It’s a desperately chilly Saturday evening in mid-October, and at a small zoo in northern Rhode Island the growing dark reveals thousands of snaggletoothed orange grins. Rising disembodied from the dark, triangular eyes and zig-zag smiles give way to more intricate creations, some carved into gourds far taller than me.
This is the Roger Williams Zoo Jack- O-Lantern Spectacular. The musky scent of elephants and zebras mingles with the weirdly appealing spice of pumpkin-infused ale and every form of fried food imaginable. I’ve come to find something special, something that combines the wonder of the Great Pumpkin with the spookiness of Jack Skellington, a magical amalgamation of fun-sized snickers and crackly reddish leaves that will make this descent into holiday excess worth the trip.
“Don’t worry,” my roommate assures me. “This is the sincerest pumpkin patch for miles around.”
As the zoo’s exotic jungle and savanna fauna sleep or hide against the shrieks of delighted children dressed as Elsa and Batman, the Halloween wonderland beck- ons locals and visitors from further afield alike—and it’s easy to see why.
Amongst more than 5,000 expertly carved pumpkins on display are almost every kind of Jack-O-Lantern imagin- able. Hoping to find the entire story of “The Sound of Music” recreated in pump- kin form (and honestly, what a specific desire, are you OK?)? How about a tribute to the Beatles, or, even more improbably, Charles Darwin, complete with Galapagos animal friends? Bizarrely, the Spectacular is host to all of these, and they coexist surprisingly well. The further down the trail I venture, the further down that dark, dis- embodied head-lined path, the less odd it seems to find a pumpkin tribute to Scot- tie dogs abutting a tasteful re-creation of Hokusai’s Great Wave. The pumpkins bob in tree branches high overhead, or seem to float in the middle of enclosures, or rise over inverted twins reflected in the pond. Palm-sized gourds mingle with hulking giants, the largest of which is not carved or illuminated but appears to me in the dark to be the size of a small car.
There is something distinctly spooky about this place as well. The shape of a nocturnal buffalo lumbers past just out-side the orange glow cast by the ebullient pumpkins, a rare reminder of the slumbering beasts who suddenly seem to be all around. Backgrounded by the sounds of the clip-clopping headless horseman’s flight, old-timey Hollywood tunes, or creepy haunted carnival sound effects floating tinnily out of speakers, the wind- ing walk into the dark has already taken on a thoroughly ethereal feel by the time we reach the Laughing Tree.
In the curling artificial fog, the twist- ing limbs of the Laughing Tree are made of jagged orange-yellow smiles. Thousand-pound gleaming heads psychedelically change colors at the base of the tree which is, indeed, emanating a repetitive, musical laughter. I’m not sure if I’m sup- posed to be terrified, or enchanted, or both. I have waited in line for two hours, ventured through an army of lesser creations 5,000 strong, fought the cold that seeped up through the ground deep into my toes, faced a looming buffalo, to find myself here, at the base of an arboreal pumpkin monster which looks ready to attack. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see. Could this be the Great Pumpkin?
I’m convinced. But maybe I’m just hypothermic.