Halloween is not cancelled. October tis still the season of spooky things that go bump in the night. There is still candy and scary movies to enjoy at home. But if your Halloween celebrations usually involve travel, well, that’s not happening. Which is how I ended up cancelling a trip to Mexico City for Dia de Los Muertos and instead travelling just an hour outside of Toronto to visit Pumpkins After Dark.

I love pumpkins. Other people’s pumpkins. Because I cannot draw or carve for shit, my favourite pumpkin tradition is the “pumpkin parade.” On November 1, Torontonians bring their still lovely but no-longer-needed Jack o’ Lanterns to a park, line them up, and light them up. It’s a wonderful way to wind down the holiday, wandering amongst the glow of candlelight, admiring your neighbours’ craftiness.

What is Pumpkins After Dark?

Pumpkins After Dark takes the pumpkin parade idea to the next level. It’s a seasonal light show on a farm outside Milton, Ontario that boasts over 150 large pumpkin sculptures lined up in a 2.5km loop. Normally, guests walk around to see the pumpkin art. This year, they’ve created a COVID-safe drive-through experience.

Pumpkins After Dark drive-through in Milton
This is Halloween..This is Halloween…from inside a car

Despite my enthusiasm for going to the drive-in movies, I’m not thrilled how this year all the art event now require a car. But this year requires some unusual workarounds. Luckily, I have a pal in my bubble with a car and a goofy sense of adventure so off we went in search of some Halloween spirit.

Turning down a side road into the dark , I could see rows of small orange lights snaking in the distance. Pumpkins?! No, it turns out those were the lights from a few hundred other cars queuing to enter the grounds of Country Heritage Park, which transforms every October to Pumpkins After Dark. It’s quite an impressive operation. Entry is by timed slot, and there’s plenty of staff who made sure we got in quickly and gave us the radio frequency to dial in for a spooky soundtrack and audio guide.

Spoiler: They are not real pumpkins

Immediately upon entry, we realized two obvious drawbacks of experiencing this from a car, instead of on foot. There are sculptures installed on both sides of the path – so depending on which side of the car you’re sitting in, you can only really see half of them. And if you’re the driver, focused on, you know, driving, you also don’t get to take a very close look. You’re not allowed to stop although we did long enough for me to jump in the back seat so we could both each see out both sides of the car. Recommend this!

Dragon sculpture at Pumpkins After Dark in Milton Ontario
A spectacular dragon! You will not get this close to it this year. (Photo by Pumpkins After Dark)

We also quickly realized the pumpkins are not real pumpkins. Which makes a certain amount of sense once you remember that Pumpkins After Dark runs for a month and the average lifespan of a pumpkin once cut open and lit up is a couple of days.  The carving is impressive, but lightbulbs are no substitute for spooky flickering candlelight. So that was a let down.

That said, the concept is pretty neat. I’ve never actually seen groups of pumpkins arranged to form full size figurines before. Or into a King Kong climbing the Eiffel Tower. Or transformed into Chinese dragon, spitting dry ice “smoke.” My favourite was a colourful grouping of huge Day of the Dead skulls. A tiny consolation for missing out on Mexico, quite pretty.

Mexican Day of the Dead skulls made from pumpkins
Dia de los Muertos!

But there were but a handful of these showstoppers. Most of the displays were characters from movie franchises — superheroes, Disney princesses, Star Wars, Harry Potter, that kind of thing. I’m sure kids love it, but I’m more of a monster fan. (And I doubt event organizers have a license for that stuff.) So I kind of checked out of checking out that stuff. Except for Elvira. I always brake for Elvira.

Elvira and the Mummy horror sculptures at Pumpkins After Dark in Milton Ontario
Mistress of the Dark and the Mummy: Halloween essentials

Pumpkins After Dark’s slogan is “Jack O’ Lanterns come alive!” This came true most when incorporating music and sound effects. Like when you could hear the cackling witches before turning the corner to see them, or pumpkins singing silly songs through projected animations.

I missed real pumpkins though. And I got a bit sad thinking that all our entertainment will be reduced to this for a while – drive through experiences. It’s really not the same. As feeling the chill autumn night air. Hearing the breeze and the sound of leaves crunching under foot. Hell, I even missed being able to exit through a gift shop.

Ouija Board pumpkin sculpture
Yes? No? Goodbye

Tickets for Pumpkins After Dark are almost all sold out for the season. And more Halloween family drive-through shows popping up. So there’s certainly a great demand for this type of event.

I will admit It did help me kick off my October in a spookier fashion than loading up on mini chocolate bars at the Dollar store. So I’m glad I went.

But my main thought as we drove home in the dark was that maybe I need to try again learning to carve my own pumpkin. That I could make my own show right at home. Wish me luck.