience. But on the other hand it’s kind of a drag. I’ve kind of half-ruined my holiday.
The stated purpose of your new book, Extreme Halloween, is to make Halloween scary again. Why do you think it’s become so sanitized over the years?
This is why: the people who are the lamest people do the most crafting. Because people who do crafts are people with nothing else to do, and those people publish magazines about crafts, and they convince other people that if you had any free time, you really should do this craft. That’s baloney. All these Women’s Day and Parents magazines, and all this crap on the newsstands with all this Goody Two-Shoes stuff, the people who create those articles have no personality. If they did they’d come up with something half-way decent to do. That’s my theory on it.
The regular beer-drinkin’, fun loving people of the world have let it go for long enough. It doesn’t take a lot of people to jump on the holiday. Like, all you need is one jackass like myself to start publishing, or doing a website where everybody at the last minute can go, ‘Oh yeah, we’d better carve a pumpkin. What have we got? Oh, this is cool. I’m doing this one.’ I can be a little revolutionary, but I can have a big impact. Because there’s only a few really nerdy people who are putting out the Women’s Day magazines so I don’t have to do a lot of work to overcome that.
Many of the projects in your book take a lot of time and effort. How do you come up with your ideas?
It’s kind of funny. What I do is I create a hundred ideas, and some of them are really plain and some you could never do, and then I start winnowing them down into ‘what could we do and what would be funny?’
Like, some of the ideas just weren’t that great. I had one where I was baking bread and making it look like organs. I saw this thing in the news where this guy in Korea was baking bread and it looked like a severed hand. I thought, ‘Oh, that really looks like a severed hand.’ It was really good. But I was like ‘oh, that takes too much skill for me personally and people who read the book.’ Most of the stuff is supposed to be pretty easy. It may take a little bit of time, but it should be pretty easy.
I was like ‘I bet you could make a heart really easily, or lungs.’ So I started to do it and they came out looking like lungs and hearts, and it was easy, and I had the photos and everything. But when it came right down to it, it just didn’t fit; it just wasn’t something a lot of people would really do. But serving guacamole out of a puking pumpkin’s mouth, that seems more realistic, like people would actually do that at a party.
You have to have all these ideas, then you develop some. Some of them just never work right so those don’t make the book.
Tell me about coming up with the Baby-Eating Yard Monster.
One of my favourite designs! I, for years, have wanted to carve big pumpkins. I am an extreme pumpkin carver, but every year I buy one – I spend 30, 40, 50 bucks on one – and then I never have anything good to do with it! Make it into a monkey head or something. The design was always kind of lame. And the reason is that those big pumpkins always have a weird shape to them, they’re always kind of flat. They don’t look like a person’s face. What do I do with it?
So I finally said, ‘Oh, I know what I need to do. I need to add other pumpkins to it. I’ll add a bunch of segments for arms. This will be really cool.’
And somebody had sent in a picture of a pumpkin with a doll in its mouth, and I was like ‘oh, that would be cool. I could take a Onesie and stuff it full of leaves.’ But then I just made the whole thing, it sat in the front yard, and everybody loved it. We lived in this neighbourhood where people walk by all the time. People are like ‘that’s funny. That’s really funny.’
So when it came time to decide ‘what do you want for the cover?’ I was like ‘oh, I want…’ At first I wanted the meat corpse, and they were like ‘people won’t know what it is. It’ll just look like a dead person.’ I was like ‘oh, okay. What do you want?’ ‘We want a pumpkin.’ ‘Well if you want a pumpkin it’s got to be the baby eater.’ But the Onesie didn’t make the cover. They thought that was too disturbing.
Have you ever been hired by someone to do their pumpkin for them?
People try to hire me all the time. I’m like ‘listen, dude, I’m not that good of a pumpkin carver. I’m not an artist; I’m a hack with some crazy ideas.’ They’re like ‘oh please. I want you to do the table numbers for my wedding.’ I got a call last week: ‘I’m getting married October 15th next year.’ I’m like ‘okay, that’s a long way away.’ ‘I would like a pumpkin carver to carve the table numbers for my wedding.’ They’re like ‘how much do you charge?’ ‘Like, 1500 bucks a day.’ You know, I’m just pulling it out of my ass. I don’t want to carve table numbers! But if someone calls my booking agency, that’s what I’ll tell them. ‘Fifteen hundred dollars for ten table numbers!?’ I go, ‘Listen, I don’t want to do them either!’
How have your neighbours’ reactions to your hobby changed over the years? I understand one of them has called the cops on you a few times.
Yeah, I’ve got a cop-calling neighbour. There’s a special dedication in the book.
I moved to a ritzy neighbourhood. I lived in not a great neighbourhood just outside of Detroit before; the people are very cool, but then again they saw the whole progression, from one pumpkin to a bunch of them. Then I moved into a fancy schmancy neighbourhood, and I’ve gotten older and I’ve got kids, and my business is successful. And everyone is great except for one or two people. I don’t know what the deal is. So those are the Goody Two-Shoes that probably subscribe to Good Housekeeping magazine.
What does your family think about your Halloween hobby?
I have three little kids so they just think that it’s normal. My oldest kid is 4 1/2. He knows I’m famous for that, but he has no idea that other people’s dads aren’t famous for something.
It’s funny that you ask that because I’m from the Boston area originally. And I’ve been on TV and things like that, and they go, ‘Oh, Tommy’s on TV, it’s pretty cool.’ But today, the Boston Globe, which is the big newspaper in Boston, published a piece on me, and you would have thought I got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today. Everybody I know, all my uncles and aunts have called me already, because being on TV doesn’t matter. If you get in the Globe, though, you’ve really made it.
They think it’s the silliest idea. How can you take it seriously, right? It’s pumpkin carving.
Approximately how many pumpkins gave up their lives in the creation of this book?
Oh, not too many. Maybe a hundred. Overall, in my pumpkin-carving career, I think as of last year I hit 500, and then this year I’ll probably destroy another hundred. So maybe 600 pumpkins. I just went to the pumpkin patch yesterday and bought 50 pumpkins. We had people over last night, and I’m more than half-way through them. But my publisher picks up most of the tab. That’s nice.
What’s the secret to carving a cool pumpkin?
There are three things you’ve got to do. One is it’s got to be a caricature, and by that it has to be roughly the shape of a human head and bigger. So your pumpkin should be taller than it is wide, and it should be fairly large.
And then, too, in order for it to be funny, you can’t tell anyone what it is before you show it to them. Because humour is all about the surprise. You can’t tell your buddies, ‘Hey, I’m going to carve a puking pumpkin,’ and then have them over the next day and show it to them and expect them to think it’s cool. So that’s some advice from your friend, Tom.
Extreme Halloween is available through Penguin Books.