In sixth grade, I had a gifted Language Arts teacher, Carlos Spataro, who introduced me to a life-long fascination with scary stories as well as the craft of story telling. At the time, he was also working on his Master’s Degree in Theatre and serving as the Creative Director for theatre productions at Purdue University at night so needless to say he was a very busy man. We rotated our classrooms for Science, Social Studies, and, my favorite class, Language Arts, that always followed lunch period, not the best time to teach pre-teens who would prefer to be running around outside instead of sitting in a classroom.
Mr. Spataro would turn off the lights, pull down the shades, and the class would quiet down in anticipation. Then he would perform tales from Edgar Allen Poe or great works of poetry. But he didn’t just read the story to us; the features of his face would contort along with his body to inhabit the characters that transformed his classroom to a special place where goblins, madmen, headless horsemen, and even charging light brigades came to life in our collective imagination. Following the story, he would give us a few minutes to quietly reconnect with the classroom before diving into a lively discussion about the story. Needless to say he held our attention throughout the period.
Beyond the fact that Mr. Spataro was a gifted storyteller and his classes were not only highly entertaining but also quite memorable, was there anything worthwhile in using scary stories in his classroom?
Scary stories have a curious relationship with our emotions. We call them “thrillers” because we don’t just feel fear; we get excited at the same time. Whether our fear is caused by a speeding car that misses us by inches or by reading a chapter in a Stephen King novel after midnight, our brains release dopamine that tends to increase pleasure or activate the body for action. Feeling afraid in a fictional setting through a scary story allows us explore our fear from a safe distance. Our minds find the fictional experience exciting, and we get a “rush” of excitement as we pretend to get in and out of danger, similar to the experience of a thrill ride in an amusement park. This Halloween season, consider bringing some of that thrill and excitement into your classroom by sharing ghost stories from books like August House Book of Scary Stories and Scared Witless.
Not only are ghost stories entertaining, they can also help children experience courage, learn about different cultures, and expand their sense of community. Sharing ghost stories can even help children grow braver as they face their fears in a safe setting reading a book or listening to a ghost story. Scary stories can show children that it is okay to be afraid and that they can use their brains to solve problems, even when they are frightened or use their natural survival instincts to safely escape from dangerous situations.
Childhood and adolescence can be scary times for children, but children flourish when they are given the appropriate tools and experiences. It is particularly helpful for children to have the chance to explore scary stories through books in a safe environment when the threat is imaginary and not staring them in the face from a dark alley. Giving children reasonably challenging books that allow them to feel scared but not terrified can help them build emotional resiliency and teach them different ways to cope with their fears and overcome the feeling of helplessness.
While your child’s heart might be racing while reading about monster teachers or ancient ghost legends in The August House Book of Scary Stories, it is important for a child to learn what fear feels like while in a safe environment where the imminent danger is temporary and contained. Of course, terrifying a child with stories that have are beyond their ability to process can have serious consequences, so the stories need to be carefully selected especially for younger children so they don’t feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by a frightening passage with no redeeming plotline.
Mr. Spataro didn’t limit scary stories to Halloween. He taught us that these stories are plentiful in all world cultures and play an important role woven into the oral traditions of every society. Similar to the role that fables, legends and fairy tales play in passing down important life lessons, horror stories take on different shapes and emphasize different fears depending on the culture of origin. Legends of bravery that have been passed down for centuries like Odysseus, Thor or Sir Gawain perform similar functions in sharing important lessons in the ability to persevere against all odds, show courage in the face of danger or use clever problem solving skills when the situation appears hopeless.
Taking time to read or explore scary stories can be an important way to supplement a History or Social Studies lesson or even be used as required reading about another culture. For example, The August House Book of Scary Stories includes Mexican Folk Legends, African-American Folktales, and Japanese Ghost Stories that can easily be integrated into classroom units on a country’s culture, history, or even geography - then explore with assignments or discussions about how these diverse factors impacted the region or a people in transition. Similarly, Tim Tingle’s book, Spirits Dark and Light provides a unique collection of Choctaw stories that demonstrate the connection between the physical and spiritual world for the Choctaw people.
Sharing ghost stories from different cultures helps children feel united and part of a wider more diverse community. When children are giddily scared together as a group, it can be reassuring for a child to learn that other kids get scared too, that it is natural to be scared at times and that strong emotions like fear pass after a few minutes. It is also important to learn that different cultures share common archetypes such as ghosts, witches, goblins or monsters.
Parents can also build a closer bond with their children when they spend time reading scary stories aloud with their families. Just like going to an amusement park, we can become closer after sharing intense, thrilling experiences with others and then process the experience together on the way home or at dinner. Humans have evolved to crave closeness and reassurance when we are afraid. This may be the reason scary stories remain so popular for sleepovers, campfires, or even teenage Saturday nights out. Sharing scary stories have the unique ability to build community with friends, at school, and at home with family members.
With stories that are easily accessible for young readers like The August House Book of Scary Stories, Scared Witless, and Spirits Dark and Light, children can learn how scary stories vary by culture, how to be brave in challenging circumstances, and how much fun it can be to listen to and read a book of thrillers at home curled up on the couch or if they are fortunate enough, in group with a master storyteller like Carlos Spataro.
My favorite sixth grade teacher, Carlos Spataro, went on to earn his PhD at Michigan State University and later taught at the college level so he undoubtedly touched many students in his five decades of teaching but I doubt if he ever had a more captivated and engaged audience than the boys and girls in his 6th grade Language Arts class at Burtsfield School. Thank you Dr. Spataro!