Using Horror Writing Prompts for Middle Schoolers

middle schooler reading horror novel

‘Tis the season of spookiness. As Halloween approaches and days wane into darkness, people everywhere are embracing their desire to be scared. Horror movies fill the theaters, collections of ghost stories occupy shelf space, and almost everyone with a Netflix account is eagerly anticipating the second season of Stranger Things.  It is a time when we peek into the shadowy corners of our closet, timidly peer under our bed, and take a hard look into the darkest corners of our souls.  For some middle schoolers at Arthur Morgan School, however, it’s just another Tuesday.

Horror can be Inspiring for Middle Schoolers

In one Language Arts class, students use horror to learn and practice writing. They read authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Tim O’Brian, and Edgar Allen Poe. They participate in suspense oriented activities that inspire vivid descriptions and compelling narratives. They discuss what makes the horror genre so attractive to people, and as they understand the art form better, they in turn gain a better understanding of  themselves.

stack of horror novelsGore and horror are common fascinations for middle schoolers.  Hearing daily news of war, mass shootings, and hate crimes, they develop a natural curiosity toward death and violence.  They ask repeated “what if” questions as they imagine deathly scenarios; they act out violent scenes in their play; and they constantly seek suspense in their movies, stories, and video games.

Horror is Developmentally Appropriate for Middle Schoolers

Some people worry that this increased interest in violence is a sign of our culture’s degrading values, but nothing could be further from the truth. Pick up a copy of some unedited Grimm’s fairy tales and you will see that young people’s fascination with horror is nothing new. Violence provokes fear and in a world where most of our fears are abated by modern securities, fiction remains one of the few inspirations for it.

Middle schoolers want to understand and overcome their fears. By experiencing them in a fictional setting, they can experience the emotions while still feeling safe. H.P. Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form.”

Horror Brings up Important Questions for Middle Schoolers

Horror decorated classroom with middle schoolers writing and reading

AMS’s middle schoolers seem to agree with Lovecraft.  Haven, an eighth grader, describes gore as way of “seeing death” which he hasn’t really experienced before. He was struck by his conflicting attraction and repulsion to it. Autumn, a ninth grader, talked about the ways subtle amounts of gore can sometimes be more powerful when there is pretense and build up to not wanting someone to be hurt. The students recognize that what horror evokes is not a delight in violence, but a deeper understanding of how they understand life and death.

Rebecca Snavely, teacher of the class she affectionately calls “The Monster Ate my Homework,” believes that horror is a natural teaching tool for middle schoolers. “Looking at personal fears and horror through creative writing can be both a powerful source of inspiration for good writing, and a way for the students to grow in themselves. A genre with this much emotional tooth opens the door for students to be more invested in wanting to write well and read more. To work with fear, the students are also challenged to work with pacing suspense, humor, imagining the strange, embracing the unknown, and building confidence in themselves.

They are naturally fascinated with this topic in the way it embraces all the weirdness they can muster and polishes it into something grotesquely great.”

Horror Makes for Inspiring Writing Prompts

students applying horror make up on staff member

For one of the activities in Rebecca’s class, the student used special effects to simulate gore and death.  Using oatmeal, flour, paper towels, red fabric, rubber bands, and ketchup, they turned a fellow staff member into a mutilated corpse.  They experimented with imagining different injuries and how they would appear physically on the body.  Then they took up their  pens and wrote descriptions of the scene they created.  The results were inspiring.  Students who usually feel ambivalent toward writing were suddenly excited to describe what they created.

Teaching middle schoolers often means trying to engage them on topics while pushing them to look inwardly and think for themselves.  Horror makes a perfect tool for it.  Instead of fearing these dark curiosities inside of ourselves, we can embrace them and turn them into inspiring moments for learning.

-by Nicholas Maldonado

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