On Hallowe’en the thing
you must do
Is pretend that nothing
can frighten you
An’ if something scares you
and you want to run
Jus’ let on like
it’s Hallowe’en fun.
~from an early nineteenth century Halloween postcard
The school halls were filled Friday with students in costumes ranging from the ghoulish, to the humorous, to the just plain bizarre. The winner of the costume contest, sponsored by the French club, was the Jolly Green Giant. When not scraping the ceiling and wearing leafy green, he’s known as sophomore Dillon Renaud. I must say, this giant demonstrated quite a bit of talent while ducking under door frames and fitting into his student desk wearing stilts.
For the week of Halloween, I decided to share with the sophomores some funny and frightful short stories. We started off by reading a portion of “Us and Them,” an essay by humorist David Sedaris, from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Sedaris tells about his neighbors, the Tomkeys, who have the gall to go trick-or-treating on November 1st.
“Asking for candy on Halloween was called trick-or-treating,” says Sedaris, “but asking for candy on November first was called begging, and it made people uncomfortable.” David has his candy sorted into piles, with the chocolate ranked the highest, despite the fact that it gives him excruciating headaches. When David’s mom expects him to share some of his hard earned candy with the Tomkeys, he shoves it into his mouth and breaks the candy necklaces and wax lips.
Many of us can relate to sorting our candy into piles and not wanting to share. I would barter with my sister and brother, the rare full-sized candy bar having premium value. We always ended up with an orange and black pile that had no trade value — those icky Mary Jane Peanut Butter Kisses. Those are the ones we willingly passed along to our parents.
Next in class, we read W.W. Jacob’s classic horror tale “The Monkey’s Paw.” Mr. White fetches the paw from a fireplace after he hears that the man who holds it will be granted three wishes. He’s warned not to mess with fate, but wishes for 200 pounds anyways. At first, the students say they haven’t read this story, but soon it seems familiar.
After Mr. White’s son dies at work and the family is compensated 200 pounds, the students predict that the next wish will be to bring him back to life. Some find the ending eerie while others are disappointed that they don’t get the blood and guts they see in today’s horror flicks. I tell them if they want a similar story with the gore to read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.
The students talk about what they would wish for if they could have anything they want. Of course, they always say they would wish for unlimited wishes. I laughed at the student who said he’d wish for unlimited Ramen Noodles. Seriously? Ramen Noodles is the last food I would eat if I could have anything.
I asked the students to each create a poster, a warning label listing the consequences for wishing on the paw. I like to display student artwork on the classroom walls, and it is good timing with parent teacher conferences in two weeks.
Some years when I’ve asked students to make posters, they’ve slapped something together without really considering what it actually would look like posted on a wall. I encourage them to include interesting shapes, a variety color, creative designs and thoughtful wording. When making posters, students should show their individuality. Even for those who aren’t the most talented sketchers, I’d rather see original artwork than clipart printed off a computer. This year I said that the student with the best poster in each class period would win a special Halloween treat.
Meanwhile, I set out to create “monkey paw” goody bags for the contest winners. Using clear food preparation gloves as the holders, I put candy corn in each finger tip, put a string of licorice down each finger, then filled the gloves with malted milk balls. As final touches, I decorated the gloves with Halloween garland and added colorful plastic spider rings. Since I was asking students to use their imaginations, I figured that I should use mine too. Congratulations to the winning artists: Laura Thompson, Jessie Smith, Katherine Scott, Daabii Reinhardt and Steven Uhlbeck.
In their posters, I appreciate the creative details. Jessie, for example, fashioned the consequences into a poem and burned the edges of the paper. Steven’s stood out because he drew his monkey paw in a domed glass case. The small doorway in the background reads, “Thanks for visiting the W.W. Jacobs Museum.” My favorite touch, though, is in the sideways gravestone-shaped hole in the “R” of “Warning.” Inside of that space, Steven wrote, “Here Lies You.” Love it!
Another short story that we read is Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” Students remember getting spooked in eighth grade when reading Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart,” That year, they saw our high school drama department’s production of “Tell-Tale.” Some students also remember reading Poe’s rhythmical poem “The Raven.” They know that Poe died destitute, and they recall that he was married to Virginia, his young cousin. The students didn’t know that a mysterious visitor showed up at Poe’s gravesite each year on Poe’s birthday for almost 60 years with three roses and a bottle of cognac. This is the first year that the Poe Toaster didn’t show up. It is supposed that the visits ended for good last year with the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth.
When reading “The Masque of the Red Death,” I find that many tenth graders have difficulty with the vocabulary. We stop to discuss words such as “august” and “disapprobation.” I recognize that we need to keep building their vocabularies so that they can read through these texts with more ease. The students who are avid readers have much less difficulty, and a few enjoy reading their own Poe anthologies at home. I remember being a Poe fan in high school. My dad had brought home a book for me about Poe’s life. I was fascinated by his dark stories and imitated his gothic style in some of my own writing.
On Friday, we read William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” This story seriously creeped me out when I was in tenth grade. I remember my English teacher explaining one of the vocabulary words from that story. When the town ladies peek into Miss Emily’s house for the first time in ten years, they have “hushed, sibilant voices.” The ladies also are described as “sibilant and macabre.” My teacher said that “sibilant” denotes a hissing sound, and I remember thinking of the ladies as snakes. Words, both in their meanings and their sounds, can add so much to a text when the reader uses imagination in interpreting them. It’s a challenge to get students to love words.
“A Rose for Emily” still haunts me. When the long strand of silver hair is found next to Homer Barron’s corpse and you realize that Miss Emily has been lying in bed with him, how can you not shudder? While most of the students were “eewwing” and processing their revelations about the story, one girl in second hour said, “Am I the only one not affected by this?” We all have different tolerance levels for fear and disgust.
In sixth hour, a student dressed as a scary clown poked his head into our classroom. One girl started screaming as though the clown were wielding a butcher’s knife. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, “Where there is no imagination there is no horror.” Well, these short stories and the students’ Halloween spirit sparked a lot of imagination, so I guess that scream with the subsequent laughs were a good way to end a creepy week.
Happy Halloween to all! And to any students who might be reading this … if you go trick or treating, remember that you could always give your teacher a piece of candy on Monday. Milk Duds are my favorite, but I’ve even acquired a taste for those Mary Jane Peanut Butter Kisses [wink wink]
Note: I would love to hear back from readers…What are your favorite scary stories, poems, or lesson plans? What ideas do you have for encouraging creativity and imagination in the classroom?