13 Scary Stories and Poems For High School ELA

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

The Raven

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

The Open Doors

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

Frankenstein Unit Bundle - AP Lit and More
Looking for materials for one of the best horror novels? Check out my best-selling unit on Frankenstein on TpT!

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

The Birds

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

Click Clack the Rattlebag

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

We Ate the Children Last

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

Grimm's Fairy Tales

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?

Why Teach Frankenstein - AP Lit and More
Behold, king of the scary stories. Read this blog post to learn wby you should be teaching Frankenstein or another gothic novel!

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

My 10 Favorite Poems to Teach in AP Lit

As a teacher of AP Lit, you can’t avoid teaching poetry. And to be a successful teacher of AP Lit, you shouldn’t try to. Of course there are “classics” and particular forms you have to teach, like a lot of long-dead white guys who wrote sonnets. However, the writers at CollegeBoard (who create the AP exams) appreciate both modern and classic writers of poetry. The key is to mix old with new, to find culturally diverse and universally advanced poems that will expose students to a variety of different poem types, but also keep them interested. This is a list of some of my favorite poems to teach in AP Lit:

“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath

This short poem is unexpectedly witty and a little dark, and it usually disarms students as they read it. As the first line indicates, the nine-line poem functions as a riddle for pregnancy. It contains references to various images to items that are treasured for what they carry rather than what they are. Plath’s overall message is that while pregnancy is miraculous, mothers are allowed to be somewhat resentful of their treatment as a vessel rather than as a person. As a mother of three, I can attest that this feeling is surprisingly accurate. For that reason, I enjoy teaching it from my own perspective. You can find this in this work of collected poetry by Plath.

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley’s treatise against pride and hubris is just as relevant today as when it was published 200 years ago. The allusion to Ramses II usually intrigues high school students who, show a surprising curiosity toward Egyptian history. I also introduce this poem by playing a reading by Bryan Cranston taken from Breaking Bad. Like Walter White’s efforts to provide for his family beyond his inevitable death, Ramses erected monuments of himself in an effort to demonstrate his power and live forever. I also love showing how the meter and form starts off as a Shakespearean sonnet, but falls away from this form. This connects structure to meaning, and shows the breaking down of classic poetry styles. You can find Shelley’s beloved poems in this collection.

“Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova

If you don’t know anything about Anna Akhmatova, take a break and go read up on her. I can wait. Seriously, she is so awesome. This poem takes the story of Lot from Genesis 19 and expounds on Lot’s poor wife. Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt after she looked backward to watch her hometown of Sodom and Gomorrah burn. The bible hails her as an example of God’s punishment when we disobey or lose trust in him. Akhmatova provides context for Lot’s wife and questions if she deserves the reputation given to her in single bible verse. I’ve found the comparison between the biblical text to this poem fodder for excellent conversation, particularly with young women. Akhmatova’s poems, including her masterpiece Requiem, can be found in this collection.

“I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” is a personal favorite, one popular with 9th or 10th grade teachers. This poem builds on most students’ working knowledge of Hughes and his reputation for representing the plight of black people in the early 20th century. “I, Too, Sing America” has a more comparative style, showcasing the unfair treatment of African Americans in Hughes’ time of composition. What makes the poem so masterful is that the tone is not of complaining, but instead is confident and triumphant. The speaker proclaims that while he does not have the rights he deserves, “Tomorrow, I will be at the table when company comes.” This poem and many other Hughes’ favorites can be found in this collection.

“Oxygen” by Mary Oliver

This is literally my favorite poem. Ever. Everything about it is so perfect. It’s beautifully simplistic and cyclical, but also has advanced poetic elements within. The ongoing image of things that feed on air is easy to relate to. The central lines, “It is your life, which is so close to my own that I would not know where to drop the knife of separation. And what does this have to do with love, except everything?” provide a beautiful image of modern romance and companionship. I can’t help but get a little misty-eyed every time I teach it. It truly is a beautiful poem. Oliver is one of the masters of 20th century poetry. Her best works, including “Oxygen,” can be found in this collection.

“The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché

Forché’s poem is radically different from most of the poems I teach in AP Lit. For one, it doesn’t look like a poem, as it intentionally looks more like prose. Secondly, it contains a strong expletive. There are ways to botch this lesson if the incident is not researched properly, but it has the potential to be an extremely sobering and serous lesson. Forché’s poem is shocking  as it describes the dictator spilling a bag of human ears and gesturing with it. What’s even more shocking is that the events described are completely true. Trust me, you simply must teach this poem. Forché recently published details of this full experience in her new memoir, What You Have Heard is True.

“The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall and “American History” by Michael S. Harper

One way to change up a poetry lesson is to do a poetry comparison study. Up until recently, AP Lit exam questions sometimes asked students to write essays about two similar poems. Even though College Board has discontinued this practice, it is still a valuable skill for AP Lit students. One of my favorite comparison studies is the treatment of the Birmingham church bombings of 1963. This hate crime united Americans in a fight for civil rights, eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These poems provide different treatments of this act of terror, with Harper’s relating it to acts of the Revolutionary War, while Randall’s is more sentimental and songlike. You can find ample opportunities for historical analysis and discussion in these two poems.  

Out, Out–” by Robert Frost

People typically remember Robert Frost for his nature poem. However, this longer poem titled after Macbeth’s final soliloquy is one of my favorites to teach. I typically guide my students through a narrative analysis of the story told in the poem, then follow up with a more historical analysis. The context and background of World War I is not coincidental. In fact, many believe that the poem’s unfortunate boy represents all young soldiers who were sacrificed in the war efforts. The poem has plenty of advanced poetic elements, as an added bonus. You can find Robert Frost’s collected works in this anthology.

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney

It was hard to pick a favorite Seamus poem, as he’s my favorite poet. Overall, the autobiographical and geographical analysis opportunities of “Digging” make it my favorite to teach. Heaney is a favorite with CollegeBoard and most of the world, especially in his native Ireland. Heaney pays homage to his beautiful Irish home and the generations of laborers who worked before him in the Irish peat. “Digging” is both simple and complex, and students find themselves easing into advanced poetry analysis quite easily. Runners up for Heaney’s poems are “Midterm Break” and “Scaffolding” if you want to include more from this Irish master. “Digging” is actually the first poem in this collection of Heaney’s, titled 100 Poems.

“Warning” by Jenny Joseph

In the spring my AP students tend to show a veil of weariness and fatigue, as well as signs of spring fever. When I see this, we take a break from complex poem studies and spend some time with a more simplistic poem. Jenny Joseph’s charming poem about growing old and “wearing purple” is humorous and relatable. However, this poem is not without its thematic applications. We usually have an interesting discussion about what students look forward to doing once they are old. Also, what could they get away then in the future, that they can’t now? It’s intriguing to learn that Joseph’s poem inspired the Red Hat Society, which can now boast over 70,000 members. This poem is available in a hardcover illustrated version, found here.

Honorable mentions

There are many other poems that make up my AP curriculum but these are just a few of my favorites. How do you pick just 10 poems to teach in AP Lit? Honorable mentions include:

  • Li Young Lee’s “A Story”
  • Robert Penn Warren’s “True Love”
  • Lucille Clifton’s “mulberry fields”
  • Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song”
  • William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say”
  • Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son”

The links included in this post are to some of the lessons I’ve created for my Teachers Pay Teachers store. You can also buy a growing bundle of all of my AP Lit poem studies by clicking here. To learn more about how I use poetry on a regular basis in AP Lit, check out this blog post.

These are just my top 10 poems to teach in AP Lit. Drop me a line in the comments and let me know what yours are!

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links that earn me a small commission, at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products that I personally use and love, or think my readers will find useful.

Reflections and Insights From the 2018 AP Lit Reading


Last week I spent seven days in Kansas City grading 1325 essays in a giant room that was too cold and filled with over a thousand tired educators. And it was an amazingly wonderful experience.

This is my fifth time scoring AP Lit essays, but I’ve had to miss a few years in the past due to pregnancies and international student trips. While it wasn’t my first year scoring, it was my first year on the prose passage, notoriously known among my students as my least favorite question. Even though I moaned (and groaned and whined) when I saw the big “QUESTION 2” next to my name, the experience was worth it, as I have now scored all three AP Lit questions and feel much more well-rounded in my instruction of AP Lit (going on year 13 now!).

In the interest of being concise, here are some takeaways from this past year’s scoring, plus some that I’ve learned over the years at the scoring table.

  1. This is a big one. CollegeBoard officially announced that they are doing away with the Poetry Compare/Contrast question. In context, the poetry question (Question 1) occasionally takes the form of a compare/contrast question rather than an analysis of a single poem. They haven’t used that format in several years, leading teachers to ask each year if they were ever going to go back to the Compare/Contrast format. This year they officially announced that they are discontinuing that type of essay prompt. I will continue to teach this strategy in my class as I find it valuable, but I’m relieved that I can tell my students with certainty which kind of question they can anticipate for the often-dreaded poetry essay.
  2. CollegeBoard has also hinted that previous questions from the past could be used again in a particular form. While the wording may change, higher-ups reminded teachers this year that many valuable themes were touched on in previous years (even back to the 80’s and 90’s), and some of those themes could be re-visited in future questions. My takeaway for you is that if you aren’t studying previous years open-ended questions in your AP classes, you absolutely need to do so next year. These questions make excellent writing prompts for on-demand essays or larger writing assignments, and they are invaluable for preparing students for question 3.
  3. Students need more help understanding diction and syntax. In my years at the poetry table, I learned quickly that the average AP Lit student does not know how to analyze diction. The sentence, “This poem utilizes diction” is essentially saying, “This poem uses words” (groundbreaking!). But this year in the prose question, I learned that the same is true of syntax. To say that a passage uses syntax is saying that it uses words…that are arranged in a certain way (scandalous!). When teaching these words in your classes, make sure you provide strong examples of how to write about diction and syntax properly, and teach students when it is worth analyzing these terms in the first place.
  4. Too many students feel crippled by the suggested titles in Question 3. Even though the prompt tells students that they can write about any title “of literary merit,” too many students feel obligated to use a title from the list. I even saw essays where students wrote, “I didn’t read any of these books. Sorry!” as their entire response. Please remind students that they do not need to feel obligated to choose from the list. This year’s suggested list of titles included Frankenstein, which Question 3 readers told me was the overwhelmingly popular choice. One ventured to say that she believed 20% of the essays for question 3 were about Frankenstein. This means that a well-written essay that is not about Frankenstein is automatically a welcome sight in the eyes of the reader, who is undoubtedly getting tired of that text (sorry, Mary Shelley). Sometimes thinking outside the box is a good strategy.
  5. Students don’t have to write about a “classic,” but they probably should. There is an ongoing debate on what kinds of books students should write about for Question 3’s open-ended question. Some say that any book (or essay, short story, or even movie) should be given a fair chance, but other readers are more old-school and are undoubtedly biased towards literary classics or newer texts that have won awards (such as the Pulitzer). When it comes to making this decision, I tell students that it is dealer’s choice. More and more readers are being brought in every year and being trained to look at the question in an unbiased way, but it is still a gamble in the end.
  6. Urge students away from writing about books in a series. Similar to choosing an oddball book, there is also an argument about analyzing books in a series, such as The Lord of the Rings series. In my year at Question 3 we had a prompt about a deceptive character and I read an excellent essay analyzing Snape from the Harry Potter series. While the essay was quite good (I believe it earned a 7), it could not possibly get to a 9, because who could properly analyze the entirety of Snape’s deceptiveness in 2 hours, let alone 2 days? The problem with analyzing a series is that there is almost always too much material to sift through, unless you analyze a fringe character.
  7. Poetry needs to be studied in an ongoing way, not as a unit. In my first years as an AP teacher, I taught two poetry units, one called “Intro to Poetry” and the second called “Advanced Poetry.” In each unit we studied poems and wrote about them, both in shortened and long paper formats. And despite my hard work, year after year my students reported feeling least confident about the poetry essay. Furthermore, my end-of-year surveys told me that they needed more work in poetry. Finally I buckled down over a summer and re-read Perinne’s Sound and Sense, as well as several AP Lit blogs, and picked a poem for every week of the year. And every week we studied that poem in class. This was done in addition to our two stand-alone poetry units. Since I’ve made that change my students have felt much more confident for Question 1, and I’ve seen an overall improvement in how they analyze poetry in writing.
  8. Lastly, please know that you AP and English teachers are appreciated. About 50% of the AP readers are college professors, and I worried in my first year at the reading that all I would hear was how we high school teachers didn’t do enough to prepare students for college-level writing. Instead, quite the opposite was true. Everyone was incredibly kind to me, and each year they ask high school teachers to stand and be recognized for our work and sacrifices in high school classrooms. More importantly, each day the readers are reminded that the essays we encounter “belong to some teacher’s student, and some parent’s child.” The leaders remind us that essays scored on day 6 deserve just as much fresh attention as those scored on day 1. Frequent breaks are allowed and plenty of free coffee and snacks are given out to keep us focused. We do everything we can to honor your hard work and give each student’s essay a fair shot.

This year’s reading was incredibly fun, as it was my first year scoring since our subject moved to Kansas City. Here are a few pictures from the trip (taken from outside the scoring room, as there are strict regulations on taking photos around official essays or scoring materials).

This is a rare plea for readership, but please pass this information on to any AP Lit teacher you know, as this information is very valuable for year-long planning. Many AP teachers have no idea how the essays they teach are even scored, which I believe is incredibly unfair. I love to share the information that I am permitted to pass on!

Final news: I’ve created a professional Instagram at aplitandmore, so please follow me for updates on TpT products, my professional life, and the inside track on future TpT sales and discounts!