Introduction: Carve a Vampire Pumpkin Selfie

About: I'm a tiny woman in a big city and I like to make stuff. Crafting is a way of life, my religion is Lego and I cross stitch like a BAMF.

Halloween pumpkin effigies are supposed to strike fear into our hearts. But in the modern world we're spooked by different things than in the days when the tradition of pumpkin carving began. Today, superstition has been superseded by social media as a source of existential dread. It's less about the ghouls, more about the 'gram, more parasocial than paranormal.

In this new age of hashtag, what's the scariest thing of all? The selfie. The fear of judgement, the angst over engagement and metrics. Careers have been made or broken over it.

But why not combine both, to draw from primal and present-day fears simultaneously? Picture this: pumpkin selfie, but you're a vampire.

What you'll need:

  • selfie apparatus (probably a smartphone)
  • photoshop or other image manipulation software
  • access to a printer
  • pumpkin
  • pins
  • craft knife
  • sellotape
  • candles
  • too much free time
  • narcissistic disposition

Tip: Pick a pumpkin that's as flat as possible. You want to be in control of the distortion of your image so you don't let the curve of the pumpkin misrepresent you.

Step 1: The Selfie

It all starts with a selfie... as is so usually the case these days. Once you've got a good likeness, you can give yourself the virtual kiss of darkness and morph into an undead horror. I already look pretty undead in my bathroom selfies, but this is a different kind of effect. But bonus points if you can combine both.

There's endless advice online on how to take the perfect selfie. Disregard it all. We need a particular kind of image to work with. So tip number one is look for the lighting.

When turning a picture into a stencil, the best results come from images that start with high contrast, emphasising the highlights and shadows falling on your face. You'll be using these to map out how sections of the image are represented on your pumpkin. So, follow your narcissistic instincts and look for DRAMA. Dramatic lighting, that is. But don't worry too much – you can always boost the contrast artificially. That's what filters are for. Amirite?

Tip number two: smile. With teeth. Pouting may be the go-to for selfie-expression, but traditionally, vampires have fangs – it'll be a lot easier to Nosferatu-You from a toothy grin.

Step 2: Photoshop Is Your Friend/Image Manipulation

With some holy water handy, get up your image and get ready. This ritual consists of two stages – first turning into a vampire, then turning into a stencil. Usually, you immortalise yourself through art, here we're doing the immortalisation first.


Vampires have a few notable features, but arguably the most visually distinctive are the fangs. Time to do some digital dentistry. Open your selfie in Photoshop or whatever image manipulation software you like, and draw on some pointy teeth. You can freehand them, copy them from another photo, use a snapchat filter, whatever. I used the smudge tool to elongate my canines. (There's some debate about whether vampire fangs should be canines or incisors. That's not a debate I'm going to get into here. We're talking abut serving supernatural selfies, it's a case of Vampires, but make it aesthetic.)

I also noticed something vampires have in common with supermodels. They sparkle? They drink human blood to sustain themselves? Uuh... While either (both) of those may be true, there was something else I had in mind. Vampires tend to have angry eyebrows. I mean, they've got a lot to be angry about: constant persecution, never being able to taste a cheeseburger again, so I guess it makes sense, but it does also give them a a certain kind of dramatic expression befitting of a Vogue cover shot. I'm too placid to pass for a supermodel or a vampire, so I used the liquify tool in photoshop to arch my eyebrows more and furrow my brow, giving me sass I don't naturally possess.

Then begins the stencil making process:

Your image is now conceptually dark, but it's time to make things literally dark as well. The ultimate aim is to reduce the image to three colours, black, white and one shade of grey (50 is too many, Twilight fan fiction be damned), while keeping a decent likeness. This is going to be our template for carving the pumpkin: in the black areas we'll leave the pumpkin alone, the white areas we'll cut all the way through the pumpkin, and the grey areas we'll just remove the skin, to add some shading. It's possible to go for an extra shade, by varying the depth at which you remove the skin, but in my experience, this makes things a lot more complicated for limited benefit: three colours gives a great result.

Much like necromancy and social media algorithms, this process is a bit of a dark art. It will look a little different depending on your image, but here's a brief overview.

Start off by adjusting the contrast and playing with the levels and brightness. You're looking to make the shadows and highlights more extreme and more obvious.

Next, use the burn tool or equivalent to emphasise the shadows, and the dodge tool to go over highlights, this continues to exaggerate the difference between areas.

Then, start drawing over shadowy areas with a black brush, and drawing over areas of highlight with a white brush. Use a low opacity at first and then build up. At the same time, start homogenising the rest of the image using a grey brush.

Keep going through these steps - upping contrast, playing with levels, drawing over areas – until it's starting to look like there are just three colours. You can check by posterising the image, which will automatically reduce it to a certain number of colours. You could also just give up now since vampires can't be photographed anyway.

Lastly, you want to leave a white halo around something like two-thirds of your face, not just to emphasise the angelic qualities of your features and offer an artistic counterpoint to the darkness of your vampire likeness, but to highlight the outline of your face. The edges of faces tend to be in shadow, so get shaded black in the stencil design, meaning your profile merges with the rest of the pumpkin. Like copying Kim K's contouring regime, a halo will bring back some definition.

Take care not to have a halo around the entirety of your face – since the white areas are cut all the way through, if you have a complete ring around your design, the central part will not be attached to the rest of the pumpkin and your face will fall off. Scary, yes, but not the effect we're going for.

This is true for the rest of the design too: avoid islands of black/grey totally surrounded by white. Make sure the white areas are isolated, and the black/grey forms a continuous joined up shape.

You should end up with something that looks like the devil's pop art.

Step 3: Prep the Pumpkin

The next step is to prepare the pumpkin you've selected to sacrifice in the name of vanity and the occult.

Scalp it: begin cutting around the top of the pumpkin in a circle, then cut a wedge down the back. This will give you better access to the guts and eventually make it easier to manoeuvre a candle into place. Cut at an angle, so that the lid doesn't fall through into the pumpkin.

Then, scrape the inside of the pumpkin with a spoon. Keep going until it's as hollow as the 100 likes you bought from Russian bot accounts.

We want the walls to be of uniform thickness, no more than about the length of your pin or it will be hard to prick all the way through when it comes time to transfer your design. In other words, we want our pumpkin to have a relatively thin skin to represent our fragile egos.

The empty, soulless husk you'll be left with is now the perfect vessel for vampiric self-adulation.

Step 4: Placing the Pattern

Now you're going to bring your digitised demonic visage into the land of the living.

Print yourself out in a variety of sizes. This is not just so you can terrify/enchant loved ones and enemies alike by leaving copies hidden around the house, you're looking for which one best fits the pumpkin. Something to consider: a large stencil makes it easier to carve smaller details, but a smaller one will probably get distorted less by the curve of the pumpkin.

Once you've made your decision, start taping your face to the pumpkin. (Aside: did you know that face tape is actually a thing? Like, women are literally taping their faces up in the name of beauty. That's the real scary thing here). You'll probably need to fold the edges of your image a little and add some pleats to get it to bend round the curved surface. I'd suggest trying to concentrate these in less recognisable areas like the hair. A little distortion is somewhat inevitable, but you know what they say, the pumpkin adds 10 pounds...?!

As soon as you're happy with the placement, entirely cover it with tape. The next step is going to involve pricking the pumpkin, which releases juice. This has a tendency to dissolve your paper and, like an overly aggressive chemical peel, that's to be avoided. The tape will hold the details in place long enough to copy them on.

Step 5: Painful Cosmetics

It's time to indulge in some acupuncture. You're going to stick more needles in your face than Donatella Versace.

The idea is to trace all the outlines from your stencil onto the pumpkin with hundreds of tiny puncture wounds. You're basically making a vegetable voodoo doll of your own face.

Prick all the way through the pumpkin when tracing the edges of white areas, but when marking the transitions between grey and black, you only need to prick through the skin. That's because you'll just be removing the skin in the grey areas, so you won't need to cut as deeply.

I usually start in the middle and work my way out. The middle tends to be the most detailed, and therefore the most likely to get messed up when things get juicy, so I like to get it done before the details disintegrate. Or maybe I'm just a sadomasochist who likes to poke the eyes out first...

Whenever you're sticking needles in your face, be it for fillers or something more "Thriller", the angle matters. To avoid a botched job, Keep the pins as perpendicular to the face of the pumpkin as possible. The is because we want our cuts to be straight – if we cut at an angle, the hole we make will narrow or widen as they go into the pumpkin, allowing more or less light to get through that section of the pumpkin than stipulated in the design. It'll blur the edges you've made in your pattern and the result won't be as precise.

The pin pricks are doing double duty – first they're making sure you can see the pattern without the paper. But also, they'll provide guide holes for the craft knife when you start to cut. So in surgery, so in pumpkin carving – even sharp blades get stuck and wrestling them means you slip and end up cutting the nose off your patient. If you don't want an extra eye, or a glowing hole where your mouth should be, guide holes keep your scalpel... I mean, craft knife... where it should be.

Step 6: Facelift

Now for the main procedure – the facelift. Leave yourself some time, it's a detailed operation.

Start with the white bits, where you're cutting all the way through the pumpkin and excising flesh. That'll give you more manoeuvrability for when it comes time to peel the skin in the other areas. That said, leave the halo till last so the pumpkin maintains maximum structural integrity while you're pressing on the centre. This lowers the risk of complications like, say, decapitation.

For some of the smaller details, you might not even need the knife – just prick liberally and wiggle the pins to connect the holes. For the parts where you are using a craft knife, remember you can slice into the centre of the areas that you're excising. You don't have to take the pieces out whole, you can carve a white section in chunks if it makes it easier to move the knife into position.

Just like on Nip Tuck, you can draw on the patient to help you remember which bits to cut off. I find it's quite helpful to scribble on some sharpie, using spare stencils to remind me what to amputate.

For the skin peel, slit the outline of the section to a depth of a few millimetres, then try and angle your blade on its side to slice just below the skin. Even if your knife overshoots the target area, the skin should only peel away inside of the outline you sliced. Pause to think about how you'd make a terrible plastic surgeon.

Step 7: Check Your Work

Welcome to the nightmare where you grew fangs and turned the same colour as Donald Trump (or David Dickinson?). You're probably the first and only vampire with a tan.

Stick a candle in to illuminate your masterpiece and check the likeness. If there's any problem, you can give yourself some sneaky touch-ups.

After that, bask in the glow radiating from your own horrifying pumpkin face. Admire your work and how it's just like staring into a creepy orange mirror, then put it online to convince people you've really turned. Just don't put it outside in the daytime. And maybe add a bulb of garlic just in case.

Things get extra existential when your face begins to rot

I also made a video on the whole process if you fancy watching rather than reading. You can watch it here:

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