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I absolutely adore teaching scary short stories in ELA. The suspense, the spooky twists and turns in the creepy plot lines, and the sinister characters always seem to draw students in. This is why I use Halloween as an excuse to spend Octobers studying my favorite scary short stories. Below you’ll find a list of my absolute favorite scary short stories that are great to teach around Halloween (or really at any time in the year) along with some teaching tips and assignment ideas to accompany each of them.
A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury follows Eckels, a hunter who pays to go back in time to hunt the most ferocious beast that ever lived, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. The hunters are given strict instructions not to touch anything while visiting the past as any small interruption of the natural process could have an irreversible effect on the future. Unfortunately, when fear enters the equation, things don’t quite go as planned!
When I teach this story, I usually begin with a little pre-reading discussion on time travel. I have students imagine that they have access to a time machine and have the opportunity to go back to witness a historical event or meet a particular person from the past. You’ll be really surprised at the variety of choices from your students. I also have them consider whether the invention of time travel would be a positive or a negative thing.
The literary elements I focus on during this story are characterization (particularly the development of Eckels) foreshadowing, figurative comparisons (metaphor, simile, and personification are used throughout the text), and the theme that even small things can have a big impact (the butterfly effect).
I also love to show them the EC Comics adaptation of the story as it stays incredibly true to the plotline and hooks even your most reluctant readers.
Bradbury is known for his ability to create vivid images for his readers. Therefore, as a final assignment, I focus on improving students’ descriptive writing by having them examine Bradbury’s incredible description of the T-Rex.
In Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl, Mary Maloney, a loving and devoted housewife receives the terrible and unexpected news that her husband is leaving her. Mary, in her incredible shock, enters a trance and commits an unspeakable act that no one sees coming.
I do a whole-class reading of this story and choose students to play the different roles. I bring in some basic costume props (and by bring in, I mean swipe from the school’s theatre costume room) and have students come to the front of the class to read their lines and act out the scene. They really get into the story this way, and of course, they love the part with the frozen lamb leg! A little tip: print out a script for each character and highlight each of their individual parts. It makes things go much more smoothly.
Here is a list of what you might want to have for costumes and props
The literary element I focus most on with this story is dramatic irony. We also discuss the idea of guilt and whether or not Mary’s actions were justified. It always makes for an interesting ethical discussion.
As a final creative assignment, I have students write Mary Maloney’s Secret Diary. They write three entries from specific important moments in the plot.
Enter the mind of a disturbed narrator attempting to convince the reader of his sanity while telling the story of how he came to commit a murder. The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe focuses on the reasons for the man’s actions, the process he takes, and the guilt and paranoia he feels.
There are lots of new vocabulary terms in this story, so before we even begin reading, we do some pre-reading vocabulary work to prep students for this more challenging read. After reading, we also do some work with figurative language as Poe so skillfully uses alliteration, simile, and personification in this story as a tool to enhance description. I also have students examine the internal conflict (person vs. self) of the speaker and consider whether or not he is a reliable or unreliable narrator.
As a final creative assignment, I have students choose between two assignments:
1. The first one has students create a detailed police report from one of the police officer’s perspective. Students will include a detailed account of the ‘suspect’, the crime scene, and the evidence.
2. The second assignment has students write a prequel or a sequel to the story. If students choose prequel, they explain how the narrator came to live with the old man and what came to make him so fearful of “the eye.” If students choose sequel, they will explain what happens after the speaker confesses his crime.
In The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, Sergeant-Major Morris arrives at the White family residence with a monkey’s paw that has the power to grant three wishes. He warns the family that the paw is cursed and attempts to burn it in the fire, but Mr. White snatches it up for himself. Through a series of unfortunate events, the family learns that perhaps it is true that you should be careful what you wish for!
The literary elements I focus on in this story are mood (shifts dramatically from the start of this story to the end), symbolism (the paw as a symbol for greed), and allusion (Arabian Nights & Aladdin).
I also have students complete an “It Says, I Say, And So” Character Analysis for each of the characters. This type of graphic organizer has students find a passage from the reading that reveals a character trait (It Says). In the second column, students explain the personality trait revealed (I Say), and in the final column, they explain why/how this character trait is revealed (And So).
As a final assignment, students imagine that Mr. White can’t locate the monkey’s paw when his wife unbolts the door. They have to write an alternate ending and describe what is on the other side of the door!
In The Open Window by Saki, trickster, Vera, tells a spooky ghost story to the unsuspecting and nervous Mr. Nuttel. He is the perfect victim for her plot, and she sets the story up to give him a rather shocking ending.
This is a typical Saki story with a light-hearted beginning and a macabre twist ending. The story is useful for examining situational irony and flashback. After some preliminary work with vocabulary and some reading comprehension questions, I use this story to help students examine the plot diagram. Although it does employ flashback, it is actually a fairly typical plot structure for students to examine and understand the story arc.
I end with a creative writing exercise where students take on the role of the nervous and anxious Mr. Nuttel at the end of the story and write a letter to his sister after he has bolted out of the Sappleton residence.
In The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, the villagers of a small town gather in the town square for the annual tradition of the town lottery. As the story progresses, the reader soon realizea that this is a lottery that one might not want to win.
I love to start this story off with a bit of discussion about strange traditions that we still follow today (trick or treating, the President pardoning the turkey for Thanksgiving, predicting the weather with a groundhog). Students discuss why we follow traditions, whether they are easy to change, and what superstitions they have.
Symbolism is so important in The Lottery, so we spend time discussing symbolism before we even begin reading. I tell them to pay attention to descriptions of setting, weather, character names, and objects in the story and consider what they might symbolize.
As a final assignment, students create a newspaper for the town in which The Lottery is set. They write a headline article explaining the results of this year’s lottery, a special interview with a character, an obituary for Mrs. Hutchinson, and a life and times article about a topic of their choice.
The Landlady by Roald Dahl tells the story of Billy Weaver, a successful businessman who travels to a small city called Bath. He finds a local bed and breakfast for lodging that is run by a landlady. Billy comes to learn that the only two other guests who have ever stayed at the B&B have names that he recognizes. The reader may soon learn that the landlady is not as innocent as she first appears.
There are lots of elements to discuss in The Landlady (characterization, mood, foreshadowing, setting). Because of this, I created an analysis booklet for students to complete after reading this story. It includes 6 analysis questions a graphic organizer to analyze character traits of either Billy or the landlady. It also includes a creative response where students write a headline article about what happens to Billy after the story.
These scary short stories are sure to engage your students and help them dig deeper into the elements of fiction. If you’re looking for other ways to bring the spirit of Halloween into your classroom, click here.
Get each of these scary short story units in a ready-to-use bundle by clicking here.
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