How To Use Halloween as a Gateway to Classic Literature

As October approaches, spooky vampires and creepy ravens start to pop up in the form of Halloween decorations. Kids and adults alike gather together to share scary stories about monsters and ghosts — some of which might lurk just out of sight.

It’s easy to forget that many of the haunted characters that families love actually come from gothic literature. That Frankenstein-shaped lollipop wouldn’t exist without Mary Shelley. Fake vampire teeth are brought to you by Bram Stoker. This means October is a great time to introduce these gothic tales to your students.

As you develop your lessons for “spooky season,” consider how you can engage your students with some of their favorite Halloween characters. These lessons may kindle a lifelong love of classic literature.

“The Tell-Tale Heart”

Edgar Allen Poe can be introduced to classrooms of all ages. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Anabel Lee,” “The Raven,” and other stories and poems can haunt students and introduce them to gothic horror. There are also many age-appropriate interpretations of Poe, from the book “Little Poet Edgar Allan Poe” for toddlers to “The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror” episode based on “The Raven.”

Here are a few ways to introduce Poe to your classroom.

  • Brooke Khan at Literacy in Focus shares a lesson plan to introduce “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Younger students can learn about tone and mood in writing by drawing comics that reflect the nature of the story. Older learners can reflect on certain sentences and discuss their meanings. Khan creates guidelines for beginners through advanced readers, with instructions for multiple readings.
  • Danielle Knight at Study All Knight has five Poe lesson plans for your classroom. These include flip books, posters and presentations that allow students to take a deep dive into the author’s works. She even created a “Which Ed” lesson plan where students decide whether a fact is related to Ed Sheeran or E.A. Poe.
  • The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, has online lesson plans for “The Black Cat,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and other tales. You can also share your projects with the Museum’s education team to help other teachers.

Poe’s stories are often favorites within the classroom because they are short. Teachers can read through their entirety within one class with plenty of time to discuss the meaning behind the words. As students get older and revisit the stories, they can better understand the more adult concepts and advanced wordplay.

student using a marker to draw Frankenstein; halloween classic literature concept


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is the author who wrote “Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus,” the creature being one of the most widely recognized characters across the world. From the 1974 movie “Young Frankenstein” to the countless adaptations in kids’ cartoons, most young people are familiar with the monster made by a seemingly mad scientist. The good news is that you can introduce Frankenstein’s monster to almost any class, including subjects like science, math and history.

  • Melanie Koss created an interactive field trip for 350 high school students. Attendees learned how to suture and place stitches, solved math problems to find the mad doctor, and chased down characters to figure out where the body parts were coming from. You can create something similar in your own classroom.
  • Bob Beard at the Center for Science and Imagination and Arizona State University helped create Frankenstein200 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the work. The project brings Frankenstein into modern technology with STEAM activities and challenges. From dough creatures to scribble bots, your students can create their own monsters and future lab assistants.
  • The website Women You Should Know honored Mary Shelley on October 30 (known as Frankenstein Friday because it is her birthday). Students can learn about the author and the writing process. You can even create a challenge for your students to write a short horror story to spook their friends just like Shelley did.

Frankenstein and his monster can help you cover topics from electricity to bioethics. Of course, the story is captivating enough on its own to engage students in gothic literature throughout October.

a white stone castle on a hilltop in autumn; halloween classic literature concept


In 1897, Bram Stoker introduced the world to Dracula, a vampire that resides in a castle deep in Transylvania. Tourists still flock to the area each year in hopes of catching sight of vampires and the story of Dracula is told and retold to each generation. Younger students might immediately recognize the character from the “Hotel Transylvania” movie franchise and television series. You can tap into the curiosity of your students and encourage them to explore literature through vampires.

  • In a guide for Prestwick House, Alana Domingo explains that students can read Dracula and identify the various dichotomies that push and pull against each other. Younger students might explore good versus evil, while older students can discuss the sexualization of women, class struggles, science versus superstition, and xenophobia.
  • The team at Varsity Tutors list multiple resources to engage with the works of Bram Stoker. Teachers can share MP3 recordings with students and digitized texts of the original work. There are also YouTube videos that students can watch to learn more about the story.
  • Kassondra Granata at EducationWorld, shares a lesson plan where students use math and spreadsheets to learn whether or not vampires exist. This is based on the number of people a vampire bites each day compared to the population over time.

You can incorporate vampires into multiple lessons throughout the year, or you can pick out a quick one-day lesson plan around Halloween.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Washington Irving is known for writing “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and introducing audiences to the Headless Horseman. This is a Hessian commander who lost his head to a cannonball and who rides through the town looking for it each night. The story has ghosts and pumpkins and a love story — all key aspects of a Halloween tale.

Here are a few ways to engage students with the material.

  • Zachary Hamby at Creative English Teacher says “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is his go-to Halloween story. He explains that Irving was America’s first celebrity writer and based many of his tales on European folklore. You can compare and contrast his works with European tales or consider how his publications coincided with the formation of America at the time.
  • Doug Johnson, a broadcaster for “Voice of America,” created a multimedia presentation on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” It includes a video about the story, a summary of the tale and an audio recording. This makes the content accessible to different learners. The material comes with key vocabulary terms and a quiz.
  • Anna Warfield at StoryboardThat shares a list of ideas for using “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to explore literary concepts. For example, you can challenge your students to rewrite the story from the point of view of a different character. Students can create comic strips or graphic novels of key scenes. The headless horseman creates a captivating visual for the imaginations of your students.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” can be incorporated into an American Literature class or used as a one-day activity in a history class to discuss post-revolutionary America.

student and his study group do homework at school; halloween classic literature concept

“Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”

Robert Louis Stevenson is known for his colorful and captivating tales. Along with the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” he is known for “Treasure Island” and other poems and tales. If you want to explore different parts of gothic literature, you may want to develop a lesson plan that compares the pirates of Treasure Island with the behavior of Dr. Jekyll.

  • The Robert Louis Stevenson website is a good place to start for lesson plans. You can also build your discussions around RLS Day on November 13, which is primarily celebrated in Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • Grouty’s Guide recommends a list of similar books that can be read alongside the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” These include interpretations written in the 1990s and psychological discussions by Sigmund Freud. You can pull excerpts from these pieces to compare and contrast against the work by Stevenson.
  • The Statewide Outreach Center at Texas School for the Deaf has resources for multiple books. You can use their extension activities as a jumping-off point for introducing the book and guiding students through each chapter.

The “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” can open the door to several levels of discussion and debate among students. This is a good place to start when teaching students to form their opinions and defend their ideas through the text.

Explore More Horror Stories Throughout the Year

Halloween is a wonderful time to introduce students to scary literature and immerse them into spooky classics. However, you might find that your students want to explore the dark side of reading throughout the year. Introduce the witches that taunt Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” to your students. Get to know the ghosts that haunt the governess in Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” Classic literature is filled with stories that scare and engage readers of all ages.

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