The Halloween season is in full swing. Pumpkin-flavored everything is bountiful. Horror movies are being viewed by the ton, both at home and in theaters. But what sets a horror movie apart for the average horror fan in October? It’s got to be something that really makes it feel like fall and gets you in the Halloween spirit. When it comes down to it, only certain horror movies possess the thing that really sets our haunted hearts aglow: jack o’lanterns!
Behold, the list of movies you should watch this season for the ever-vigilant visage of the jack o’lantern!
10. Lady in White (1988)
It’s Halloween in 1962 and Frankie Scarlatti (Luke Haas) is excited to get to school in his Dracula costume. Before he leaves on his bicycle, his father calls out to him and reminds Frankie to bring his jack o’lantern along to class. We see the jack’s jagged grin in the basket of his bike in several shots before his brother scares him enough to knock him over. Unfortunately for Frankie, he and his pumpkin land in wet cement (and that is far from the worst thing that will befall Frankie this Halloween). Still, it’s unharmed gray and dusty smile leads us into the classroom scene. This Halloween-laden sequence is full of pumpkins, decorations, and over-sugared costumed kids. It really does help the Halloween nostalgia well-up in the horror-lovers soul, and it all begins Frankie’s jack o’lantern.
9. Return to Oz (1985)
While not exactly a horror movie, Return to Oz has enough horrific fantasy elements that many adults look back on it with a shudder. And who better to haunt your dreams than Jack Pumpkinhead? While Jack (Brian Henson) was a friend to Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) and asked politely to call her “Mom” (even if it wasn’t so), he still comes off as a bit unsettling. Gaping empty eye sockets are only balanced slightly by that happy expression carved into his melon. Dubbed an “unlikely hero,” Jack is certainly less scary than Scarecrow, but his gourd-geous jack o’lantern face will certainly stick with you long after the film is over. (You know, like 30+ years later!)
8. The Halloween Tree (1993)
Ray Bradbury’s Emmy Award winning animated film features a group of kids who travel the globe on Halloween night in an effort to save their friend’s life. The journey teaches the group about how Halloween is celebrated in different cultures, but the heart of the story centers around their fearless leader, Pip. Suffering from appendicitis on Halloween, Pip is taken to the hospital. However, his spirit travels to Mr. Moundshroud’s (Leonard Nimoy) Halloween Tree to find the jack o’lantern carved to look like him. Pip tries desperately throughout the movie to keep the jack o’lantern from Moundshroud in order to survive. I’m not sure what is creepier; the fact that Pip’s friends are trying so hard to save him or the idea that Moundshroud’s Halloween Tree is full of jack o’ lanterns from other victims.
7. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
He’s not called The Pumpkin King for nothing! Jack Skellington dons a giant jack o’lantern as a mask in the intro to Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The opening number is actually full of fantastically detailed jack o’lanterns, but none with as eerie an expression as Jack’s gourd. As the denizens of Halloween Town sing the praises of their favorite holiday, Jack sets his pumpkin ablaze and rises triumphantly from the flames. It really does give me goosebumps every time. As a bonus, Jack’s faithful ghostly canine Zero has a jack o’lantern nose!
6. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
It should come as no surprise that huge Halloween fan Tim Burton makes this list twice. In his retelling of Ichabod Crane’s experiences in Sleepy Hollow we are treated to a few frightful fruits. If you think that gruesome gourd on the scarecrow in the opening sequence looks familiar, you’re right. This fellow looks quite a bit like our Pumpkin King from The Nightmare Before Christmas (something that Burton is known for doing). But we get a second squash later in the film when Ichabod (Johnny Depp) encounters the Horseman on the covered bridge. The flaming jack 0’lantern is thrown at Ichabod and knocks him clean off his horse. The scene is moody and dark and leaves us in a dank atmosphere.
5. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949)
Yes, the Disney animated version of the Washington Irving story deserves inclusion on the list, too! Bing Crosby tells the story of Ichabod and The Headless Horseman while also crooning out the very memorable tune. But there are also far more jack o’lanterns to help set the mood and creep us out.
While Brom dances around the parlor singing about decapitations, we see a glowing pumpkin centered above him on the mantle. He smashes another into the hearth before Ichabod spills his tea on a cat who pounces angrily into another jack o’lantern. (Something about this pumpkin creeps me out most since the cat gives it creepy yellow eyes). But the most memorable scene happens when Ichabod is heading home after dark. As the predecessor to Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, the covered bridge scene plays out in a similar fashion. However, the cartoon counterpart has a better payoff. The laughter from Horseman in this sequence is chilling and the pumpkin he holds looks the most menacing.
4. Halloween (1978)
The granddaddy of all horror movie jacks would have to be from John Carpenter’s Halloween. The music from this film creates so much tension that it’s hard to sit comfortably through it. So when the opening credits begin with that iconic theme and we see the flickering face on the screen, we know we’re in for something terrifying. The pumpkin itself looks like a jovial jack. It has roundish, friendly eyes and a bit of a goofy grin. But it’s smile reminds us of something far more sinister that happens on Halloween in Haddonfield. Michael Myers comes home! Another notable pumpkin in the film sits atop a bedroom nightstand. This one is carved to be like your stereotypical squash. But instead of keeping the bad spirits away, it’s standing vigil over a terrible trick.
3. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
“Gather ’round and watch… watch the magic pumpkin! Waaaatch!”
That magic pumpkin is just one of two iconic jack o’lanterns in this strange sequel in the Halloween franchise. (Yep, this is the one without Michael Myers). The strobing pumpkin in the Silver Shamrock ad is part of a diabolical scheme by an Irish toymaker who is out to destroy kids on Halloween. He’s mass produced three masks that are apparently the greatest costumes kids can get for trick or treating that year. Along with a witch and skull, one of those masks happens to be an excited looking jack o’lantern. However, the excitement dies down (along with a lot of masked children) when the obnoxiously catchy Silver Shamrock commercial coerces kids to watch the magic pumpkin. Unlike most of the other pumpkins on this list, these jack o’lanterns are far from harmless!
2. Tales of Halloween (2015)
This eerily entertaining anthology film treats us with ten tales that take place on Halloween night. While there are plenty of pumpkins to be spotted within the film, there’s one that steals the show. The tenth story, Bad Seed, opens with a couple getting ready for a Halloween party. While the wife is getting into her naughty kitty costume, her husband is cleaning up after carving an enormous jack o’lantern. He tells her it’s his masterpiece, but little does he know it’s wants a piece of him! The wicked pumpkin grows an appetite for human flesh and sprouts vines to propel itself around the neighborhood. It sounds absurd, but it’s practical effects outshine the CGI as the jack o’lantern goes on a rampage. The gore and the visceral sound effects just add to the overall mindless mayhem.
1. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
When I’m looking for a movie to send me directly into the Halloween mood, I look no further than Mike Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat. The film relies on humor almost as much as it does its gore and the blend is effortless. Our ghoulish guide, a twisted trick-or-treater named Sam, takes us through five interwoven stories that happen on Halloween night. (Sam’s favorite treat happens to be an iconic jack o’lantern lollipop). There are more pumpkins and jack o’lanterns than you can count throughout the feature, but there are several that count in a big way.
We are taught very quickly why we should never blow out the candles in a jack o’lantern too early. Another segment brings us to scene of a past tragedy to leave eight jack o’lanterns in memoriam. A sinister squash burns brightly with macabre teeth and eyes in a neighbor’s bedroom. Meanwhile a young boy decides he wants to carve the eyes of his jack o’lantern with the help of his father. But most disturbing of all is the trick we discover lurking beneath the facade of a costume. No other horror film will set up the autumnal awesomeness like Trick ‘r Treat.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! (1964)
While not horrific in any way, a list of important pumpkins could not be made without the mention of Charlie Brown’s best friend Linus VanPelt and his reverence for The Great Pumpkin. Makes you want to find a real sincere pumpkin patch and wait for an appearance.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (2018)
Recently released and based on R.L. Stine’s best-selling horror books for kids, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween features a monster with a giant jack o’lantern head. One can assume the creature is based on Stine’s Pumpkin Heads from his book Attack of the Jack O’Lanterns.
While the only pumpkins in the film are withered and rotten, the is a vengeance demon known as Pumpkinhead can be summoned, but at your own risk. He definitely won’t be bringing you any toys when he rises out of the pumpkin patch!