So, you’re teaching horror stories, but you don’t want to do the same, boring unit that everyone else does? You want your students to be engaged, creative, but to also learn the foundational purpose and practices of the horror genre. In this blog post, I’ll cover 5 tips for teaching horror stories so that your unit will stand out!
Teaching Horror Stories Tip #1: Define Horror
Don’t assume students will know what you mean by horror. Yes, they intuitively know what the horror genre is. They know when they’re watching a scary movie or reading a creepy tale.
But defining “horror” is challenging. Students may not be able to explain the genre’s purpose.
They probably won’t think about the nuances of the genre, or be able to name subgenres like Gothic literature.
And they definitely won’t think to talk about the importance of setting the mood or using foreshadowing to prime the reader.
Because students aren’t strangers to horror, you don’t have to spend a whole class period making them write down lengthy definitions, list tons of examples, or do a jigsaw activity to create a definition.
But you should directly introduce horror as a genre in literature, film, and art and go over common techniques found in the writing.
If you’d like to save yourself some time, I have a short and sweet horror genre introductory presentation here. You can present it in-person or remotely. I’ve even included a Google Form quiz around the presentation, just in case you need to make sure your distance learning students are paying attention behind their screens.
Teaching Horror Stories Tip #2: Teach and Review Literary Terms
When you’re defining horror for your students, don’t forget to cover the most useful literary terms. To me, this means reviewing “mood”, “setting”, “foreshadowing”, and “suspense.”
Don’t take for granted that your students know these crucial literary terms. Despite learning “foreshadowing” every year since 6th grade, my seniors still struggle to define it every year.
I like to review these words right away in the beginning so that we can watch for these writing techniques as we analyze our horror texts.
Analyzing an author’s use of foreshadowing and suspense also helps us dive deeper into a text, rather than spending all of class time making sure students merely comprehend it. Plus, if you have students do their own horror writing, you’ll want them to know and understand these terms.
Teaching Horror Stories Tip #3: Use Film
You’ll find immediately that your students can talk about horror films forever. Use that to your advantage and incorporate some film into your unit.
Film clips can be especially beneficial for providing a visual example of a writing technique.
For example, I think it’s difficult for students to track suspense in text. Rather than start with this, I like to review suspense and look at some examples in film first.
I show my students a collection of horror shorts, have them rate the shorts for their level and suspense, and then we discuss where in the videos suspense was heightened and where it fell flat.
The kids have so much fun playing film critic, they don’t even realize they’re learning! And later when I start teaching horror stories, that eye for suspense will more easily transfer to the text.
If you’d like to try this suspense activity with your students, you can get everything you need right here.
If you want more ideas for using film in the classroom in general, my friend Yaddy wrote us this great blog post all about it.
Teaching Horror Stories Tip #4: Reach Beyond the Classics
I mostly teach high school seniors. By the time they get to me, Edgar Allan Poe has been beaten to death.
In fact, when I say that we’re going to be reading some horror stories, often students will reply, “So we’re going to be reading that Poe guy?” as if he has a monopoly on the genre.
I adore Poe like every other self-respecting English teacher, but I want to expose my students to a variety of authors. I also love to mix in modern texts into my units whenever I can.
So I encourage you to “go beyond Poe” when you’re teaching horror stories this year.
Stephen King is a good call for a modern horror author because students are familiar with, and intrigued by, him. Many of his stories are not appropriate for teaching, however. This one, however, is short, only has a few swear words, and is a fantastic piece of horror.
Another one of my favorite canon-alternatives is “Out of Skin” by E. M. Carroll. I love this one because it’s a digital graphic novel–something that students do not expect! Because so much of the information is presented in the images, students really have to stretch their inference skills.
Mixing in a variety of modern authors and different media can not only keep students engaged, but it can help show them that the horror genre is alive and well and all around them.
Teaching Horror Stories Tip #5: Let Students Create
My last tip for teaching horror stories is to let students create their own.
After studying foreshadowing techniques and examining creepy settings, it’s only right that students should try their hand at creating their own! Plus, we have to climb our way up that Bloom’s Taxonomy scale, right?
I always get excited to sit down and craft a creepy tale, but my students don’t. Often when I tell them that we’re going to write a scary story their eyes go wide–it’s the most scared they get throughout the whole horror unit!
Anticipate that many of your students will become immediately overwhelmed when told to write creatively. Make sure to provide a small, focused task and lots of scaffolds.
For example, instead of writing a horror story, you can narrow it down to a horror personal narrative. A horror story can literally be about anything, but a personal narrative is at least confined to the student’s personal life.
A horror personal narrative narrows down topics even more–students will just write about a scary moment or memory.
Like with any other writing activity, you’ll want to have a rubric ready and help your students outline. If you like the idea of a personal horror narrative, you can easily grab everything you need here.
Alternatively, you can go even shorter with a horror story.
Writing a two-sentence horror story has become a very popular activity. You can search for them all over the web and find some really awesome (and creepy!) examples. Netflix even has a whole show now based around some of the best.
And any student can find a way to write two sentences.
If you’d like to offer your students this activity, I have everything you need for free right here.
Whenever you’re teaching horror stories make sure to cover the basics: introduce your unit, cover the literary terms, and review important writing techniques.
But be sure to have fun, too. Incorporate some out-of-the-box (or out-of-the-canon) literature. Use some film clips and illustrations in your unit.
And always let students have the opportunity to craft their own scary story. The activity doesn’t have to be long or even a final project, but students’ minds need time and space to create, experiment in writing, and try new things.
If you’re looking for ways to incorporate the Halloween spirit into your classroom, check out this blog post full of October teaching ideas.
Otherwise, if you have no idea where to start in planning a short horror story unit–or just don’t have the time!–check out my two-week horror genre study unit right here.