Looking for a fresh approach to Halloween in the classroom? Try poetry. The scary kind, with witches, ravens, and windigos. We’ve lured six creepy poems out from the catacombs of our archive that will generate ideas for classroom discussions—and costumes, too—or can serve as handouts to go along with candy.
1. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
Grieving his dead love, Lenore, the speaker is disturbed by a ceaseless tapping at the door. He opens it to first—eek!—nothing. Then comes the raven, who stirs and intensifies the speaker’s grief by croaking out, again and again, the fateful single word “nevermore.” See how Poe uses repetition to build the poem’s momentum, how the meter accelerates with your breath. No balm awaits: the raven remains, terrorizing and haunting. Will Poe’s hero escape it?
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
Costume how-to: The Bereft. Dark pouches under bloodshot eyes, hair and clothes unkempt, with a bit of paranoia tossed in to underscore your inconsolable sorrow. (Hint: Have a paper due? Pull an all-nighter or two.) Must-have accessory: The raven (stuffed?), of course, with its dark, oily feathers and beady eyes.
Creepy fact: The cause of Poe’s death remains a mystery, but has been variously attributed to alcoholism, cholera, syphilis, brain disease, and, recently, rabies.
2 and 3. Two poems by Louise Erdrich
These poems are examples of the dramatic monologue, a form in which there is a speaker and an implied listener, and in which the reader perceives a difference between what the speaker says and what he or she reveals. This form was refined and practiced by several Victorian-era poets, most notably Robert Browning.
“The King of Owls” by Louise Erdrich
Insanity haunted the French king Charles VI, turning him into a monster. As the story goes, his court invented the first playing cards with hopes of curing him. In this dramatic monologue, the poem’s voice fuses the king’s madness with the cards and their patterns, and the speaker’s tyrannical voice succumbs to his paranoia.
I must have silence, to hear the messenger’s footfall
in my brain. For I am the King of Owls.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Lords, I sharpen my talons on your bones.
Costume how-to: Choose your suit! Those from that first deck of Charles VI’s include doves, peacocks, ravens, and owls.
Creepy fact: The speaker of the poem, Charles VI, suffered from periods of psychosis throughout his life, and at different times would wander around his palace howling like a wolf and believing he was made of glass.
“Windigo” by Louise Erdrich
Windigos, mythical creatures described in Ojibwa and other Native American folklores, are starving people whose hunger makes them vulnerable to a violent spirit that overwhelms them with an irresistible urge to prey upon and eat—ew!—other humans. The narrative in this poem comes from Chippewa stories in which a young girl overpowers this wintry beast and frees the human that still exists at its icy core.
You knew I was coming for you, little one,
when the kettle jumped into the fire.
Costume how-to: Umm, the windigo? When you hit the costume store, bear in mind that the windigo is a close relative of the werewolf, the Sasquatch, and the abominable snowman. So take your pick, but heighten the fright by supplementing your monster with props that betray its cannibalistic urges, such as a decapitated head or severed arm.
Creepy fact: Windigo is also a psychiatric condition that has been observed in some cultures in which afflicted patients believe they are, in fact, possessed by the windigo, and begin to see the people around them as edible.
4. “Song of the Witches” by William Shakespeare
The three witches of Macbeth, known also as the Weird Sisters, sing this famous song. Here, “weird” means something like fate or destiny rather than bizarre. Some scholars believe the word first entered the English language through this play. The witches deliver their prophecies to Macbeth, and he (whoops!) follows their advice.
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Costume how-to: The creepy witches! Neither charming like Morticia Addams nor your run-of-the-mill hag on a broom, these witches are truly scary. How can you make yourself stand out in a coven? Get a beard—these witches are androgynous—and ease up on the grooming, as they are “so withered and wild in their attire.” Go heavy on the face powder: they are pale specters. Oh, and they travel in packs of threes, but call only one—Hecate—by a name.
Creepy fact: Shakespeare tried to fend off those who would disturb him in death with these lines on his gravestone:
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare
To digg the dust enclosed here!
Blest be ye man that spares thes stones
And curst be he that moues my bones.
5. “All Souls” by Michael Collier
It’s a costume party, and Hillary Clinton and Dracula and Oprah are in the house, watching the raccoon outside the window step carefully among the party’s debris. As the players jostle and play together, ruled by the spirit of the mass, the music, and the spirit of the crowd, they too become something creaturely, with “intricate paws, the filleting tongue.”
Trotsky scratches herself beneath her skirt
and Hillary, whose lederhosen are so tight they form a codpiece,
wraps his legs around Trotsky’s leg and humps like a dog.
Costume how-to: The poem says it best. Go as Leon Trotsky with “the bloody screwdriver puttied to her forehead.” Or, if your voice “is the rumble / of a bowling ball” and your “hands are hairy to the third knuckle,” maybe Hillary Clinton is the costume for you, accessorized with lederhosen “so tight they form a codpiece.” Going as a couple? Try Dracula and Oprah Winfrey, the married hosts.
Creepy idea: Imagine having to make small talk with Leon Trotsky, Dracula, Oprah Winfrey, and Hillary Clinton in one night.
6. “Halloween Party” by Kenn Nesbitt
Here’s a poem for the younger set. Written in a meter and rhythm that readers of children’s poetry will recognize, this poem is in the voice of a young boy dressed as Dracula, who finds himself in the scariest place any kid can imagine: looking stupid in front of his entire class.
The other kids stare like I’m some kind of freak—
the Halloween party is not till next week.
Costume how-to: In this case, how about a party how-to? It’s elementary school so, okay, there are limits. Nothing too scary, but candy and costumes, a few games, and then more candy. In the classroom, everyone’s doing the Monster Mash and sifting through their loot. Fun and not too freaky. But down the hall? The scariest place in any school is the inside of the teachers’ lounge.
Creepy fact: According to multiple sources, Kenn Nesbitt, while being a poet, is a completely normal, well-adjusted human being.