4 Spooky Inquiry Learning Ideas to Use in October
As the autumn season gets in full swing, students will inevitably start getting excited about the holiday season. The month of October is the perfect time to introduce some inquiry activities and STEM challenges that are spooky in nature.
Some spooky inquiry ideas include designing haunted houses, exploring what makes books and movies scary, and investigating why some people scare more easily than others. These ideas touch on elements of art, design, STEM, literature, and psychology.
These spooky inquiry ideas can be used in both elementary and secondary classrooms. They also work well alongside a traditional homeschool curriculum. Read on to find some fun and spooky inquiry activities to try with your students during the autumn season. Some links are affiliates. Please see our affiliate disclosure policy here.
1) How can we construct spooky haunted houses?
This inquiry idea is a huge hit with students because they can be creative and imaginative with their designs. While some students will need some structured guidance (instructions, blueprints, step-by-step guides), others will be happy to sketch a plan and move full-steam ahead.
To start, show students some photos of haunted houses. Get them to chat in pairs about the features of a haunted house, and start a list as a class. Invite students to add their ideas in writing or using a quick annotated sketch.
Once your list is done, talk about each point. For example, if students wrote down “broken windows”, ask them why broken windows are a feature of a haunted house. Would a normal window have the same effect? Does every window in the house have to be broken? Spending time asking these questions and getting students to justify their criteria helps them slow down and think about their building process with more thought and consideration. After some thought, there may be some items that can be crossed off or added on, depending on the outcome of your class discussions.
Exploring and understanding structural concepts
The next step is getting them to design a blueprint or diagram of their haunted house. Providing dimensions (for example, 6×6 inches or “at least 1 foot high”) gives students some workable parameters to keep them on track. For students who want a bit more guidance and structure, print out some photos of haunted houses and encourage them to sketch their own versions, or follow a step-by-step guide. For more detail, challenge students to annotate their work and indicate what materials they’ll need and in what quantity.
This is a good time to discuss with students the materials that will be suitable for their haunted houses. Discussing these things helps students understand that “objects, including structures, have observable characteristics” and “are made from materials with specific properties that determine how they are used” (Science and Technology Curriculum, 2022).
To help facilitate this discussion, ask students the following questions:
- What materials are used to build houses?
- Examine this photo; what materials were used to build this house?
- Why do you think [this material] was used?
- Haunted houses are sometimes weathered or falling apart – why do you think this happens?
- How can we achieve a weathered and broken-down look on our haunted houses, while still keeping them standing?
- What do you think the best materials might be to construct our houses?
- Why do you think [material] is a good choice for [component of haunted house]?
- Can we use more than one material? Why would this be an advantage for us?
- What kind of fasteners can we use to keep the house standing?
Once a materials list has been agreed upon, and students are equipped with their plans, it’s time for them to get building. Teachers should check in with students often to offer guidance, assistance, feedback, and any other kind of support when needed. These haunted houses also make great background props for stop-motion videos.
Resources for this project:
- Popsicle sticks
- Small wooden cut-outs to paint and add to the haunted houses
- Flameless LED tealights (for putting inside)
2) What makes books and movies spooky?
In this investigative inquiry, students are challenged to explore a variety of scary stories and movies and determine what elements are responsible for their scare factor. Furthermore, students can dig a bit deeper to explore what it is that actually makes us scared, and why many of us fear the same things; rejection, loss, pain, regret – things like this.
Students can also get a bit more abstract and consider the difference between being scared as a form of entertainment, and being terrified at something far more realistic. For example, there’s a difference between someone being scared as a result of a jumpy, well-timed movie and someone being scared at the prospect of being physically abused or harmed. Perhaps students might wonder “What line would a filmmaker refuse to cross when trying to scare their audience?” or if such a line even exists.
Another take on this spooky inquiry is how the criteria for being scary has changed over the years. What scared people in the 1800s – for example, the supernatural – has evolved over the decades. While the supernatural is still a feature in modern horror movies, the way it is portrayed has definitely changed. Some students might like to know why. Others may inquire as to how horror movies invite us to reflect on our lives and what we’re scared of personally.
Final project ideas
Depending on what path students have taken for this inquiry, they have lots of choices for how to show their findings. For instance, students can retell a short story or poem in an audio form (podcast episode) or create a dramatic reenactment to persuasively convince the audience that their selected work is scary. Some students might like to get creative and write their own scary book or screenplay. Others may simply choose to present their findings in a more traditional way, such as through a display board, presentation, or other creative vessel.
Resources for this project:
- Inquiry Questions About Language and Literature (downloadable PDF)
- The Last Chance Hotel (spooky mystery book by Nicki Thornton, grade 4 + level)
3) How was spooky literature received throughout history?
Not surprisingly, what scared humans historically has changed and evolved throughout history. In this spooky inquiry idea, students explore traditionally spooky literature from the past and examine why it was perceived that way, and why, perhaps, it wouldn’t be so scary now.
Since ancient times, humans have told stories of ghosts, spirits, and folklore. These stories involved interactions with the supernatural, random apparitions, and strange noises, lights, or displacements throughout one’s home or in public. Writers have always drawn on these interactions to create vivid stories to be passed on. But how were these stories and poems received at the time? What is the origin of many popular ghost stories? How does this literature reflect the society it was written in?
Exploring the origins of ghost stories and the links between them and the time they were written connects many subjects like history, language, and science. Students choosing to investigate this line of inquiry need to be flexible in their thinking and allow their research to take them on a few detours along the way. For example, pursuing research about the pull between science and spirituality might lead students to uncover the concept of mesmerism (the invisible natural force possessed by all living things that has physical and healing effects).
To present their findings, students can get creative and write their own spooky poem or story, either from their own imagination, or a remake of a classic. Some might like to present their findings in a spooky documentary-style video, or record themselves telling a ghost story that was once popular centuries ago. Some students in my past classes have chosen to rework an old ghost story and update it to fit the modern times (think: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror).
Example: Spooky Victorian Christmas
A good way to open this inquiry is to discuss traditions with students. Explaining that Christmas Eve was once a time to share ghost stories in the late 1800s was actually a fairly common tradition. When Charles Dickens’ tale “A Christmas Carol” was published in 1843, it was a huge hit. This was because it was a common tradition to read these kinds of stories. Other popular stories included “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Raven”. This tradition continued until the early 20th century.
Resources for this project:
- The Victorian Supernatural (bl.uk)
- Ghost Stories of Christmas (Big Think)
4) Why do some people scare more easily than others?
This is a really interesting inquiry topic to dive into with high school students interested in the social sciences. Horror is subjective – what scares one person might not scare someone else. It is an elastic genre that encompasses ideas from many other genres including sci-fi, action, fantasy, and documentary. But how do you know you’re watching a horror movie if the stereotypical horror elements – blood, ghosts, weapons – aren’t there? And why are some people scared of certain horror movies, and others aren’t?
A potential path students can take is assessing the difference between being scared and being afraid and being disgusted. Or between being creeped out and being repulsed. Furthermore, students might want to know whether a movie that evokes repulsion can truly be called a horror movie. Others who reject the idea of ghosts might wonder why someone is terrified of a supernatural movie. Digging into what makes people scared and what happens when we’re scared makes for an interesting science-related path to investigate. For example, what physical reactions happen in our body when our fear response is activated? How do we recognize the difference between a fear response prompted by a horror movie and one prompted by a real threat?
This inquiry has the potential to prompt a deep investigative study among students. For example, students can create a survey to collect responses about what others fear and which movies they find scary. They can then show correlations between what we fear and what elements we respond to in movies. Students might find interviews helpful in discerning what students fear. Additionally, they can find out what events in their life might be responsible for contributing to that fear. Performing a small study (with students’ permission) to explore and record students’ reactions to scary stimuli could also provide some valuable data to make their inquiry unique and informative.
Resources for this project:
- Why do some brains enjoy fear? (The Atlantic)
- 5 reasons we enjoy being scared (Psychology Today)
- Why do we enjoy horror movies? (Verywell Mind)
- The science of fright (The Conversation)