Closer Readings Commentary

Harrowing Halloween: Spooky, Supernatural, and Suspenseful

A "witch's house" in Maine.
Photo caption

A "witch's house" in Maine.

School is in full swing, the leaves are changing, and temperatures are falling — all indications that autumn is here. What better way to celebrate October — punctuated by Halloween's ghost stories, pumpkins, monsters, and costumes — than with EDSITEment's lesson plans and educational websites? Give your students a treat and explore the ghostly historical and the ghoulishly dramatic with a variety of online resources.

Frankenstein and the Gothic Heritage

One of the most well known creatures of horror is the monster of Frankenstein. While often portrayed as a lumbering creature with outstretched arms, Mary Shelley’s scarred monster became both physically and intellectually superior to his creator, Victor Frankenstein. Shelley's novel Frankenstein, or A Modern Prometheus, written in 1818, warned against hubris in its portrayal of a battle of wills between a scientist and his creation that stretched from Europe to the depths of the Arctic. Learn more about this foundational gothic novel and the rest of the genre with EDSITEment's lesson Tales of the Supernatural. The lesson not only explores Shelley's Frankenstein by drawing on resources available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Romantic Circles, but also leads students to explore the subsequent gothic heritage in America through such writers as Nathanial Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe and Bierce

To continue the horror, EDSITEment has two other lesson plans about Poe that are suitable for grades 9-12: Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Narrator and Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Biographers. Still students' hearts through a close reading of Poe's “The Tell-Tale Heart” or hold a ghastly masquerade with his “The Masque of the Red Death.” Both stories (and more) are available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource American Studies at the University of Virginia and are explored in the lessons listed above.

Sleepy Hollow and Dragons

Of course, few tremble at the knees as well as Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Many students are familiar with Tim Burton's film version or the Disney rendition of the story, but there are some surprising differences between the Hollywood adaptations and Irving's original tale. In EDSITEment's lesson The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, students analyze the characterization of Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones and seek to answer an enduring literary mystery: what happened to Ichabod Crane?

If the Headless Horseman makes you squeamish, look for less ghoulish creatures in the EDSITEment lesson Unicorns, Dragons, and Other Magical Creatures, suitable for students in the K-2 range. By taking advantage of children's curiosity about fantastic creatures, this lesson helps them examine the many cultural meanings embedded in make-believe creatures. Of course, children dress as all types of creatures and in all sorts of costumes for Halloween. Since wearing a mask is often part of this process, take the opportunity to explore with students how masks work in cultures beyond our own. The EDSITEment lesson The Meaning Behind the Mask helps younger students (grades K-2) explore the cultural significance of masks. After recalling some of the contexts in which masks are worn in the United States, students look at images of African masks online and investigate the role masks play in various African cultures. By reading several folktales, students will explore how storytelling is used along with masks and costumes to preserve and pass on the society's values, morals, religion, and traditional and historical heritage. The EDSITEment lesson What Masks Reveal extends this exploration for students in grades 6-8, adding masks from Puerto Rico and the Yup'ik people of Alaska to the lesson.

Macbeth and Witches

Entice your older students with a classic tale of temptation and murder. Shakespeare's Macbeth functions as a great Halloween story, containing all of the requisite elements: intrigue, dark castles, witches, and ghosts. EDSITEment's lesson Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fear and the “Dagger of the Mind“ helps students understand how Shakespeare's language dramatizes fear. Use this lesson as a precursor to Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fear and the Motives of Evil, another EDSITEment lesson that delves more deeply into the concept of fear by using online search tools and concordances to navigate specific themes within the play. By doing so, students learn the particular ways that Shakespeare’s language helps shape the tone of fear and dread. Such discussion also leads to inquiries into the role of the supernatural in Macbeth; as an extending exercise, students are encouraged to investigate the role of the witches—the Weird Sisters—in the play by researching the cultural significance of witches in the 17th century.

Of course, few tales of witchcraft hold as much power in the popular imagination as the Salem witch trials, dramatized by Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible. In the EDSITEment lesson Dramatizing History in Arthur Miller's “The Crucible,” students in 9th to 12th grade explore how Miller interpreted the facts of the witch trials and successfully dramatized them. Drawing on sources such as the EDSITEment-reviewed website Witchcraft in a Salem Village, students further examine the relationship between history and art by researching historical documents, learning about the religious and cultural life of the Puritans, and developing a close reading of the play.