It’s funny how the stories that terrified us as children can still give us shivers as adults. I read Judith Stamper’s Tales for the Midnight Hour to eighth and tenth graders today, and I STILL got goosebumps when I read that last line in “The Furry Collar.” My dad’s stories of Baba Yaga the witch–complete with his patented evil witch laugh–still give me chills. And don’t even get me started on Coraline’s “mother’s” black button eyes. *shudders*
The stories that truly scare us as children imprint themselves on our minds long into adulthood. It’s been 30 years since my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Lucado, first read “The Ten Claws” to our class, but I remember the feeling of that story like it was yesterday. I can picture Mr. Lucado reading that last paragraph; I can still hear his voice saying, “bloody stump” all scary-like.
So every year at Halloween, I am positively giddy at the opportunity to share scary stories with my students. I love reading a story out loud and seeing my students hanging on my every word. I love slowing my speech, enunciating certain words, using my voice to increase the creep-factor as I read.
Reading scary stories aloud is as much performance as it is words on a page. So my gift to you and your students this Halloween is the memory of reading a story that the students feel. Stories that they will look back on in 30 years and remember YOUR voice saying “bloody stump” as they read these stories out loud to their own children or students.
Below, I’ve listed specific passages that make excellent Halloween read-alouds. These short stories, picture books, and novels are widely available (except for one that I HAD to include) and probably in your own school libraries. Choose a passage and practice reading it aloud. Use your voice to give your students an experience, not just a story.
Creepy Read-Alouds for Middle Schoolers
|Short and Shivery: 30 Chilling Tales (Robert D. San Souci)
These short stories have been Halloween favorites in my libraries for years. They have also been around awhile; I used to read them aloud to my students when I taught 7th grade, nearly 15 years ago. Each story is only a few pages long, and many of them include illustrations. It includes creepy folktales and legends from around the world, including short stories by the Brothers Grimm and Washington Irving. And how great is that new front cover?!
What to read aloud: You could read any of these out loud and find a hit with your students, but my favorites are “Tailypo” and “The Adventure of the German Student.” Looking for more like this? More Short & Shivery is also available (and on sale in October 2016!), and it also has a fabulous new front cover!
|The Spider and the Fly (Mary Howitt, Tony DiTerlizzi)
Ironically, I got the idea for this one while my son was watching Power Rangers in Space tonight. Would you believe one of the bad guys actually quoted this poem? Seriously! In this gorgeous black-and-white picture book, a hungry spider tries to lure a naive fly into his web. This poem has been around since 1829 and serves up a not-so-subtle warning to readers: If you are charmed by “idle, silly, flattering words,” you could end up as a nasty spider’s dinner.
What to read aloud: The entire book. It’s not very long, and the poem is incredibly fun to read aloud with a sly, creepy spider voice and a high-pitched, innocent female fly voice. Bonus points if the fly is Southern, y’all! Pay special attention to the illustrations, which add a ton to the story. My favorite is the fly’s shadow on the wall as he approaches the mummy-wrapped little fly. He dons a tall chef hat and carries a knife and fork. Absolutely chilling.
|Spirit Hunters (Oh)
This one is perfect for fifth and sixth grade. Twelve-year old Harper and her family have just moved into a spooky old house with a terrifying history. In the first chapter, Harper is unpacking boxes in her room when her four-year old brother Michael calls her to his room. When Harper enters the room, she notices it is frigid, even though it is summertime and the air conditioning in the old house isn’t working very well. Michael introduces Harper to his new friend, Billy, who Harper cannot see. Michael tells Harper that Billy said “not to go into the attic” and that Billy “doesn’t like it when you call his house stupid.” Billy, of course, is the malevolent ghost of a not-so-nice boy who died decades ago.
What to read aloud: The first chapter, which is the story I just related above. The first chapter is only a few pages long, but so much happens in those few pages. Your students will be hooked! Also, be sure to check out the sequel, The Island of Monsters, which releases July 31, 2018.
|Rot & Ruin (Jonathan Maberry)
If you want something for your slightly older middle schoolers, you can’t go wrong with Jonathan Maberry’s zombie saga, Rot & Ruin. Considering the popularity of The Walking Dead, this one will easily capture the attention of those students who like their scary books served up with a side of blood and gore. Rot & Ruin is a five-book series with a few novellas mixed in. It tells the story of Benny Imura, a teen boy tasked to work with his older brother Tom as a zombie bounty-hunter in a post-zombie-apocalypse world. If you think zombie novels can’t be well-written, character driven stories, think again.
What to read aloud: The first chapter, which details the zombie apocalypse (“First Night”) and what happened to Benny and Tom’s parents that night. Start with the very first sentence, and read the next three pages until you find out what happened to the parents. Great stuff here!
|The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)
A toddler boy escapes the mysterious man who murdered his family. The boy crawls right out the front door and into a local cemetery. There, the ghosts protect the boy from the murderer by making the boy invisible. Many years later, the boy is a teen who lives among the ghosts in the graveyard. But his family’s murderer is still out there, looking for the boy who somehow managed to get away. This one is also available as a two-part graphic novel.
What to read aloud: The murder scene in the first chapter. It’s a grisly scene, so know your audience. I’ve had two students whose parents were murdered (that I knew about), as well as a girl on my basketball team growing up whose father was murdered. It does happen, and we may not always know about it. Your school counselor will likely know, and I strongly recommend you check your students’ histories before reading this scene aloud.
|The Crossroads (Chris Grabenstein)
In the beginning, The Crossroads features seemingly-unrelated chapters, but they start to come together at Chapter 4. The Goodreads description is a very good one:
ZACK, HIS DAD, and new stepmother have just moved back to his father’s hometown, not knowing that their new house has a dark history. Fifty years ago, a crazed killer caused an accident at the nearby crossroads that took 40 innocent lives. He died when his car hit a tree in a fiery crash, and his malevolent spirit has inhabited the tree ever since. During a huge storm, lightning hits the tree, releasing the spirit, who decides his evil spree isn’t over…and Zack is directly in his sights.
What to read aloud: I would read either the Prologue or the first chapter. The Prologue describes young Zack’s fear of a knotty old tree in New York City. Zack is certain he can see a face in the tree, the face of something inside the tree wanting to come out and kill him. It seems no one else sees the face, not Zack’s dad nor the school librarian whose college degree is in theology. But the face is there, nonetheless.
The first chapter is a plumber’s perspective. The plumber is working on installing a toilet in a brand-new, unoccupied home. The toilet is messed up and keeps bringing up bits of tree branches when it is flushed. The plumber gives up and starts to drive home. On the way, he barely avoids a car accident when a police officer stops him from running a broken red light. When he looks closely at the police officer, he discovers that the man has no face.
The two stories come together because Zack and his family move into the house the plumber was working on. The tree bits are from the tree with the killer’s spirit inside, which happens to be in Zack’s new backyard.
Chapter six could also be a stand-alone. Read that one aloud if you are looking for a vanishing hitchhiker story.
|Tales for the Midnight Hour (Judith Stamper)
It looks like this book may be out of print, but if you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a must-read with middle schoolers. My fifth grade teacher read these aloud while my class had ice cream time after lunch, and some of them scared the absolute crap out of me. I would go home and tell them to my sister (poor thing was only in third grade when I told her these stories), and she still remembers them today. I was able to find the book on Scholastic’s website. You can also find PDF versions online, but there are lots of formatting and spelling errors in those, and I’d bet money they are illegally distributed. The book is also available through OpenLibrary.org, but when I downloaded the Adobe Digital Editions version, I got a Jimmy Buffett book instead.
What to read aloud: If you really want to scare your students, go with “The Furry Collar” or “The Ten Claws.” I distinctly remember these two stories keeping me awake at night when I was a kid. When I read “The Furry Collar” aloud to a seventh grade class years ago, one little girl said (like a week later) that she still couldn’t sleep because it scared her so bad. Choose your stories and their audience wisely, folks!
If you want something less intense, go with “The Boarder,” “The Jigsaw Puzzle,” or possibly “The Velvet Ribbon.” “The Velvet Ribbon is maybe a little more scary than the other two.
If you want something that is guaranteed not to scare anyone, I wouldn’t read these stories. They are awesomely creeptastic!
|Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave (Marianna Mayer)
It’s the house on chicken legs that gets me the most with this one. That, and my dad’s crazy witch laugh when he would terrify my sisters and me with Baba Yaga stories when we were kids. Baba Yaga is a witch in Slavic folklore. She lives in a house with chicken legs (!) that can run around (!) and flies through the air inside a mortar and pestle. She has iron teeth, people. IRON TEETH!
What to read aloud: This is a picture book, so take some time and read the entire story aloud. If you are reading with older students, you could use the story to talk about the role of the old crone archetype in literature. You could also use the picture book to introduce other Baba Yaga novels such as Vassa in the Night (Porter) and Baba Yaga’s Assistant (graphic novel, McCoola). With younger readers, compare Vasilisa’s story with Cinderella. How are their stories alike and different?
|Skeleton Man (Joseph Bruchac)
Because this title has been around awhile, chances are good that you may have this book in your library. If not, it is still in print and often on-sale around Halloween. This is the story of Molly, a young girl whose parents have gone missing. Child Services have temporarily placed her in the care of her mysterious uncle, but Molly keeps dreaming of the Skeleton Man stories her parents told her when she was young. What are the dreams trying to tell her?
What to read aloud: There is a scene at the beginning (I want to say it’s the first chapter) where a man is cooking soup and he tastes the food on his finger. It tasted good! So he ate his finger. Then he ate his hand. And before he knew it, he had eaten his entire body. Then he ate his entire family, except for his little niece. Thus, the Skeleton Man was born, and now that his own skin is gone, he’s hungry for more! This story is a blast to read aloud with students, and at only 110 pages, this book is something virtually all middle schoolers will find accessible.
|The Wolves in the Walls (Neil Gaiman)
Looking for something a little creepy, but definitely not-so-scary? This picture book from Neil Gaiman is a great choice for younger students or your less Halloween-friendly audiences (Yup, I’m from Texas–I know all about those). In this story, little Lucy hears strange noises coming from the walls. She warns her family that the wolves are about to come out of the walls, but no one listens to her. No one believes her. They are all too consumed with their own interests. So when the wolves actually DO come out of the walls, only Lucy can help her family get the wolves out of their house.
What to read aloud: It’s a picture book, and it’s short enough to be read in about 15 minutes. Gorgeous and creepy illustrations with lots and lots of onomatopoeia in the text. Because the family accuses Lucy of lying, this would pair well with The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Is your voice too cheerful to pull off a creepy read-aloud? Check to see if the audiobook is on sale for The Wolves in the Walls!
|“The Monkey’s Paw” (W.W. Jacobs)
When I was in ninth grade, we went to a theatre performance of five different short stories. One of those stories was “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs. I can still remember the final scene with the loud knocking at the door and the mother scrambling to find the monkey’s paw before whatever is outside gets inside. This story is a great way to teach your students to be careful what they wish for…
What to read aloud: You’ll want to read the entire story, which is not all that long. Be sure to pound on the table for knocking effect at the very end. Here’s a free download of “The Monkey’s Paw.”