Anyone can carve a pumpkin into a Halloween Jack-O-Lantern with two eyes, a nose and a mouth. But Noel Dickover of Centreville's Westbrooke community carves them into everything from a fire-breathing dragon to SpongeBob SquarePants.
AND, MUCH to the delight of his neighborhood, this year will be no exception. He'll line the walkway around his house with 15 amazing creations — including a 120-pound pumpkin that he'll transform into the Death Star and then embed with carvings of various "Star Wars" characters.
"We're known as the 'Pumpkin House,'" he said. "And on Halloween, I like to sit outside by the front door and see people's reactions."
Dickover, 39, of 14223 Hartwood Court, has a wife and two children and works as an independent consultant. He builds online communities so businesses and the government may share information between themselves and their peers.
He's also a fantasy and movie buff and, when fall comes around, he turns his interests into spectacular works of art. He began the craft in 1998, inspired by his brother who, the year before, had carved a few fancy pumpkins of his own.
"He did Frankenstein and Dracula, and I thought they were really cool," said Dickover. "So I started looking into it on the Internet and found www.carvingpumpkins.com. I took one of their patterns, Scooby-Doo, and did it."
It took him two hours to carve Scooby, the first time. "When you've never done it before, you're afraid of messing up and ruining the pumpkin," he said. "But I put it out on the porch, and it got a great response. The neighbor kids all loved it."
So the next year, Dickover tried a tougher pattern, Darth Maul from "Star Wars," and impressed a whole, new age group. "Teen-agers — who are usually so jaded — were actually staring at it in total shock and going, 'Wow, that's the coolest thing ever,'" said Dickover. "It was pretty neat."
Then each year he did increasingly more complicated patterns, such as a witch house complete with a black cat and a witch standing in the doorway. But not satisfied with the result, he modified and improved on the pattern, the following Halloween, to make it look better on the pumpkin.
However, Dickover didn't forget his youngest fans. He also carved Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Sylvester and Tweety into pumpkins and, in 2002, he added SpongeBob. "If you're going for crowd reaction, Scooby and SpongeBob are the two favorites," he said.
But he grew tired of doing Scooby every year, so he eventually carved the sleuthing hound into an artificial pumpkin that pleases children as much as the real one. All his other pumpkins, though, are real and created from scratch.
Basic Jack-O-Lanterns have two colors — their dark interior, carved all the way through, and their orange exterior. But most of Dickover's creations are three colors — dark interior, orange exterior and the light-orange flesh just underneath the surface.
"YOU LOOK at pictures and say, 'That would make a nice pattern' because it would break into three colors," he explained. "And in 2003, I started making my own patterns."
Before carving a pumpkin, he first cuts off the top, scoops out the pulp and then scrapes the inside to a 1/2-inch thick shell. Said Dickover: "We always intend to do something with the seeds, but we never do."
His most complicated pumpkins were Pegasus in 2004 and the Cheshire cat in 2005. When lit with a candle in the darkness, the pumpkins disappear and the glowing creatures become the focus. And of course, the more difficult the endeavor, the more time-consuming and labor-intensive it is.
"If I made a mistake on the Pegasus, the wings would have fallen in and half the pumpkin would have disappeared," said Dickover. "And with the cat, one mistake and the face would fall in — and there would go seven hours of work."
One of his most striking and crowd-pleasing pumpkins was a dragon he carved in 2003. "It was my first pattern and was based on a picture I had at home," he said. "But I kept deviating further and further away from that picture. To develop something that complex, you hand-manipulate it on the computer — and it took me 10 hours to get it just right."
If Dickover doesn't like something about his finished product, but it gets a good response from the public, he'll tweak it and improve it for the next Halloween. For example, he modified the webbed spikes under the dragon's chin to better define them so they'd look more dramatic.
And sadly, not everything gets rave reviews.
"It took me seven hours to carve the Pegasus — and seven to 10 hours to make the pattern — and nobody liked it," he said. "They liked SpongeBob enormously better. So part of what I do is for other people and part, for myself. And where they connect, like with the dragon, it's awesome."
SOME OF the movies Dickover likes aren't common knowledge to the average person. So when he carved the vampire Nosferatu, from the 1920s, the trick-or-treaters didn't know who he was. But, he said, "When I posted it online at movie Web sites, they loved it."
Dickover likes his work to be topical and reflect what's popular at the time. So he was surprised when, after 9/11, "I did an Uncle Sam pumpkin and nobody cared. So now I stick to fantasy and Disney."
This year, he's carving 13 "small" pumpkins — each about 2 feet high — and Halloween visitors will be treated to images including "Pirates of the Caribbean" characters, the dragon from the novel, "Eragon," Ariel from the movie, "The Little Mermaid" and a sculpted Shrek.
"I'm also doing the bad guy, Legend, from the 1985 Tom Cruise movie, 'Lord of Darkness,'" said Dickover. "I have a statue of Legend and I'm currently making the pattern for it and also for a really complex, full-scale dragon. It'll have wings, tail and a head, and I think it'll be a hit. It's for a 70-pound pumpkin."
His 120-pound pumpkin will become the Death Star, into which he'll carve "Star Wars" characters such as C3P0 and Darth Maul. "It was grown in Ohio and I got it from Madison County," said Dickover. "It'll be the first time I've done one that big."
Although complicated designs take quite awhile to complete, he said it's "totally relaxing" for him to sit at his kitchen table and cut out the pattern details on the pumpkins. "I usually do two carvings on each one," he explained. "So I look for pumpkins that have two good sides, or canvases."
The hardest part, said Dickover, is "working on an intricate pattern where — if you mess anything up — the whole pattern goes south." But come Halloween, he truly gets a kick out of watching people's joy and amazement at his labor of love.
"I think everyone should contribute to the community in some way, and Halloween is mine," he said. "That's my time to shine."