A dim spectre in the distance. A ghostly woman in white waiting forlornly on a bridge. A mysterious voice in the dark of the night. A statue that watches…and waits.
Scary stories are powerful. Every community, rural or urban, has its share of tales that have the power to chill you to the bone. Both original stories and those rooted in folk legends invoke strong reactions from their audience. Some people avoid scary tales. Others cannot get enough of them. These are the people for which Halloween was made.
The book that hooked me up
While I don’t enjoy all aspects of Halloween, (I’m took impatient to put together an impressive costume, and I’m allergic to half the candy out there – Boo!) I am a fright fan. I have been ever since elementary school, when my second-grade teacher gave me a booked titled The Doll in the Garden. It was a ghost story about a girl who found an antique doll buried in her neighbor’s garden. Throughout the story she learns about the doll’s history by traveling back in time to speak with the doll’s former owner – a ghost girl named Louisa.
I enjoyed the book enough to mention it to my aunt, who was a fourth grade teacher. My aunt gave me a book her students enjoyed by the same author. It was called Wait Till Helen Comes. It was about a girl whose stepsister was communicating with a ghost who wanted to lure her into a pond, to drown, so she could join her in the afterworld. I loved it, and read it again and again. There were sentences that made my heartbeat quicken. Something about the way the words scared me pressed me to keep on reading them, and as my interest grew, I swear I could feel my imagination expanding. I liked to be scared, and I liked how my fright made me wonder about the world and my place in it.
I found myself studying the way the author used words to paint scary scenes and invoke a sense of danger. I became keenly aware that my reaction to the story was the result of artistic choices. Her characters, the plot, the setting, the tone, the pacing, the symbolism, the foreshadowing, the structure – all of these elements worked in harmony to create a story powerful enough that I remember it to this day.
Teachers, without a doubt, have kids in their class who love a good fright, and Halloween is a perfect time to reach them with an unforgettable creative writing exercise. There is plenty of opportunity to co-opt Halloween to help students stretch their creative muscles with some writing exercises.
Option One: Writing prompts. Teachers can provide students with a choice of three or four “story starters” from which they can build their own scary story. Students who chose the same prompt can compare their stories after they are written and discuss how the stories differ. Students can explain the choices they made and discuss their favorite parts of each other’s stories.
Option Two: Word webs. Teachers can ask students for “scary” nouns. Then, scary adjectives, verbs, and so on. Using the collected words, students can compose a series of frightening sentences – or a full-fledged scary story.
Option Three: Take a break from scary. Not all students enjoy being scared. That’s perfectly fine! Instead, perhaps they would benefit from a writing exercise that focuses on costumes. What was their favorite Halloween costume, ever? What do the costumes in the costume store do at night, when all of the customers and employees are gone? What if the costumes came to life?
I have found that giving children the chance to perform their written pieces for an audience is very beneficial for driving home the idea that writing is meant to be experienced. It is easy for young writers to forget about the reader as they get excited – or intimidated – by the act of putting words on a page. It is harder to forget about the audience when the writer realizes that their piece will be performed rather than read.
Not all students will be comfortable with performing a monologue or acting in a play, and that’s okay. Children in the audience can sit back and enjoy the show, and perhaps even give feedback on what works and what doesn’t in a performed narrative. They might even like to see their own piece performed by others!
Children working together to create a story will not only hone their writing and language skills – they will also exercise teamwork and have an opportunity to form lasting memories in the classroom. Halloween comes once a year. If you have only one chance to fully indulge your students’ creativity this year, this is the time to take it. This is the holiday that lets imaginations soar.