12 Ways Technology Has Transformed Halloween

The spookiest night of the year has gone from candles and homemade costumes to drones, 3D printing, and microcomputers. We take a look at some key ways Halloween has evolved over the centuries.
  • Introduction

    Halloween used to be a neighborhood celebration, with homemade costumes and a flickering candle inside a carved out pumpkin on the front porch. Now it has evolved into a holiday of flying drones, 3D printing, and microcomputer animation.

    Today, Americans shell out more than $8.4 billion on Halloween candy, costumes, and decorations. The market has grown more than 70% in the past 10 years and continues to grow.

    As consumers purchase more and more of their Halloween needs ready-made, the technology to support the celebration has kept pace. Growing enough pumpkins to supply demand requires agriculture on an industrial scale. Silicon and latex rubber masks are designed by CAD engineers. The animatronics of home displays and commercial haunted houses requires the skills of mechanical engineers. 

    Here then, are a few of the ways that technology and engineering have become part of trick or treat.

    (Image source: Alic-e.me)

  • Pumpkins

    Pumpkins (Cucurbita maxima) are a member of the squash family and are native to North America. About 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkin are produced in the US every year—the majority used for animal feed and human food products. An acre of land can produce about 1,000 pumpkins. According to Purdue University Cooperative Extension, pumpkins need low nitrogen, high potassium, and high phosphorus soils to be most successful. Soil pH should be in the 5.6-6.6 range. Pumpkins grow on vines that can be surprisingly long, sometimes reaching several dozen feet. Farmers plant their pumpkins on small hills of dirt, with about 5-6 feet apart in rows that are 10 feet apart. They require a constant supply of moisture when they are growing, so drip irrigation is popular.

    Pumpkin plants have very little insect resistance so insecticides are used during growing. Because pumpkins are pollinated by honey bees, the insecticides must be managed to avoid killing the bees. Plastic mulches that block certain wavelengths of light are often used for weed control in industrial pumpkin patches.

    The most common pumpkin used for Halloween decoration is the “Connecticut Field Pumpkin” which also happens to be one of the oldest cultivars of the pumpkin. Fortunately, pumpkins are fairly hardy (although they don’t handle frost and cold weather very well) and are a favorite of both hobby farmers and industrial agricultural giants.

    (Image source: abbeyfarms.org)

  • Carving Jack-o-Lanterns

    In Irish and Scottish folklore, people carved scary faces into potatoes, turnips, and beets and placed them in windows or doorways to frighten away wandering evil spirits. Immigrants from these countries brought the tradition to the US in the mid-1800s and found that the pumpkin was softer and much easier to carve than turnips and potatoes.

    Although traditionally, triangle eyes and nose and a jagged smile are all that’s required to make a jack-o-lantern face from a pumpkin, more recently much more complicated faces and imagery have found their way onto the orange vegetable. NASA even holds a competition at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to find the most intricate and complex carved pumpkin. There are a variety of pumpkin carving tools and accessories available online, along with templates to carve scenes and even famous faces into the side of a pumpkin. Some tech-savvy people are even foregoing the pulpy flesh of the pumpkin and are using 3D printers and LED lighting to create their Halloween decorations.

    (Image source: pumpkinpatchesandmore.org)

  • Rubber Masks

    Masks today have gotten far more sophisticated than the hard plastic shells, held on by an elastic band that kids in the 1960s and 1970s used. Made mostly in China and Mexico, silicon rubber masks of ghouls, goblins, aliens, and political figures are the product of computer aided design (CAD) and precision molding. It’s also possible to make your own silicon or latex rubber mask, using art supplies and instructions from the Internet. Freelance mask makers will also create that special one-of-a-kind look for prices ranging between $60 and $400.

    (Image source: halloweencostumes.com)

  • Fake Spider Webs

    Spraying fake cobwebs inside and out has become a popular quick and easy Halloween decoration. Although they can be made from household items such as cotton balls, the silly string in a can web has become increasingly popular. But, there is a downside and it comes when the fake spider web act too much like real ones. Insects, bats, and even birds can become trapped in outdoor web displays, resulting in their injury or death. The spray-on webs should only be used inside the home, away from vulnerable wildlife.

    (Image source: thegreenhead.com)

  • Halloween Drones

    If you are a fan of drones you might consider dressing your flying machine up as a ghost, goblin, or witch on a broomstick. Drones are typically lightweight and have limited payload capacity, so the use of foam and paper to dress up the flying machine makes an aerial Halloween possible. Flying a drone near a crowd of people can be dangerous and flying at night could be a real problem, so make sure you know what you are doing if you decide your trick or treating needs to go vertical.

    (Image source: Mark Cawley)

  • Glow Sticks

    Glow sticks and glow necklaces have become popular kid’s Halloween costume accessories, but they have an important practical aspect. Adding light to a child’s ensemble allows them to be seen more easily by motorists who might be otherwise distracted by trick or treating activities. Children are more than twice as likely to be killed by a car while walking on Halloween night as at any other time of the year, according to a study by Safe Kids USA.

    The original “Cyalume” was invented in 1969 and became popular among police, fire, EMS, and military forces, and for recreation. The glow stick can be stored for long periods of time, is single use, and produces almost no heat. It works by the mixing of two chemicals inside a plastic tube. One of the chemicals is held in a thin glass vial that is broken when the glow stick is bent. This allows the chemicals to mix, creating a luminescence that can last several hours. Although glow sticks are permanently sealed, should one be cut open, the chemicals inside have a low level of toxicity and may cause irritation, particularly to the eyes.

    (Image source: British Columbia Drug and Poison Information Centre)

  • 3D-Printed Decorations

    Making things that go bump in the night with your 3D printer is as easy as downloading a file and pressing start. Home hobbyists have been using their own 3D printers for several years now and prices for a hobby-level machine have dropped to less than people are paying for video game consoles. Making scary pieces from various color plastic filaments means that you can get what you want and not have to settle for “store-bought” decorations.

    (Image source: Thingiverse.com)

  • Candy Corn

    Candy corn is a three-color confectionary that is popular in the US and Canada around Halloween. It is made from sugar, corn syrup, carnauba wax, and coloring and binders. It was first developed in the 1880s and by 2016, more than 35 million pounds (almost 9 billion pieces of candy) were produced in the US. Each candy corn is about 7 calories.

    The National Confectioners Association celebrates National Candy Corn Day on October 30. Although they used to be made by hand, the three colors, yellow for the broad end, orange for the tapered section, and white for the tip, are applied in separate steps, today using specially designed machinery and molds.

    As romantic as making candy sounds, it is actually a straightforward industrial process. Sugar and corn syrup are blended, and gelatin and sugar are whipped with air, and a fondant is added, along with yellow and orange coloring. A fondant is highly-crystalized sugar syrup that is used to create a candy that breaks off easily in the mouth and doesn’t have the chewy texture that comes from the sugar crystals. Corn starch is placed into hundreds of individual molds that move along a conveyer belt and triangle-shaped air nozzles inject layers of white, orange, and yellow candy corn mixture into the molds. The candy corn pieces are cooled, polished, and shipped.

    The result is the candy treat that best represents Halloween.

    (Image source: candywarehouse.com)

  • Haunted Houses

    Haunted houses exist to scare people. As early as the 19th Century, they were designed to shock, surprise and frighten their visitors, often using the latest technology of the day. In 1802, it was wax figures of the decapitated King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In 1969, Disney opened the Disneyland Haunted Mansion and used visual effects to create a cultural icon. Today, it’s more likely to be zombies, vampires, and loud explosions, but the special effects are up to date and what some people believe a good Halloween experience should be all about.

    (Image source: Corbis/Smithsonian)

  • Safer Lighting

    People used to put candles in their jack-o-lanterns—the flickering light would add to the spooky effect. Open flames can be dangerous and burns are one of the leading types of Halloween injuries. Instead, small LED lights are available that can be placed inside the pumpkin and provide a realistic flickering effect. Outdoor lighting, once the mainstay of Christmas decorations has become more popular for homeowners who want to decorate their home for Halloween. Flashing lights, glow-in-the-dark skeletons, and all manner of eerie effects are available on-line and at retailers in every part of the country. It has become a big business. Just be sure that you don’t overload electrical outlets, or run extension cords across lawns or paths where they could become a tripping or shock hazard.

    (Image source: houselogic.com)

  • A Raspberry Pi Treat

    Learning coding with a Raspberry Pi microcomputer has become popular, so there is no reason not to use one to create a variety of animated Halloween effects. Everything from spooky doorways to projected eyes that follow you as you walk around a room are not only possible, but relatively easy to accomplish. All it takes is some ingenuity and a handful of sensors. Best of all, the coding skills that you pick up can be useful in other parts of your life.

    (Image source: Adafruit)

  • Candy X-Rays

    One of a parent’s biggest Halloween fears is that the treats that their children bring home might have include a potentially deadly trick. In spite of stories of razor blades in apples and pins in candy bars, most of the fears seem to be based on urban legend than actual cases of candy tampering. It all seems to have started with a brief story in the New York Times in 1971 that reported on a broken razor blade found in an apple after trick or treating. It set off a nationwide scare and, despite very few instances, it is a fear that remains strong today.

    To assuage parent’s fears, some hospital’s radiology departments apply their technology and will x-ray candies for free on Halloween night to look for foreign objects. In any case, parents should carefully examine the haul of candy and treats that their children bring home, discarding any candy that has been opened of whose packaging appears to have been tampered with.

    (Image source: creativeelectron.com)

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

 

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