Standard Lesson

Ghosts and Fear in Language Arts: Exploring the Ways Writers Scare Readers

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Four 50-minute sessions
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What is scary, and why does it fascinate us? How do writers and storytellers scare us? This lesson plan invites students to answer these questions by exploring their own scary stories and scary short stories and books. The lesson culminates in a Fright Fair, where students share scary projects that they have created, including posters, multimedia projects, and creative writing.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

In teaching writing, we are always looking for interesting ways to help our students look at the effect writing has on a reader and how that effect is created. What better way to do this than through a lesson where the content focuses on the scary, while the skills focus on helping students find ways to improve their writing?

While exploring the ways that writers scare readers, this lesson plan subtly introduces basic audience awareness. In writing narratives, writers must work to imagine the reader and fit the story to the reader's questions and interests. This lesson plan brings the reader's needs into focus by talking about how a writer can scare a reader. Without mentioning the term audience awareness, then, the teacher can invite students to be explicitly aware of their audience.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • A book of scary, suspenseful short stories such as one of the following:

    • Short Circuits: Thirteen Shocking Shocking Stories by Outstanding Writers for Young Adults edited by Don Gallo (1992, Delacorte)

    • A Haunt of Ghosts, stories by Aidan Chambers and others (1987, Harper & Row)

    • A Nightmare's Dozen: Stories from the Dark edited by Michael Stearns (1999, Laurel Leaf)

    • Ask the Bones: Scary Stories from Around the World edited by Arielle North Olson (2002, Puffin)

    • The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror edited by Stephen Jones (2002, Carroll & Graf)

    • The Campfire Collection: Spine-Tingling Tales to Tell in the Dark edited by Eric Martin (2000, Chronicle Books)

  • Scary, suspenseful books for students to examine more closely. Books by such authors as R. L. Stine, Jane Yolen, Christopher Pike, Caroline Cooney, Jay Bennett, Stephen King, and Diane Hoh will work well for this project. ALA's What Teens Want (in the library, that is) and Horror Fiction for Young Adults from Monster Librarian are useful resources for finding appropriate horror books. Alternatively, students can go to the library to select a book for this project.

  • Chart paper, overhead projector, or LCD projector.

  • General classroom supplies—markers, poster paper, chart paper, and so forth to be used as students work on their Fright Fair Projects. The specific supplies you provide will depend upon the amount of time students spend in class (versus at home) working on their projects as well as the options that you suggest for the project (e.g., if students can produce a video for the project, they'll need access to video recording equipment).




  1. Select scary short stories from an anthology to share with the class.
  2. If you prefer, you can kick off the lesson by asking students to share stories they have heard about unexplained incidents or the appearance of ghosts. Usually students will share stories of close relatives who had a recently deceased family member appear to them a few days after the death, or they may know of instances of objects moving in a room or doors opening and closing mysteriously or sites at which strange things happen. When the story sharing is finished, have students jot down in their journal or notebook a few words about the stories they found the most intriguing or the scariest. This may provide them with topics or ideas for their own stories later. The Teaching the Epic through Ghost Stories lesson plan also provides resources that you can use to introduce this activity.
  3. Make copies of the Fright Fair Projects handout and the "Eek! Why we love to scare ourselves silly" article for each student.
  4. Before students take part in the Fright Fair, make arrangements for other students meeting at the same time as your class to visit.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • explore the literary features that writers use in creating scary, suspenseful texts.

  • write texts that employ suspenseful features.

  • develop audience awareness techniques and use that knowledge to shape their writing.

  • create original projects that focus on the literary features and content area covered in the lesson.

Session One

  1. After getting the students' interest, bring in a collection of scary short stories such as Short Circuits: Thirteen Shocking Shocking Stories by Outstanding Writers for Young Adults edited by Don Gallo (1992, New York: Delacorte) A Haunt of Ghosts, stories by Aidan Chambers and others (1987, New York: Harper & Row), or one of the other collections listed above. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe will also work well.
  2. Choose several stories to read aloud to your class.
  3. Have students address such questions as: what does each main character fear the most? What can we learn about people and human nature by locating the fears of characters?  Students can write their thoughts about these questions in their journals or notebooks.
  4. Ask students to rank the stories you choose by how scary they are (in their journals or notebooks). A four-star rating would mean extremely scary while a one-star rating would indicate that it didn't scare the reader very much.
  5. As the students rank the stories, have them list the things they considered scary about the story.
  6. After the readings and ranking are complete, students work in groups to generate a list of all the elements they found scary in the stories.
  7. As groups share their findings with the whole class, write the list down on chart paper so it can be posted in the room and referred to in later sessions.

Session Two

  1. Give each student a copy of the article "Eek! Why we love to scare ourselves silly."  As students read the article, have them take notes in their journal or notebook about how they think writers may be able to create these effects in their writing.  Telll students that they will revisit this idea at the end of the session.
  2. Explain to students that they will each examine one scary novel, reading to find the scary scenes. Students can choose from such authors as R. L. Stine, Jane Yolen, Christopher Pike, Caroline Cooney, Jay Bennett, Stephen King, and Diane Hoh. Students will probably be aware of other writers they could use.

  3. Once they select a book, they can either skim it or read the book until they locate a very scary scene.

  4. After selecting a scary scene students are asked to analyze it in terms of structure and language so they can get an inside look at the craft of writing scary stories. The following questions can guide their analysis:

    • What are the sentence constructions like? Are clauses used? Sentence length?

    • What verb tenses are used? Are they active or passive?

    • Is repetition used? What effect does all this have?

    • What about the scene makes it scary?

    • Are the characters in control? What does the author do to make them appear helpless?

    • Does he or she talk about what is done TO the character?
  5. Students are usually more willing to look at highly interesting pieces in terms of the craft of writing than they are to look at such things out of a context. This work will be hard for students to do if they are doing it for the first time. Be patient and give them all the help you can.
  6. Ask students to return to their thoughts and notes about the "Eek! Why we love to scare ourselves silly" article.  They should relate the feelings discussed in the article to the scary stories they read and questions they thought about while analyzing the stories.  Did the authors succeed at creating the "scare" in readers?  Discuss students' thoughts on how the authors' craft helped create the effects that the article discussed.
  7. Keep emphasizing that they are trying to break the code of scary or horror writing so that they can learn to do it effectively. If students struggle too much, it can help to duplicate one scary scene or chapter and have the whole class work on it together, recording their responses on the overhead so each student can see what "tricks" or structures an author uses to create the effect he or she wants. This list can be recorded on chart paper called the "Craft of Scary Writing—Tips and Techniques."

Session Three

  1. Now that students have talked about scary incidents they are aware of, heard scary stories, and analyzed how writers make stories scary, they should be ready to think about their own history of being scared.
  2. Asking students to share all the things they remember being afraid of or fearful of when they were little will bring forth a gush of responses. They love to share memories like this partly because they see it as evidence that they have really grown past these fears. As students share their fears, create another list on chart paper of all of their suggestions. These will usually include such things as being afraid of: the dark, monsters, large animals, big people, getting in trouble, etc.
  3. Ask students to create a timeline using the Timeline Student Interactive that illustrates all the things they were afraid of including what they fear today (disapproval, low grades, roller coasters, etc.). For year one they will probably have to ask their parents or siblings of what they were afraid. Timelines for that first year might include fear of strangers, fear of getting shots at the doctors, and fear of stuffed animals. The next few years will probably require input from the family to complete. Students might find out they were afraid to sit on the grass, to leave their mother, to go on kiddie swings. Once they get to the fourth or fifth year of the timeline, they will probably remember what terrified them. If they can do so, they can create a picture to represent each fear so others can see at a glance what form fear took for them.
  4. After sharing timelines and fears, students are then asked to select one of the items on the timeline to write a personal narrative in their writer's notebooks, working to include as many techniques (using the list the class created) as they can that will produce scary writing. Alternately, students can work collaboratively to create the scariest story they possibly can. Have them begin by brainstorming a list of scary places (cemetery, inside a store closed for the night, etc.), scary characters, scary actions, unusual weapons (golf club, knitting needle, meat cleaver), and an unexplained detail (bloodstain, deep scratches on the wall). After lists have been created, students create scary stories using at least one entry for each category in their story. When groups have completed their stories, create a scary atmosphere in which they can read the stories to the class.
  5. Following these activities, students will probably be in the mood to explore the ideas surrounding fears and scary things. Give students a chance to brainstorm topics they would like to know more about or provide them with a list of possible projects like the one below.
  6. Explain to them that they will participate in a Fright Fair in which projects will be shared with other English classes that meet the same hour. Encourage them to keep the focus on projects that will be of interest to others. If you desire, you an pass out a list of possible Fright Fair Projects. Written and artistic projects could be summarized and displayed while the rest of the projects could be performed or presented. Students who greatly fear getting up in front of others could be given the option of being videotaped in private with the tape being played during the Fright Fair.

Session Four

  1. Give students 5 minutes to set up their projects to share with other students.
  2. As students from other classes arrive to tour the Fright Fair, welcome them to the class. Allow students from your class the opportunity to explore one another's projects as well.
  3. Circulate among students, providing them help as needed and offering supportive commentary.
  4. Once everyone has had a chance to visit your Fright Fair, encourage students to share their reactions: what worked well? what was surprising? which projects were the scariest?


  • Each student creates an entry for a classroom encyclopedia about ghosts and the supernatural. First students brainstorm all the concepts they can think of that would be part of an encyclopedia, then each students selects a topic. Research is done and is written up in the format of an encyclopedia entry. This assignment gives the class an opportunity to examine the language and style that encyclopedia entries are written in.

  • Students can write in their writers' notebooks about experiences they've had that are unexplainable.

  • If students could be invisible like a ghost, to what kinds of places would they want to go? What kinds of information would they want to get? Who would they want to know more about? Have students respond to these questions in their writers' notebooks. They might want to consider visiting a famous person for a day as a ghost and see what an ordinary life that person has.

  • How would you react if a ghost appeared? Create that story.

  • Create a ghost dictionary. Brainstorm words that would be in a ghost's dictionary and then follow the format for a dictionary entry but write the definitions from the point of view of a ghost. Example: cemetery—a place I go when I want to see my friends.

  • Using the timelines that the class created, make a list of all the things people are commonly afraid of. Then have students create categories that the fears fall into, such as fears of the unknown, physical fears, social fears, etc. On the list, indicate which category each fear belongs to. Students can then decide which fears are most likely to be experienced by people of different age groups. What do little children mainly fear? What are the main teen fears? What about adult fears? fears of the elderly? Students could conduct surveys to be passed out to different age groups which will locate fears and possible reasons for fears. Students could then be asked to either write a short story illustrating what it is like to have a particular fear at a particular age, create skits illustrating child, teen, or adult fears, write pamphlets on a specific fear for a specific age which includes what that age group says about the issue as well as the advice other groups would give about that fear, or write and enact a talk show in which fears from one age group are discussed from several points of view.

  • Interest can be created by looking at the craft of writing a scary poem if students are given copies of some of Jack Prelutsky's poems, especially from the collections called The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight (1980, New York: Greenwillow) and Nightmares (1976, New York: Greenwillow). Ask students to consider how the verbs, the nouns, the descriptive words, the long, drawn out consonants and vowels (the baleful banshee), or the word choice contribute to making the poem scary. What about the rhyming pattern? the alliteration? the repetition? Because these poems are so much fun to read and so scary, students can usually be persuaded to look at how Prelutsky does it. As a follow-up activity, have students create scary poems of their own using Prelutsky's techniques. So as the month of ghosts, goblins, and witches approaches, use student interest in ghostly themes to your advantage as a teacher and to their advantage as learners.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Of course when students complete projects and perform them or share them in some way, we have to assess them. But don’t let this daunt you. As students begin working on their projects, have them help you create a rubric that the performance or presentation would be evaluated on. They might want to include whether or not the information or presentation had startling or frightening aspects since everyone is working to be able to create or present that effect. Other aspects that could be included in the rubric include whether or not there was sufficient information and ideas presented. Also, what resources were used?

Aside from a presentation rubric you can ask each student to provide a paper called “My Journey to the Fright Fair” in which they discuss the topics they considered, how they went about getting information or creating projects, dead ends they ran into, what worked and what didn’t, information or ideas they didn’t use and why, and what they learned. Other assessment pieces can be based on teacher observation, student group work responses, and/or spectator evaluation of presentations.