I don’t like scary movies, but I love scary stories. I grew up re-reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I love to listen to Lore in October while I walk through my dark neighborhood streets. And my favorite author is Stephen King, the master of horror. The way I look at it, movies make the scary parts visual and out of my control. But with a book, I can create the image in my head, which is sometimes even more terrifying. The key, however, is that I’m in the driver’s seat. If it gets too intense, I can just set it down (or put it in the freezer for a bit).
Here’s a list of 13 poems and stories you can use in your high school English class to bring the fun of Halloween and the coming winter into your classroom.
“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
You had to see this one coming. “The Raven” stands as the most celebrated and eerie poem in American history, and it’s a cornerstone of Halloween literature. Maybe it’s the imagery of the terrifying dark bird, or perhaps it’s the iconic beginning of “Once upon a midnight dreary,” this poem truly sets the perfect mood for Halloween. I suggest listening to one of the great readings on YouTube. I like Christopher Lee’s the best, but Christopher Walken and James Earl Jones both do lovely readings as well.
“Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning
This poem is so disturbing, and I weirdly love it. The speaker is visited by Porphyria, whom he knows loves him entirely. He is mesmerized by her beauty and full devotion. Then, seemingly without explanation, he wraps Porphyria’s yellow hair around her neck, strangles her, then props her up again next to him and continues his lover’s embrace. Students love the surprise of the narrative, then looking for signs of lunacy or motive behind the speaker’s strange actions.
“The Open Window” by Saki
This is a great one if you’re looking for a spooky atmosphere but without the gore. Saki’s story follows Frampton Nuttel, a visitor with a strong nervous disorder. Poor Nuttel is horrified to learn that his hostess keeps a window open in hopes of her husband and sons returning from a hunting trip, a trip that occurred years ago. Imagine Nuttel’s shock when he sees the men returning from the moors, rifles in hand and calling for tea? As Nuttel runs out of the house, the storyteller, a young girl named Vera, admits to us that she made the whole thing up. Anticlimactic, perhaps. But it’s great for discussing mood and suspense. Even better, there’s a great short film that was adapted for it, starring Michael Sheen.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe
This may not be among the favorites of Poe’s short stories, but it’s my personal favorite. While it doesn’t have the murderous appeal of “The Black Cat” or “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it has tremendous suspense. I also love to imagine the terrible torture chamber, filled with new and ever-worsening devices as the story progresses.
“The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier
Everyone knows the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie, but have you ever read the short story? I read this tale when I was 13 and it instilled a fear of birds that has still never lifted. (I stand by that fear. Birds are shifty and I don’t trust them.) Du Maurier’s tale is a great one for teaching the strategy of suspense in rising action, how it ebbs and flows. We also love to talk about the first person point of view into Nat’s perspective, letting us see how is level-headed mind is processing these supernatural events. And of course, pair it with clips of The Birds. Here’s my favorite clip to pair.
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
While this is technically a novella, I love it too much to leave it off this list. Students will probably be familiar with the basis of Jekyll and Hyde but the tale can be great for introducing the gothic style to your students. This is a great segue into longer spooky and gothic greats, such as Frankenstein and Dracula.
“Click Clack the Rattlebag” by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is famous for several scary stories, but this one is my favorite of his. This is another one that is more on the tame side, or at least it’s absent of murder and gore. It’s also a great story for discussing what is happening in the plot and what will happen when the story ends. Plus, everyone loves a creepy kid! If you’re interested, Gaiman loves to read his stories aloud. You can watch him read “Click Clack the Rattlebag,” by candlelight no less, here.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I just love the descent of a madman, or in this case, madwoman. So many popular horror movies deal with unreliable narrators and psychological instability, two things which make “The Yellow Wallpaper” a must-read. We are granted only the narrator’s perspective. Slowly, the woman moves from finding the wall paper ugly to suspicious, and finally to a welcoming home. This story isn’t classically scare like many others on this list, but its implications are. What if we, too, became victims of our own homes, growing mad in our own confinement?
“We Ate the Children Last” by Yann Martel
Ugh, I don’t know how I feel about this story. It reminds me of so many Criminal Minds episodes. However, if you have a fairly high-level class and you’re looking to introduce satire, this is a great example. It also pairs perfectly with Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”
“The Landlady” by Roald Dahl
While many associate Roald Dahl with his fantastic children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Matilda, you might know that he’s also a writer of short stories. And Mr. Dahl loves eerie, ominous suspense and classic scary stories. I suggest reading “The Landlady” aloud to your students while a fire crackles on your projector. Plot-wise, not much happens in this story. And yet, once students realize what happens in this woman’s home, it becomes truly terrifying.
Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm
In 2019 I wrote a one act play based on the stories of the Brothers Grimm, and so I had an excuse to do a deep dive into their collected stories. I’ve also witnessed how much fun it is for students to read the real “Cinderella,” “Briar Rose,” or “Rumpelstiltskin.” This makes a great lesson if you’re looking for choice, as the Grimm tales are all available online in various website collections. Assign 3-5 of the best-known stories, then ask your students how much “horror” is contained in their original forms.
“Mirium” by Truman Capote
I LOVE THIS STORY. As you may have guessed, I really do love stories with creepy kids (it’s the only reason I tolerate The Scarlet Letter). In Mirium, Mrs. Miller is surprised by the unexpected, and later recurring, visit of young Mirium. Mirium is beautiful and forward, arriving uninvited and taking Mrs. Miller’s most precious belongings, then departing without warning. As the story progresses, the reader begins to put the pieces together: young Mirium is Mrs. Miller’s child self…and she may not really be there at all.
“Children of the Corn” by Stephen King
You know I had to put Stephen on here somewhere. While “Children of the Corn” is quite long, it’s still a great deal shorter than his novels. And, of course, it features creepy kids! Yay!
Looking for Novels?
I ran out of time before I could talk about scary stories in novel form, but here’s a list of my favorite spooky novels to teach and to read for pleasure. I will try to include more than just Stephen King books, but admittedly, there are many.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
- ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
- In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
- Misery by Stephen King
- The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
- Cujo by Stephen King
- The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
- The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
- The Shining by Stephen King
- The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
- Jaws by Peter Benchley
- World War Z by Max Brooks
- Carrie by Stephen King