King of Jacks

King of Jacks

The Patch Master, all dressed in black and orange, lives in a basement apartment in West Haven. The blinds are drawn and the lights glow orange. Organ music plays, candles flicker. A small table is set with rows of shining instruments—tiny knives and serrated scoops and a power tool with a globular blade that spins maniacally. His victims wait on the floor, lined up, blank-faced, waiting to be disfigured.

Or, more accurately, figured.

Ryan Wickstrand is the owner, designer and yes, Patch Master, at Zombie Pumpkins, an internet business that sells jack-o’-lantern designs and pumpkin carving tools. He’s been at it for 15 years, and in that time he’s made over 400 spooky designs and perfected the perennial pastime of pumpkin carving.

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“It’s part art, part science and part black magic,” he says of his design process. Wickstrand is a trained artist as well as a horror fanboy, and his designs and stencils are calibrated for maximal fear and minimal frustration. “One of my biggest challenges is just getting people to try it. If you can trace a line, you can carve this,” he says, gesturing to a pumpkin he cut just a few hours earlier. Complex and impressive, it’s the Night King from Game of Thrones, a hoary and lined face frozen in a fearful grimace.

It’s a far cry from the triangle eyes and single tooth of childhood jack-o’-lanterns, but the feeling is the same. “The pop culture stuff comes and goes,” he says. “But people like classic imagery—ghosts or witches or vampires. As you carve it out, you just see darkness inside… you feel the darkness in your soul… and then you put the candle in and it comes to life, and that’s the moment— just start beaming, bright like pumpkin.”

Wickstrand’s designs find their way to porches as far flung as Japan and Australia, and his customer base includes Halloween fans so rabid that he receives pictures of his new designs freshly carved mere hours after he posts them to his website, where customer pay to download them. His most popular image this season is a portrait of Pennywise the clown from the remake of Stephen King’s It, but the enduring designs tend to be totally original, like “Root of All Evil,” a screaming tree, or “Vulture Shock,” an unnerving raptor that seems like a mashup of classic Disney animation and the horror films he loves. “I’m a monster kid from the ’80s,” he says. “I grew up with Freddy and Jason, gremlins and Ghostbusters.”

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During a lifetime of gutting and carving, Wickstrand has learned a few tricks of the trade, and feels it’s his duty as Patch Master to “educate the world a little bit.” When choosing a pumpkin, for example, you should look for a lighter orange and shallow ridges, which mean it’s still juicy. Darker pumpkins are stringier, harder to wrangle and decay faster. All the better if you have the right tools: mostly blades and scoops, many of which can be custom-designed for the enthusiast who slashes through dozens of pumpkins.

“This is the ‘Jack O’Ripper,’” he says of a scoop with serrated edges. Next, he holds up a scraper, designed to thin the wall of the pumpkin to a manageable one-inch-width. “This looks like a tool of torture, doesn’t it?” he muses. “It could probably be used that way.”

After the jack-o’-lantern is disemboweled, sliced and carved, it’s time for the finishing touch: petroleum jelly. “You coat the cut edges of the design to create a barrier and seal in the moisture,” Wickstead explains. “One of the things that makes pumpkins not look so hot after a while is they shrivel up, and that famous actor that you love looks like they’ve decayed in a crypt for decades.”

Also in his orange and black toolbox are ice-cream scoops for emergency evisceration, and wires to string up jack-o’-lanterns to make them look like they’re floating. For every pumpkin problem, Wickstrand has a solution, each one more delightful to him than the last. “It’s just amplified my love for Halloween,” he says of his work. “They say you should do what you love.”

Zombie Pumpkins

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photo 1 by Sorrel Westbrook. Photo 2 provided by Zombie Pumpkins.

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