It's the great pumpkin, Austin

Historic Austin site transforms into spook-tacular Halloween experience with thousands of pumpkins

Austin site transforms into Halloween event with thousands of pumpkins

Two shadowed figures wander through a hall of floating jack-o-lanterns in mist.
Pumpkin Nights, this October at Pioneer Farms, is bringing light to spooky season with thousands of carved pumpkins. Photo by Brianna Caleri
An artist carves a spider into a giant pumpkin.
Artist Kristina Marie Patenaude carves a spider into a pumpkin weighing over 400 pounds. Photo by Brianna Caleri
A 40-foot string of jack-o-lanterns creates the image of a flying dragon.
Jack-o-lanterns are more than just faces. Sometimes they're 40-foot dragons. Photo by Brianna Caleri
Two shadowed figures wander through a hall of floating jack-o-lanterns in mist.
An artist carves a spider into a giant pumpkin.
A 40-foot string of jack-o-lanterns creates the image of a flying dragon.

The phrase “fun for every age” gets tossed around a lot, but to quote Inigo Montoya (who would also make a great Halloween costume, by the way), “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” At fun-for-every-age events, someone’s usually bored.

This is inconceivable at Pumpkin Nights, the jack-o-extravaganza that combines serious artistry with small-town harvest festival kicks. Open through October, this showcase pushes the limits of pumpkin carving to usher us all into spooky season, no matter how seriously we choose to take it.

Arriving at Pioneer Farms — a living-history museum and farm in a small pocket of Northeast Austin seemingly untouched by modernity, or even the web of Austin itself — is always a charming experience. Arriving at night, when the thousands of pumpkins stand out, is even better, although there aren’t any to see right away. It’s like entering a model village, walking through the collection of historical buildings painstakingly transported to Austin from around Texas.

Make your way through the village square and you’ll arrive at a field, where a wall of classic movie monster heads greets you in jack-o-lantern form, crafted by award-winning carver Alex “The Pumpkin Geek” Wer. They’re some of the countless pumpkin works in an installation that wraps smartly around half of the 90-acre plot; as you snake through you’ll catch partial glimpses of other sections of the trail, but it’s surprising how many times it doubles back and opens into a new themed “land.”

Founder and CEO of Bigsley, the event company that developed and runs Pumpkin Nights in Austin and Dallas, Travis Snyder says his favorite lands are themed around dainty gnome houses and the Day of the Dead. The former displays miniature fantasy houses made of pumpkins in a sparkling forest. It’s the quaintest of the lands, with more emphasis on decorating the pumpkins and world building than carving. The latter strings up colorful jack-o-lanterns with expressive skull faces, like papel picado banners (or calabaza picada — chopped pumpkin — if you will).

“I like that something could be really big [or] really intricate in detail,” says Snyder. “It’s been our artists’ goal to zoom in and zoom out, allow people to see things that are pretty unique.”

The zooming in is what makes Pumpkin Nights remarkable, with works carved by 30 artists over five years. Immersive elements other than pumpkins (which, vaguely sadly, are made of styrofoam to preserve the hard work) keep the walk-through fresh. Pumpkin-spice-scented mist obscures the path and trains the eye toward only what is closest. A container pond reflects one of two 40-foot dragons, made of glowing pumpkins strung together amid a sea of actual jack-o-Chinese-lanterns.

The zooming out makes Pumpkin Nights fun. Artists Jesse and Toby Draper and Kristen Cordova sculpted some oversized creatures for visitors to take photos with. One section offers lawn games and hula hoops, presumably for kids but equally fun for out-of-practice adults. Music is playing throughout, from the cinematic Harry Potter soundtrack to Selena to surf rock. For those who plan to spend more time, there are multiple pumpkin patches (with real pumpkins, this time), face painting, performance art, and a few food vendors.

One Wednesday night in early October, Collin Deleon and another performer put on a surprisingly robust show spinning fire poi, fans, and hoops, while artist Kristina Marie Patenaude unleashed a giant spider from the flesh of a pumpkin weighing more than 400 pounds. Patenaude appears on season two of Outrageous Pumpkins, a competition show on Food Network. She will carve at least one pumpkin — of varying size — every night of the event. On busier days, there are craft vendors, a haunted tour bus, and tarot readings.

“Pumpkin Nights is really artist-driven,” says Snyder, contrasting the event with others the company has produced, including its annual Color Run. “Over our years with our other events, we got to know a really amazing network of artists and creators who love Halloween, to be honest. With their inspiration, and our experience putting out events, we came up with this.”

For such a deliberately produced night with so many parts to assemble, the experience as a whole is unexpectedly organic. The joy of the creators, whether present in person or in the spirit of each carving, is tangible.

“Pumpkins are this thing that is kind of meaningless for 11 months a year, but between October and November, it becomes front and center in our lives as fall happens,” says Snyder. “The fall celebrations are a way to cope with a little more darkness, a little more cold in your life, and the pumpkin is a symbol of that.”

Tickets to Pumpkin Nights at Pioneer Farms (starting at $18 for adults, $14 for kids 4 and older) must be booked in advance at pumpkinnights.com. Arrival times are organized by 30-minute windows, and attendees can stay until closing. Parking can be purchased in the Pioneer Farms lot ($10). The event runs six days a week until Halloween, October 31.