The Horror Genre: Creating Atmosphere

by Naomi Hursthouse

What is it about the horror genre that continues to grip teenage readers? Two hundred years ago the young Mary Shelley was so enthralled by the ghost stories she heard that her imagination gave birth to Frankenstein. And now, my students still flock to the horror section of the school library, whether it is to read CoralineThe Knife of Never Letting Go, or Lemony Snickett.

We all seem to be drawn to the ‘dark-side’ for a time, particularly in our teenage years. Being in that liminal stage between childhood innocence and adult world-weary experience, we need to explore the dangerous possibilities of life from a safe place. Horror stories allow us to do this. But these books are not just good for students to pass around as a rite of passage; they are also a brilliant teaching tool.

The horror genre provides many opportunities in the classroom, from creating evil villains to structuring the perfect anti-climax. However, I have found that creating a gothic atmosphere is effective in both challenging able students to write in a more precise and sophisticated way and in inspiring my lower-ability students to put pen to paper in the first place.

The key to the perfect gothic atmosphere is not in the setting, as we often assume, but in the  Mary Shelley herself said that she wanted to write a book that would, ‘curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart’, a decidedly physical sensation. And Darren Shan, in Cirque du Freak, quickly undermines the premise that scary stories ‘begin at night, with a storm blowing and owls hooting and rattling noises under the bed.’ For real fear to be ignited in the reader, they need to feel the fear of the protagonist. This is clearly done in Cirque du Freak and in Tunnel of Terror and it is created through the writers’ use of verbs.

The power a verb has to transform the atmosphere of a piece of writing is astounding. What a difference using ‘crept’ rather than ‘walked’ or ‘surged’ rather than ‘jumped’ makes!

So, try it yourself in the classroom. Here is an activity to use in class to get your students selecting the best verbs to curdle the blood of their readers:

Download Naomi’s free Tunnel of Terror_Speed Quiz and Horror Writing_Verbs.

Watch: Author Vlog [Youtube]


Naomi Hursthouse has been teaching in West Sussex for nine years. She has worked as an Advanced Skills Teacher for four years and is currently Head of English at Westergate Community School. She has worked as an examiner for AQA for nine years and has been writing articles and blogs about teaching for Collins Freedom to Teach since 2009. She was born in Dumbarton, Scotland but moved down to the South Coast of England for some sunshine ten years ago. She has finally found it.


Other Articles

Practical approaches to teaching KS3 Shakespeare

By Hannah Appleton Reframing or reimagining how we tackle Shakespeare in schools begins with our perception of it being boring, irrelevant or too difficult, especially if we teach in schools with high numbers of SEND, EAL or FSM. It is, however, precisely those complexities and layers Shakespearean texts provide, which… Read More

The Long Shadow of Suffocating Injustice 

As the third anniversary of the murder of George Floyd arrives this week, thoughts will turn to how to use his story in assemblies and lessons about racial justice and the role of the police. Fundamentally, we need to encourage students to explore questions about the wider context of his… Read More

Getting comfortable with unseen poetry

Of all the different forms of writing that we study in English, poetry often seems to be the one with which students feel the least comfortable.  The fact that it simply doesn’t look like prose creates an instant barrier.  It’s unsurprising then that young people find the requirement to explore… Read More