Pumpkinhead contestants combat fatigue, weather and nature’s call to win cash
In the 2006 remake of the cult horror classic The Wicker Man, Nicolas Cage is bewildered and horrified by the strange, pagan practices of an isolated island community. It’s likely some visitors to Chico’s City Plaza last Saturday (Oct. 25)—where a group of men and women stood motionless on crates, their heads covered with carved pumpkins—felt a twinge of something like Cage’s on-screen trepidation.
Far from a sinister ceremony, the event was actually Pumpkinhead 2014, the 18th installment of radio station 106.7 Z-Rock’s annual endurance contest in which the last contestant standing wins a $1,000 cash prize. Z-Rock on-air personality and production assistant “V”—né Jeremy Votava—has helped organize the contest for several years, and said the long-running and admittedly strange event has surpassed a simple radio promotion.
“Every year I have a moment where I scratch my head and think, ‘Why are they doing this?’” Votava said about four hours into the event, which began at 8 a.m. “But it’s for $1,000, which I’m sure everyone could use, and it’s become more than that.
“I think it’s a part of the community now. It rings in the fall and the Halloween season, and it’s become a real Chico tradition.”
Updates from the plaza are broadcast live on the air, and a half-dozen bands entertain contestants and onlookers. Votava said the event usually lasts about 12 hours, though it used to run several days, with the record standing at 71 hours.
“The rules changed a few years ago,” he said, explaining contestants used to get 10-minute breaks every few hours to eat, use the bathroom and rest.
Now there are no breaks. Contestants can have a support crew to provide snacks, but food and fingers are forbidden from touching the gourd, which cannot be adjusted at all; they are not allowed to wear diapers or devices to help obtain relief, and soiling themselves is grounds for disqualification; they can wear backpacks and jackets, but if they drop these items to the ground, they lose them.
“They basically can’t do anything unless we tell them to, like Simon Says,” Votava continued, adding that the contestants must perform physical challenges, such as standing on one leg, about every half hour. This year contestants also competed against the elements, in the form of intermittent rain and heavy winds.
At around 1 p.m., 15 of 21 contestants remained when the Pumpkinheads were commanded to squat low while holding one arm forward, and hold the position for several seconds. Contestant Karla Dowd, whose husband, Kenic, was also competing, fell from her perch as she tried to rise, her pumpkin smashing to pieces on the concrete as a collective “Ohhhhh!” rose from the crowd.
“I was fine until a half hour ago. Then I started getting really dizzy … I knew I wasn’t going to make it back up,” Dowd said as Enloe Medical Center EMT Sam Pinto examined her.
Contestants are checked for injuries, though Votava said the worst conditions he’s seen are disorientation and downright exhaustion. Dowd was uninjured and ultimately unfazed, saying she looks forward to competing next year.
Another person looking forward to competing in Pumpkinhead 2015 is Ted Shred (aka Ted Modrell). After winning three out of the last four years (he got second the other year), Z-Rock banned him from this year’s contest, though he was invited to attend as the reigning champ and resident expert. Shred, who is 48, said he was happy to be there to offer moral support, but unhappy he couldn’t contend.
“It kinda sucks,” Shred said. “I mean, let me keep winning. Everyone else out there is half my age, anyway. I want to get five wins, and then I’ll retire willingly.”
In addition to three $1,000 cash prizes, Shred’s Pumpkinhead winnings have included a car, though he said the Nyquil-colored, 1997 Oldsmobile Achieva with a salvaged title wasn’t much of a prize.
“I had to spend a bunch of money to get it running, then it broke down and we put it in the backyard,” he said. “Then a big tree fell down and crushed it.”
Shred shared several tips, including shaving the inside of the squash to make it lighter, bringing chopsticks to assist in eating, and hydrating just enough to stay healthy and keep your head in the game. He also said foot placement and occasional weight shifts are essential, claiming his stance is so solid he actually takes short naps while competing.
“It’s a huge relief,” Shred said of the moment of victory. “At the end I’m not watching the others, I go by the noise. When the crowd starts making noise you know they’re struggling, and when the crowd makes the big noise, you know you’ve won.”
This year’s winner was Aaron Daniels, with Misty McDivitt placing second and Mitch Valentine third. Fortunately, nobody was eliminated on the grounds of waste elimination.