Halloween is an excellent opportunity to think about the genre of horror. What makes a story frightening or horrific? Why do people enjoy reading books or watching films that make them feel scared? How do writers and directors manipulate tension and suspense in their work? And why are scary motifs such as witches and ghosts associated with Halloween in the first place?
Practical Teaching Ideas focused on films and literature
This article contains some practical teaching ideas and activities for English Language Teachers around the world. We focus particularly on the part that literature, movies and storytelling in general can play in encouraging students to learn and use English.
Context and History
Halloween has become one of the most popular seasonal landmarks of the year. In schools, teachers of all subjects find ways to incorporate elements of Halloween into their part of the curriculum. For teachers of English in all parts of the world, it is an opportunity to use English in context since the modern version of Halloween largely began in the English-speaking world. We have provided a more detailed text about the history and traditions associated with Halloween which you can download at the end of this article.
Why do we like to be scared?
We will not go into all the details here, but scientists have established that human beings ‘enjoy’ and may learn from being scared within a safe environment. Even babies enjoy playing ‘peek-a-boo’ probably due to the thrill of being surprised within a safe context. There is also an element of learning how to cope with potentially life-threatening situations by experiencing them second hand in situations which are not actually life threatening. This can be through ‘Roller-Coaster’ rides or watching scary movies. Psychologically, being scared releases a cocktail of chemicals in the brain and recovering from a fright releases pleasant, calming hormones.
Famous Horror Books, Films and Poems
You might want to lead into the theme of scary stories by looking at famous books, films and poems within the horror genre. Below we have summarised a few examples that could be useful in the classroom. (Please feel free to add some of your own suggestions in the comments). For some of the longer works listed below, it would be best to focus on a few key paragraphs or scenes. For others, you might want the whole class to watch or read the entire work together. We have listed the examples roughly in order of age and level of English, starting with works for younger students (A1 A2) and finishing with more sophisticated pieces at level B2 and above.
Books and Films
- The Witches by Roald Dahl – This children’s book tells the story of a young boy who encounters a group of witches who plan to turn all children into mice. There are several film and television versions available.
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman – A creepy story in which a young girl is tempted into a dark, alternative reality from which she may never escape. There is also an animated film version of the story.
- Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman – This novel (also a movie) follows the lives of two witch sisters, Sally and Gillian Owens, as they navigate love, magic, and family secrets.
- The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare – This young adult novel is set in 17th-century colonial New England and tells the story of a young girl accused of being a witch.
- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving – This famous short story tells the tale of the Headless Horseman and schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. It’s a spooky, Halloween-themed story set in a small, haunted town. There are several film and TV versions available to watch.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelly – The story may be well known and there are many film versions to choose from if the art of making horror movies is your focus. However, it is worth reading the original novel by Mary Shelly which is easily readable and is widely regarded as a classic.
- Macbeth by William Shakespeare – If drama is your focus, you really can’t ignore ‘The Scottish Play’. This Shakespeare classic features three witches who prophesy Macbeth’s rise and fall. It’s filled with supernatural elements and a dark, eerie atmosphere.
- Anything by Stephan King – No list of horror in literature or films would be complete without mention of Stephan King whose novels have dominated the genre for half a century. His books and films tend to be character based with supernatural elements that subvert the reader or the watcher’s expectations. Examples available in both book and film include; ‘It’, ‘Carrie’, and ‘The Shining’.
Poems to consider
- The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
- A Child’s Nightmare by Robert Graves
- Christabel by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Witch-Wife by Edna St. Vincent Millay
There is much use of English to be covered in discussing horror stories. You could reference any of the works listed above as jumping off points for further discussion. Even with younger students, you could ask if they have read, seen or heard any scary stories. What did they think about them? How frightening were they? Why? Why not? You can then go on to discuss some common horror tropes. Perhaps show some pictures of scary scenes and ask what makes the image scary or unnerving. There is a lot of scope here for using adjectives and descriptive phrases. How would they describe a haunted house or a creepy location? What makes a character scary? What makes a situation horrific? How do writers and directors build up tension as the story develops? Any of these questions can be discussed as a whole class or in smaller groups although clearly the themes, vocabulary and types of discussion will need to be age and level appropriate. Discussions can lead to other activities, written or spoken presentations, and drama work. We will concentrate however on the theme of creative writing.
Writing a scary story with younger students
Writing a scary story with younger students requires careful consideration of age-appropriateness while still creating a sense of fear and suspense. Here are some tips and activities for helping your students to compose their own stories in groups or individually.
Chain Stories (A1-A2)
Chain stories are a simple way to engage younger or lower-level students in creative writing. The principle is simple. The teacher takes a blank piece of paper and writes a Halloween writing prompt on it such as, “It was dark and misty when Anna walked home from school…” The teacher passes the paper to the next student in line and asks them to add a sentence. Once they finish, they pass the paper on to the next student. This can go on in circles (either as a whole class or in smaller groups) until the story is finished and ready to be presented. Ask one of the students from the group to read the completed story to the rest of the class. This step can be used as a listening prompt. When the story has been read, students have to recreate the whole story in an individual text. The aim is to improve on the class/group text, either creatively or in use of English.
Group Story Writing (A2-B1)
Take the pressure off individuals by dividing students into groups so that they can work together and help each other out. Give each group a different spooky or Halloween themed picture to look at. There should be a lot of spoken discussion before they commit to writing anything. Give the students some of the following tasks, depending on the content of the picture.
- Name any characters from the picture.
- Decide on a short, bullet point biography for the characters.
- Describe the setting. Brainstorm a list of adjectives and look up any extra vocabulary they might need.
- Decide what is actually happening in the picture and what may happen next.
Once they have agreed on all the details, ask them to write a story based on the ideas they’ve discussed. This could be a text or picture/comic-book style story.
Five-sentence stories or Poems (A2-B1)
Stories don’t have to be long; by limiting the number of lines or words they can use, students have to focus and use their language knowledge cleverly.
In this activity, the students work individually and have a limited time to come up with a story. The story needs to have an introduction, a middle, and an end, but must be exactly five sentences long. You could give the whole class a title to work with or give individual written or picture prompts. In the end, as many students as possible should be given the opportunity to read their stories or poems out loud. You could possibly hold a class vote on which story is the scariest.
Simplify the Text (B1+)
Photocopy a short scary story or a self-contained extract from a longer horror themed text. Students can work individually or in pairs depending on numbers and ability. Give each student or pair a copy of the text. Ask them to read the whole text and then ask some comprehension or concept checking questions to the whole class to make sure everyone understands the gist of the text. Their task will be to reduce the text by 50% without losing any important information. They can change sentences and vocabulary when necessary and leave things out, but their finished texts should still convey the same basic story.
This activity helps them to focus and write concisely, which is a key skill they’ll need for more formal writing assignments in other parts of the EFL curriculum.
Horror Stories with older or more advanced students
With older or more advanced students you can also adapt some of the prompts and activities described in the previous section to get things started. After that, your students should be capable of producing longer, more sophisticated narrative texts. You can prompt or guide them with some of the following tips.
Choose a Subgenre
Horror is a broad genre with many subgenres such as science fiction, supernatural, psychological, romantic, or comic horror. The subgenre will influence the story’s style and themes.
Encourage students to take time to create well-rounded, relatable characters that readers can connect with. Consider their backgrounds, motivations, and flaws. Readers should care about what happens to them. Creating character cards and profiles is an absorbing activity in itself.
Choose a setting that contributes to the eerie atmosphere of your story such as a haunted house, a remote forest, or even a school. Describe the setting in detail. Time is also part of the setting. Does the story happen in the past, present or future?
Create a believable Monster or Threat
In most horror stories, there’s a central antagonist or threat. This could be a supernatural entity, a dangerous animal, a fantasy monster, or something more abstract like the characters’ own psychological demons.
Use plenty of descriptive language to make the story creepy and the horror more vivid. Describe what the characters see, hear, smell, taste, and touch so that the reader shares their fear.
Structure and Plot
The horror story should have a clear beginning and middle part, leading to a climactic, terrifying moment. This is where the threat reaches its peak, and the characters (and readers) confront their worst fears. After the climax, provide a resolution that satisfies the reader’s curiosity and wraps up loose ends.
It might be worth using part of a lesson for your students to create a ‘plot board’ (like an incident board in a crime drama). Students write their characters, settings and notes on register cards or slips of paper and then move them around on a board (or their desk) until the structure and plot of the story become clear.
Something to fear?
The danger of encouraging students to write scary stories is that the stories can easily descend into gratuitous violence without much plot or character development. This can be even more the case if their stories are extended into drama work. Moreover, the genre of horror holds many negative connotations for a lot of people including teachers. One solution might be a structured mockery of the tropes associated with Halloween; a pastiche with an emphasis on comedy.
Get your students to brainstorm all the tropes, settings and elements they can think of connected with Halloween. These could include stereotypical characters, snippets of dialogue, scenes, settings or plot points they have seen or read in films or books. These should be written on the board as a list or a thematically organised mind map. Then, either individually or in groups the students have to write a story including as many of those tropes as possible. You could give points for every element included, and bonus points for cleverness of the plot or comedic value. This transforms a written task based on horror into a more light-hearted activity which is still creative and develops story-writing ability.
During Halloween, all sorts of activities will be going on around the school and wider communities. It would be a shame to miss this opportunity to allow students to extend their English speaking and writing skills. Story-writing provides a clear structure within which to exploit the themes and motifs that will preoccupy students during the Halloween season. What sets the horror genre apart is that the stories are clearly aimed at eliciting a very specific response from the reader; fear. Having such a clear goal can help students focus and refine their creative writing abilities. For English Language Learners it is an opportunity to study and use new vocabulary, demonstrate comprehension of complicated ideas, familiarise themselves with new forms and types of literature, and hone all the writing skills required to compose a compelling narrative in the target language.
For background, we have provided a B1 level, downloadable text about the history and traditions of Halloween which could be used as a comprehension exercise to introduce the theme. Sections of that text could also be used as an impulse or stimulus for creative writing.
Meanwhile, we wish you a spooky but safe Halloween!