It's the season for pumpkin carving, apple picking, and learning just how far a wad of fake spiderwebs can stretch. With the extra chill in the air and the fast-waning daylight, it's the perfect time to pay homage to the ever-relevant scary story and teach your English students a thing or two about foreshadowing, character development, and how to properly write a detailed description of that thing standing right behind you....
As your class gears up for the spookiest holiday of them all, take your literature or language arts lessons in a more dastardly direction with these Halloween activities for middle and high school students.
Freaky and Fun Halloween Activities
Scared Senseless: Adding Dimension to Writing
What do October and Halloween mean to students? Have them answer that question using creative language. Maybe it’s the cold breeze brushing over their arms on their walk to school. Maybe it’s the flavor of cinnamon in a warm drink before class. Maybe it’s the sound of dry leaves in the wind, the orange shock of a pumpkin on a porch, or the smell of rain on the pavement. Focus on the senses for this creative writing activity. For bonus Halloween points, have the students make their own monster, complete with how it sounds, smells, and appears. If you use this Halloween activity for middle school students, this would also be a great time to teach them about foreshadowing.
Scary Stanzas: Learning Meter, Rhyme, and Voice
While Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” might be the go-to for dark poetry, there's no shortage of classic and contemporary poems about witches, ghosts, and all things October. For this activity, choose a seasonally suited poem and have the class analyze it.
Here are some examples of classic Halloween poetry:
- "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe
- "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti
- "All Hallows" by Louise Glück
- "All Hallows' Eve" by Dorothea Tanning
- "Song of the Witches" from Macbeth by William Shakespeare
If the poem has a rhyme scheme or meter, students can also be broken into groups or breakout rooms and write their own stanza using the same voice as the original author.
Ready, Set, Ghost: Tips from Author Marlene Perez
Challenge students to write and illustrate a story of the paranormal
genre. This is a story that features otherworldly creatures like ghosts,
zombies, werewolves, or aliens. For a little inspiration, we asked
Marlene Perez, author of the Dead Is series, to share her top tips for
writing a paranormal tale. Here's what she had to say:
- Not of the Normal: I like to start with my main characters. What's different about them? What kind of powers do they have? Do they love or hate being different? What happens in a world of supernatural creatures? In Dead Is the New Black, the main character, Daisy Giordano, was the only one in her family without psychic powers. Or was she?
- Mood Music: I love music, and the clue-spewing jukebox was one of my favorite things in the Dead Is series. If you're inspired by music, listen to something that sets the mood of the story you're writing. Some writers like the quiet, but I like audio and visual inspiration.
- Creature Feature: In the Dead Is series, I introduced a new supernatural mystery in each book, and I always had fun writing the new characters. Decide what kind of creature you want to feature. I wrote about the town of Nightshade, where many of the inhabitants were supernatural. But maybe you want to write about a city of ghosts or a world where humans are the bad guys.
- Ready, Set, Ghost: I love writing prompts. With a prompt, there’s a good chance you’ll end up writing something surprising, something that you never could have imagined without the little push. Here’s one from my friend, author Q.L. Pearce. All you need is a piece of paper, a pencil, and your imagination. Ready? Write a paragraph using GHOST, GRAVY, and GUITAR. Ready, set, ghost!
The Gorey Details: Visual Writing Exercise
Students may want some visual inspiration to get into the creative writing mood. Edward Gorey is a writer and artist known for his gloomy illustrations—and a perfect candidate for inspiring twisted fiction. Students can select an image and write a creative short story inspired by the illustration they’ve chosen. This is a great exercise for practicing descriptive details, as well as exploring the mood and atmosphere that their image evokes.
Learning Lore and Folktales: Research Report
For a social studies spin on your lesson, have your students research the local lore of a specific country and then write a report about a folktale of the region. Folk stories often include cautionary tales starring a range of creatures, spirits, and witches. What can your students tell you about the hopping vampires of China, the giant horned snake in the Amazon River, or the ogres in Italy?
A Fond Farewell: Character Eulogy
Here’s a memorable way to bring characters to life: Imagine they’re dead!
Tell students they are going to write a eulogy for a fictional character
of their choice. Remind them that a eulogy is a speech praising someone
who recently passed away. You can make writing a eulogy as an
exercise in character analysis. Have students follow these steps:
- Choose a character to eulogize. Don’t rule out eulogizing a villain! This can be a good way to examine the character’s whole life, not just the evil parts.
- Start with opening remarks. Introduce yourself and describe how you’re related to the deceased. Are you a family member, friend, or perhaps a sworn enemy?
- Spotlight a character trait (or two). Was the person a daredevil, jokester, neat freak, or stoic? Share specific examples from the story to support your ideas. And don’t be afraid to add a few imaginative inferences about the person based on what you read. That’ll make the profile even more interesting.
- Offer words of comfort. It is never easy to discuss death, even a fictional one. What will be your final farewell?
Frightening Flash Fiction: 6-Word Horror Stories
If you feel like giving your students a reprieve from essays for a moment, try out this quick challenge. One of the most famous flash fiction stories is by Ernest Hemingway.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Only six words, it still manages to tell a story that is both
haunting and complete. If you’d like your students to have a little bit
more writing room for this exercise, then two-sentence horror stories are a popular alternative.
Because they are quick reads, consider having students present these like campfire stories to each other, in groups, in breakout rooms, or to the class.
Spine-Tingling Reads from HMH
Get into the Halloween spirit! Do a read-aloud of a spooky story for the class, or suggest books students can read on their own. Here’s a list of thrillers that middle and high school students won’t be able to put down.
- An Enemy at Green Knowe by L. M. Boston (Grades 3–7)
- No Place for Monsters by Kory Merritt (Grades 3–7)
- One for Sorrow: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn (Grades 4–7)
- Sweet Miss Honeywell’s Revenge: A Ghost Story by Kathryn Reiss (Grades 7+)
- Witchtown by Cory Putman Oakes (Grades 7+)
- Dead Is a Battlefield by Marlene Perez (Grades 7–12)
- Brown Girl Ghosted by Mintie Das (Grades 9–12)
- The Séance by Joan Lowery Nixon (Grades 9–12)
- Cold Calls by Charles Benoit (Grades 10–12)
Tales with a Twist: Prompts by Author Cory Putman Oakes
(Written by Cory Putman Oakes, author of The Second Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street and Witchtown)
How do you write a “scary” story? You know the kind I mean—the stories that send a shiver down your spine, make you afraid to poke your feet out from under the covers at night, or make you swear there’s something behind you in the mirror. How do you create a story like that? Come closer, dearies, if you dare.
SCARY STRATEGY #1: Bedevil the Everyday Experience
As humans, there are things we need every day to stay alive. We need to eat, sleep, and breathe, and we need some form of shelter. What happens when these basic necessities become dangerous or—dare I say it—scary?
Examples from Movies:
- Poltergeist: An everyday suburban house turns against its family
- The Grudge/Psycho: Showering becomes a terrifying experience
- Nightmare on Elm Street: Sleep must be avoided at all costs
Make a list of some “everyday” items or tasks that are decidedly un-scary. The more ordinary, the better. Then, for each item/task, think of a scenario in which it becomes deadly, terrifying, or just downright weird. Really use your imagination. See if you can turn an innocent, unthreatening object into a vehicle of terror!
SCARY STRATEGY #2: Reimagine Creatures of the Night
Some monsters manage to scare us year after year—vampires, werewolves, witches, Frankenstein's monster, ghosts, and zombies, to name a few. Why does this cast of characters continue to thrill? It's because writers are always adding new and interesting twists to familiar monster stories. The key is to add something new and relevant to the character’s already-existing mythology.
Examples from books and movies:
- Twilight: vampires + teen romance
- Hocus Pocus: witches + comedy + family
- Casper: ghost (but he’s friendly!)
Pick your favorite, tired old monster story and jazz it up! Mix in a current issue, or dump it into a story outside the horror genre and see what happens. The weirder and more unlikely your pairings, the better your story will be.
Have any fun middle school and high school Halloween activities that we missed? Share your favorites with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or Facebook. For a 6–12 ELA curriculum that offers daring texts and inspires confident writers, check out HMH Into Literature.