It used to be that Halloween meant hay rides, haunted houses and corn mazes. But the past few years have seen the growth of a new harvest tradition — projectile pumpkins.
Across the country, families are flocking to roadside farms every autumn to launch orange gourds at ungodly speeds at targets planted in a field hundreds of feet away and watch them go splat.
"There's something about firing a pumpkin at 75 miles an hour that's very transporting," says Karen Connelly, 47, of Catonsville. She recently ventured to Lawyers Moonlight Maze in Thurmont with her husband, a neighbor, and five children ages 8 to 16 to shoot an air cannon at a field of metal sculptures designed to resemble characters from the "Iron Man" movies.
First, she fiddled with two levers that moved the contraption up and down and right to left, sighting along the barrel. Owner Jan Lawyer loaded the pumpkin into the chamber and pumped up the air pressure. Then, both hands gripping a giant lever, Connelly threw herself back with all her weight, and the cannon erupted with a mighty "thwock."
"We could have stood there for hours watching people shoot pumpkins and cheering when they hit something," Connelly said. "We're going to come back and make it a family tradition."
Whether the weapon of choice is a medieval-looking catapult or an air cannon resembling the world's largest water pistol, pumpkin chunkin, as the practice is called, can be found in Seattle and Virginia, in Arizona, Wisconsin and Maine.
It's easy to understand why shooting the seedy globes is rapidly becoming a cherished harvest-time rite: The fruit goes airborne with a sonic blast. The pumpkin disintegrates on contact into a drippy, orange pulp. The field is littered with stems crooked like beckoning index fingers.
Clearly, the Smashing Pumpkins were onto something.
"We let people actually shoot our cannon," said Tim McGrath of Comus, Md., who carts his pneumatic air cannon with the graphic name of "Chunkin Up" to orchards in Southern Maryland during the fall. "Sometimes, an individual will see a pumpkin turn into vapor before his very eyes."
(Unlike paintball, shooting humans is strictly forbidden. These pumpkin projectiles can literally dent steel, not to mention a human skull, and cannon operators are careful to keep spectators off the field.)
Though pumpkin chunkin began as a competitive event in Delaware in 1986, it's only been in the past few years that the popularity of the practice has, well, exploded.
Lawyer estimates that his farm's visitors go through 2,500 to 3,000 pumpkins on a busy Saturday.
Last weekend, McGrath was operating Chunkin Up at Butler's Orchards in Germantown and decided to time the frequency of the blasts.
"I sat there for 20 minutes with my phone and a stopwatch, and we were getting off a round every 56 seconds," he says. "People were standing in line from the time we started at 11 a.m. to the time we quit at 5."
Lawyer's Moonlight Maze in Thurmont provides Maryland residents with the most chunkin opportunities; their air cannon operates every weekend from the middle of September through early November. McGrath's Chunkin Up visited Lewis Orchards in Poolesville for the first two weekends in October and Butler's Orchard in Germantown for the final three.
For those who won't have had enough even after Halloween, Clark's Elioak Farm in Ellicott City will brush off their pumpkin catapult Nov. 6-7.
Chunkin Up has shot at fiberglass port-a-potties, at various vehicles, including an old school bus, and once, memorably, at a billboard containing a caricature of a candidate for public office at a fundraising event.
"We shot the caricature right between the legs, and oh, man, were his two daughters hooting," McGrath said.
It's probable that pumpkin chunkin has existed informally for decades, if not centuries, but it took four Delaware men with too much time on their hands to organize the activity into a competitive event.
In 1986, John Ellsworth, Trey Mellson, Donald "Doc" Pepper and Bill Thompson were hanging around Ellsworth's smithy, looking for an alternative to their previous pastime, anvil tossing, when someone mentioned that a pumpkin-throwing event had been held at a nearby college.
The first pumpkin chunkin "world championship" was held that year — there were just four competitors — but gradually the event began attracting crews first from neighboring towns and eventually nearby states.
But the sport didn't really reach a mass audience until 2008, when a crew from the Discovery Science Channel came out to film the competition and the show received such strong ratings that coverage has been expanded in each of the ensuing years.
This year, the Delaware event is expected to attract more than 100,000 spectators from Nov. 5 to 7, making it the state's second-largest visitor attraction, according to John Huber, president of the World Pumpkin Chunkin Association.
"Some of these projectiles," he said, "are traveling close to the speed of sound."
Perhaps it's not surprising that as the competition has intensified, it has grown increasingly professional. Some of the giant hurlers boast 100-foot barrels and cost $250,000 to build. The Delaware lottery and Discover card have signed on as corporate sponsors.
Some farmers, such as McGrath's associate, Laurie Muller, have begun growing a special, competition-grade pumpkin. These white-and-green jack-o'-lanterns are firmer and hold together better than garden variety gourds when propelled by air under pressure of 250 pounds per square inch.
"A normal orange pumpkin just blows apart when you put that much pressure on it," McGrath said.
But isn't that the point?
If you go
Ready, aim, fire: Here are three sites in Maryland where you can make your very own pie in the sky.
Lawyers Moonlight Maze, 13003 Creagerstown Road, Thurmont. 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays; noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Pumpkin cannon operates through Nov. 7.
General admission is $5; pumpkin cannon costs extra. Call 240-315-8133 or go to lawyersmoonlightmaze.com.
Butler's Orchard, 22200 Davis Mill Road, Germantown. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. General admission is $10; pumpkin cannon costs extra. 301-972-3299 or go to butlersorchard.com.
Clark's Elioak Farm, 10500 Clarksville Pike, Ellicott City. 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Nov. 6-7. General admission is $10; Bring your own pumpkin. Call 410-730-4049 or go to clarklandfarm.com.