Looking for ways to captivate your middle school students? Don’t miss this step-by-step guide on teaching the elements of horror, guaranteed to engage your students with spine-tingling lessons and activities!
As soon as September strikes, I’m itching to submerge myself in the spooky season. Between baking pumpkin bread, cranking my fall playlists, and cueing up my favorite scary movies, you can be sure I’m finding a way to incorporate all the seasonal things into my life – and my lesson plans, too! And the best part is that as we close in on October, my students match this energy because they love to explore spooky and scary things, too.
The so-called spooky season aligns with the tail end of my Elements of Fiction unit. Now that my students are masters of the elements of a short story, I like to squeeze in a mini-unit on the Elements of Horror and take advantage of the powerful instructional window in which I can layer literary devices with a scary short story (or two or three).
And while this unit is definitely a ringer for the spooky season, it’s also a genre study that packs a punch any time of the year! Consider the moments during your school year when students might need something to really grab their attention. Leading up to extended breaks and as the school year winds down are two other times when I might choose to deliver this series of lessons about the elements of horror.
If this sounds like the ticket to engagement you’ve been looking for, keep reading to see my step-by-step guide to teaching the elements of horror so that you can do the same in your classroom, much to the delight of your students, at any time of the school year!
DAY One: Introduce the Elements of Horror
Consider starting the first day with the lights off, the windows covered, and sinister music playing. Then, provide students with a definition of horror:
Horror is a genre that seeks to scare, startle, shock, and repulse the audience. It develops an atmosphere of terror.
Before jumping into the meat of the genre, I show students the short Pixar film Alma to think about what the creator has done to scare, shock, or startle them. We discuss what they notice and then put a name on it.
First and foremost, we take a birds-eye look at the genre. There are a few horror subgenres, so I like to introduce students to the different branches: gothic, supernatural, and non-supernatural.
In typical doodle-note style, we record the differences between the three: gothic combines horror and Romanticism, supernatural includes paranormal elements such as ghosts or zombies, and non-supernatural is, as the name suggests, without paranormal elements; instead, it relies on elements from horror along with other genres such as science fiction.
Then, we put a name to the five literary elements that are critical to horror:
PART Two: EXPLORING THE ELEMENT OF Fear
Once students have a broad understanding of the genre, we jump into the first element of horror: fear.
First, we define fear as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that something is dangerous, painful, or threatening.
Students should understand that authors of horror unearth their reader’s nightmares and anxieties to push the limits of human emotion and fear.
I share with them the following excerpt from Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn:
“What’s this?” I picked up a round object from a heap of rubble. When I realized what sort of eyes I was staring into, I recoiled in horror and hurled the thing into the darkness. I heard it clatter against something unseen and pulled Heather close to me, feeling her body tremble against mine.
“What was it, Molly?” she whispered.
“A skull,” I gasped. “It was a human skull! I saw its eyes!”
We discuss what human fears Hahn is addressing, and then we watch the Boggart Scene from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I invite students to consider each character’s fears. Afterward, we think-pair-share to generate a micro-list of common fears that authors might seek to unearth.
Afterward, with any remaining time, I disperse students to read a variety of short, spooky passages on their own or with a friend. I want them to identify what fear the author is addressing and why it is effective. I created my own passages for this piece, but you could easily snag a few from your own favorite short stories or generate a few using AI.
DAY TWO: EXPLORING THE ROLE OF THE Setting
At the start of the second day, we jump into the critical role that setting plays in a horror story. I have students brainstorm traditional settings of horror stories: old houses, abandoned castles, hospitals, schools, cellars, dark forests, basements, attics, etc.
If students need some prompting, provide them with some images that can help. Online stock image sites such as Pexels, Unsplash, or Pixabay will have a wide variety of options; you could even use the search terms “terrifying locations” or “scary settings” to find appropriate images.
It’s important that students are thinking not just about place but about time and mood, too. So we brainstorm a list of common moods in horror stories, like suspenseful, tense, hostile, brooding, melancholic, restless, etc.
We take a look at a couple of examples in which the author has used specific language to build a terrifying place, like this one:
It’s dark and musty, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up when you enter. It’s full of old furniture and boxes, and you can’t help but wonder what’s inside. The floor creaks with every step, and the dust makes you sneeze. You’re half-afraid that something will jump out at you, and you can’t help but think about all the horror movies you’ve seen where someone is killed in an attic. But you keep going because you’re curious to see what’s at the top of the stairs. And that’s when you see it…
Then, I launch students into a creative writing task.
Students must create a setting like the one above where something frightening has happened or will happen soon. I encourage them to use sensory language and imagery to establish a dark mood and bring their reader into the story.
DAY THREE: EXPLORING THE ELEMENT OF Suspense
Suspense is the feeling of excitement and uncertainty about what might happen. It is one of the most important elements of horror, and authors use a variety of techniques in order to build suspense and keep readers on the edge of their seats.
I show students the following excerpt, and we discuss how the author uses suspense to build tension:
She had always been afraid of heights. As a child, she would never go near the edge of the roof. Even now, as an adult, she avoided looking out windows on high floors and climbing to the top of tall buildings. But there was something about this cliff that called to her. Perhaps it was the view, or the sense of adventure. Whatever the reason, she found herself drawn to the edge.
She inched closer and closer, until her toes were hanging over the edge. She could feel her heart racing as she looked down at the ground far below. And then, without warning, her foot slipped.
Then, we watch this Ted-ED video that names five strategies writers employ to build suspense: limited point of view, setting and imagery, specific style and form including pacing, and the inclusion of both dramatic irony and cliffhangers.
To close out this element, I give students a few simple sentences, such as “It was a dark and stormy night,” and I invite them to revise it and add suspense using one of the abovementioned strategies. Students can continue the storyline and build familiarity with the different suspense techniques with a few short prompts.
DAY FOUR: EXPLORING Foreshadowing & Mystery
Foreshadowing is another way authors build suspense for their readers. It gives the reader hints at what might happen later in a story through imagery, language, and/or symbolism.
We discuss how simple foreshadowing can be – like a character feeling uneasy while in the presence of a certain someone – or how it can be symbolic, like storm clouds, rain, or wind.
I like to show students a scene from The Incredibles and point out how the author foreshadows the resolution of the conflict.
One important thing for students to understand about foreshadowing is that their suspicions usually aren’t confirmed until the end of the story. Foreshadowing is the inclusion of breadcrumbs throughout the story that lead to a sense of “A-Ha!” at the end.
Alternatively, mystery is the absence of information – something strange or unknown that hasn’t been explained or understood yet.
To close out our final elements, we watch Alma one more time. This time, we consider how the author used or developed each individual element of horror.
DAY FIVE: Wrap Up the Elements of Horror
On the final day, before jumping into a short horror text, I like to show a movie like Coraline and have students review how all five elements are present and whether they are effective. Once we speak the same language regarding horror, it’s time to jump into analyzing a scary short story like The Landlady, The Elevator, or even The Veldt.
I hope this step-by-step guide helps you introduce the elements of horror in an unforgettable way this year. If you’re looking for ready-to-use resources to make these mini-lessons easy and pain-free, click here to check out mine.