Mood and Tone at Halloween

by Elizabeth MariaThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman Falcón

I taught a Halloween lesson at Apollo Middle School last fall that centered around mood and tone.  I began by reading the opening of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book:

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade

finer and sharper than any razor.  If it sliced you, you might

not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

It got their attention. I asked them what the mood of the piece was, and how could they tell. "Creepy," they agreed, and "scary." We talked about word choice and sound (polished black bone, blade, sliced). We identified the setting (darkness) and the impending threat of the last line; how it suggests violence without being explicit, how this creates suspense, how the suspense (not knowing what will happen) is more terrifying than actually seeing the violence (knowing what will happen).

Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesThen we read from Seth Grahame Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.

I asked them what the mood of this piece is. "Boring," "weird," "funny," "scary." We examined word choice again--"universally acknowledged" sounds like a text book. The syntax is antiquated: "in possession of brains must be in want of more..." Who talks like that? And what are zombies doing in our "textbook"? The juxtaposition is surprising and it makes us laugh (or if not laugh, we do not in any case take the writing very seriously).

We then compared the passages' tones. Tone is the attitude of the author toward the subject matter (serious, bitter, angry, humorous, etc.). By making us feel genuine fear, by bringing us up close to the story through detail--we are right there looking at that knife--we know that Gaiman is taking his story seriously. Grahame-Smith's tone is not serious--rather, it's humorous/parodic; we know this because the first half of the sentence upsets its own conventions with the conventions of the second; it mixes "high or formal register" with "zombies want more brains." The speaker's voice is distanced and "matter of fact" and coupled with the lack of detail, the effect is that the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies passage lacks mystery; the mood is one where we are not scared (and we will not get attached to the story emotionally), we expect to be amused and see lots of zombie action, but that's as deep as we'll get.

Then I read aloud from Poe's "The Raven." Before I started, I gave them a list of things to watch out for and to capture their interest (see attached lesson plan). Again, I asked what the mood of this poem is? Why? ("Nervous, sad, scary, sleepy.") What words do you remember? "Rap rap rapping, tap tap tapping, chamber door..." We discussed word choice, repetition, rhythm, meter - trochee (a stressed syllable followed by a non-stressed syllable) and the abrupt effect it has on the reader each line.

Then it was time for the fun part. We watched The Simpson's clip of "The Raven" from the episode "The Tree House of Horror" (a "parody"), after which we followed up with a discussion about mood and tone in this piece. We talked, too, about how this parody was different from the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies parody.

After this, it was time for writing. Students were asked to first select the mood of their story (what effect they want to have on the reader).They had to keep the idea that they, like Poe, are alone in a house at midnight.When students needed prompting, I asked them to close their eyes and visualize themselves in their house, all alone, at midnight...(What room are they in? What are they doing?) when suddenly, they hear a noise! What kind of noise? (explosion, laughter, scratching, silence, etc)

I reminded them to think carefully about their words--details, distance, word choice, sound, repetition--in order create the mood they had chosen.

Students were then invited to share their work with each other.

How do you teach literature at Halloween? Share your lesson plan ideas with us!

Download this lesson plan: The Raven and Other Stories

Created on: 
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents