Who's Haunting the White House? The President's Mansion and the Ghosts Who Live There

Lesson 1: Scary Stories and the Six Senses

Christopher Balzano is the author of multiple books on the paranormal including Picture Yourself Ghost Hunting. He's worked as a librarian and high school teacher since graduating college, and he's the founder of Crossroads Writing and Media Group.

By Christopher Balzano

Effective communication is based on tapping into the senses of the reader. Young writers of both fiction and nonfiction primarily use the sense of sight to tell a story. Developing the other ones is the first step in making a better writer. Sense words are also easily accessible to students, so the secondary objective of the lesson is to begin to teach the student words have impact. The more precise, or intense, sense word the student can use, the strong the narrative.

Horror and ghost stories are an effective tool to use in this case because good scary storytellers know how to use all the other senses to evoke an emotional response. They also help to trigger the sixth sense, in this circumstance described as emotion and anticipation, because of the emotional nature of the story.

This exercise works well because it plays on the natural draw students have to the supernatural. They are engaged in the story and have experienced enough scary stories to anticipate what will happen and are therefore invested. The lesson also works well because it can be adapted to different age groups. Younger students can have basic stories, and older students can have longer, more intense and scarier stories. The lesson also focuses on listen skills and peer editing while encouraging them to become active in the rewriting process.

To use fictional or nonfictional ghost stories to teach students to use strong descriptive sense words to communicate.

Activity 1 - The Motifs

Objective: To have students identify sense words in a story and similarities in scary stories.

Have the students sit in a circle in their chairs. Make a dramatic movement when you close the shades and turn out the lights. The students know something is different in class today. Hand out several flashlights, keeping one for yourself.

Step 1
Ask the students if they know of any scary stories. Invite them to share something that scares them, even if it is from a movie. They will understand the setting and not mention the fear of falling or growing up. As each student shares, ask them to hold the light underneath their chin.

Step 2
Announce you will read some scary stories to them. Pick two that are relatively short. You will be surprised how much more attention they have listening to the story, but you still need time for the rest of the lesson.

Step 3
Read the story with a flashlight under your chin, making sure to stress sense words other than sight in your inflection.

Step 4
When the story is finished, ask the students what was scary about the story, making a list on the board as they speak. Leave nothing out they say, and divide it into six columns as they give their answers to coincide with the six senses. Do not label them yet, and be careful to make them elaborate on what they mean. For example, if they say the ghost child in the story was scary, ask them if it was scary hearing him laugh or seeing him. If they say both, mark it down in two categories. If they say the lightning, make sure they mean seeing the lightning.

Step 5
Announce to them you will be reading the next story and you want them to focus on something other than what they can see. Repeat steps 3-4. When you continue with the list, underline anything that repeats from story to story, telling them writers often call upon the same ideas when writing. List sight items they say, but stress after each that they needed to focus on the senses other than sight.

Step 6
When the list is completed the sight column will be far longer than the others. It is only natural. Label that column. Ask them if they know the other five sense and invite them to help label the other columns. Ask the students other things not written in the column that might be scary or intense. Invite them to share why it is scary and continue the six lists.

Activity 2 - Telling a Story

Objective:To have students listen to one another and build a scary story rooted in sense detail.

Step 1
While still in a circle, tell the students they will be telling a ghost story using strong sense words. As the flashlight moves through the circle, each student must add a sentence. The trick is they must use the next sense of the list. For example, the first student must use a sentence with a sight detail and the next a smell and the next a touch. Stress a good ghost story is about tension and sometimes seeing something is best left to the end. With older students I always bring up the example of Jaw. While making that movie the mechanical shark would not work so they shot scenes without it. Not seeing the shark until the end made it better.

Step 2
Go around the circle building the story. If a student is reluctant, ask them to either fall back on a sight detail or move to the next student. There should be no pressure. As weak descriptive words are used, ask them if they can replace them with a stronger word or clarify what they mean. For example, if they say they hear the lightning, ask them what it sounds like. Focus on levels of intensity in their responses. Is it loud? What might be a better word for loud? Invite other students to come up with stronger words, making sure to bring up the differences in words used.

Activity 3 - Writing a Story (homework assignment)

Objective: To have students write a short scary paragraph with strong detail words.

Students should write five sentences describing a scary scene. Their goal is to use all six senses in the paragraph and try to use strong words in place of weak ones. It might be best to give them a prompt sentence such as, "As I walked up the stairs I could hear the wind beating against the windows." Ask the students to skip lines in between each line of the paper or to double space if they are using a computer. This area will later be used during the editing process.

Activity 4 - Editing the Story

Objective: To get the students to identify detail words in their peer's work and replace weak words with stronger ones.

Step 1
Invite any student who wants to share the story they wrote. When several students have gone, ask them to pair off. Tell them they will be swapping stories and editing each other's work. Ask them to read the story to themselves and circle ten words or phrases they think could be stronger. In the empty space have them write a word that might be stronger or scarier. Ask them to only replace a few words in each example and not whole sentences or ideas and to try and stick with sense words. Make a requirement that at least ten need to be circled. Remember, the ultimate goal of the lesson is to have them identify and replace weak words, so if they have already moved on to replacing other words, it should not be dismissed.

Step 2
Allow the students to work for at least ten minutes on each other's stories. After the time is up, have them discuss with each other why they made the changes and how it impacts the story. Ask the class to agree or disagree with the changes and explain their responses. They may even offer their own replacement words.

Activity 5 - Retelling the Story (optional homework or class assignment)

Objective: To have students respond to criticism and react in a positive way while completing a story.

Step 1
Have each student rewrite their story, replacing the ten words that have been circled. They must use five of the suggestions that came up during their peer editing session and five they must replace using their own upgrade. In addition to the paragraph, they should use a separate sheet to list the ten words they replaced and the stronger word they replaced it with.

Optional Assignment
You may chose to read some of the stories out loud or have the students read them. When each story finishes, ask the students to identify the strong sense words they used and place them in new columns. You may even write these words on a sheet of poster board and keep it up to remind them of strong words.


The objective of the lesson was for them to identify the other senses in writing and replace weaker words with stronger ones. Only the final product should be graded, although both drafts and the replacement sheet should be attached when it is handed in. Consider the following rubric:
  • Use of all five senses (other than sight): 1 point for every sense used
  • Replacement of all circled words: 1 point for each word replaced
  • Strength of replaced words: 1-2 points for each word replaced depending on its strength
This can be used as a raw scale to be averaged against 100, used as a raw number if your grading is by points and not individual grades, or changed around to reach 100.