9 Ways that Halloween Has Gone High-Tech

Technology applied to Halloween has made things safer and more fun for the spookiest night of the year.
  • Introduction

    Halloween used to be a neighborhood celebration, with homemade costumes and a flickering candle inside a carved out pumpkin on the front porch. 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 ten years and it continues to grow.

    As consumers purchase 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, while 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)

    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.

  • 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 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, much more complicated faces and imagery have found their way onto the orange vegetable more recently. 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. One of the most popular ways to carve is to use an engineer's standby: the motorized Dremel tool with its variety of attachments. Some tech-savvy people are foregoing the pulpy flesh of the pumpkin and 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 used by kids in the 1960s and 1970s. 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. Depending upon the production volumes, the molds for the masks can either be made from plastic or metal. As frightening, funny, or just disturbing as the masks might be, the process to build them is just like that used for any other thin silicon rubber product. 

    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 pulled-apart cotton balls, the silly string in a can web has become increasingly popular. Most contain an air-drying polyester resin with a compressed gas propellant.

    There is a downside, and it comes when the fake spider webs 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)

  • Glow Sticks

    Glow sticks and glow necklaces have become popular kids' Halloween costume accessories, but they have an important practical aspect. Adding light to children's ensembles 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)

  • 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. The three colors—yellow for the broad end, orange for the tapered section, and white for the tip—are applied in separate steps. Although candy corn used to be made by hand, today it is done using specially designed machinery and molds.

    As romantic as making candy sounds, it is actually a straightforward industrial process. Sugar, corn syrup, and wax are blended, then gelatin and sugar are whipped with air and added, and a fondant is mixed in along with yellow and orange coloring. A fondant is highly crystallized 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. 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. The special effects are up to date using LEDs, laser lights, flashing strobes, computerized and microprocessor timing, sophisticated sound systems, and a variety of synthetic materials to build realistically terrifying special effects—just what some people believe a good Halloween experience should be all about.

    (Image source: Corbis/Smithsonian)

  • Lighting

    People used to put candles in their jack-o-lanterns. The flickering light would add to the spooky effect. But 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 online 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)

  • Candy X-Rays

    One of a parent’s biggest Halloween fears is that the treats that their children bring home might 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 more 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, is a fear that remains strong today.

    To assuage parents' fears, some hospital 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 or if the packaging appears to have been tampered with.

    (Image source: creativeelectron.com)



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