Posted in Tabletop Poetry (and Other Artforms), Tabletop Teacher

Why We Tell Scary Stories

When I was small, I would wake sometimes in the middle of the night and look down the dark hallway, imagining the monsters that lurked in the shadows. Most nights, the fear would get the better of me. I would imagine something coming out of the darkness and attacking me. I would run, sometimes screaming, back to my bed because everyone knows monsters can’t attack you if you are in your bed, especially if you are under the covers. But if I did it just right, the hairs on my arms and on the back of my neck would stand upright, one by one, like metal shavings being called to attention by a magnet. It’s an interesting feeling. And it’s pretty cool to watch… if you can remain calm enough to get back to bed and switch off the light when the show is over.

I have been afraid of the dark all my life. Literally. I am still afraid of the dark. Some nights, I sleep with the kitchen light on, I always have a security teddy bear at hand and I never watch horror movies… at night. Once upon a time, I didn’t watch them at all. I insisted I scared easily, which was true enough. Films that have kept me up at night include Rear Window, Jane Eyre, and one particular episode of BBC Mystery! about… Miss Marple. But as an adult (with a little help from the documentary Nightmare in Red White and Blue) I discovered the truth. I don’t like gore and violence, but I love horror. So while I have no intention of watching Saw anytime ever, I will rarely turn down an opportunity to watch Housebound, The Sixth Sense, or Pontypool. Also, I love Hitchcock, Jane Eyre is on my top ten classics list, and that episode of Mystery! is the only one I ever recorded and re-watched. Because when done right, a good horror movie has the same effect as staring down the hall at night. It is literally hair-raising without completely eliminating your sense of safety. Once I figured this out, I went in search of that feeling. I started chasing PG-13 horror films–guaranteed by rating to be within my violence threshold, but still with the potential to be sufficiently spooky. And this was how, Saturday night, I found myself convincing another friend who scares easily that we should absolutely watch Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark… at 10pm.

Watching the opening scenes of Scary Stories was a little like being on a roller coaster–another thing that scares me so much I’ve only done it a handful of times. I knew that I was about to do something scary, and that I couldn’t turn back now. I mean, we’d bought the tickets. The movie was beginning. I was in this for the long haul. I also didn’t know exactly what twists and turns were going to come or when. And I knew that more or less, everything was going to be okay in the end. I mean, obviously I would be fine. But another benefit of PG-13 horror is that the protagonist usually defeats the bad guy in the end. But the scariest part of a horror movie, similar to other scary things like roller coasters and flu shots, is the anticipation. It’s the part where you know it’s coming, but it hasn’t happened yet. Several times during Scary Stories, I clung to Fiance’s arm, muttering, “waiting for the jump scare…” And once it was over, I was okay… until the next scary story rolled around. 

But I have also found that the bigger your imagination is, the scarier scary things are. This is probably why adults have less trouble with horror movies and roller coasters and flu shots than children do. When you’re a child, you can imagine the pain of the needle before it stabs you. You can imagine the roller coaster never slowing or stopping. You can imagine the monster waiting down the hallway, just beyond the edge of the light. And you don’t have the sense to tell yourself it’s all in your head. I have that sense. But I have also spent nearly three decades honing my imagination for use in storytelling. Which means that when the movie gets out at midnight (the scariest time of night), there’s a good chance I will have difficulty sleeping. But wait… I was the one who persuaded my friend to go see this in the first place. She wanted to see Toy Story 4, which instead would have filled me with warm fuzzies and had me dreaming sweet dreams as soon as my head hit the pillow. Which begs the question… why do we like scary stories?

I suppose I have already answered this question. We like to scare ourselves because it’s a thrill. It feels good to have the hairs on the back of your neck raise up. Or to get a shot of adrenaline, as long as it’s in a controlled dose, which you get from a controlled scare, like a roller coaster or a horror flick. Maybe scary things help us to feel alive, or remind us that we are safe, or that being afraid is perfectly acceptable, as long as you don’t let it paralyze you. This is, in fact, why I have slowly been trying to ride more roller coasters. But roller coasters as just scary. They’re not stories. And stories can do so much than frighten. They can get in our heads and stick. They can utterly change the way we see the world. A good story, scary or not, is almost always more than just a story. Which means the real question here is not why do we read scary stories, but why do we write them?

This is an important question for me, as the setting of my classroom RPG is a ghost story. And I’ve never been particularly good at telling scary stories. So if I have any intention of making a decent campaign out of my curriculum this year, I should probably explore this topic. My friend suggested they’re there to tell us that the monster can be defeated. But while PG-13 horror usually ends this way, R rated horror doesn’t always. So I think there’s more going on here.

Humans have a long tradition of telling scary stories. Several centuries ago, they were used as morality tales and warnings for children. Consider Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood–both stories that warn against venturing into the woods by yourself. Now, maybe these don’t seem scary today, but there is a reason they are so pervasive in our society. These are constantly being retold, re-written, and referenced in new literature. For example, that episode of Mystery! that kept me up at night included both a red cloak and a cottage in the woods. And though, being a white American woman, the traditions of Europe are those I am most familiar with, these traditions occur all over the world. Consider the story of La Llarona, which is popular in most Latin American countries. This is was also probably a warning for children–not to wander alone along rivers, where they might fall in and drown.

But these days, while such stories can still give us chills, but they are not necessarily told for the purpose of maintaining children’s safety. So let’s fast forward a bit to the gothic era, especially seeing as my classroom RPG is intended to be a bit of a gothic story. From what I understand, in gothic fiction, the ghostly elements are often connected either literally or metaphorically to the sexuality of the characters. This is because sex was a taboo topic in the society where many of these stories were written. People were, in a sense, afraid to talk about it. Thus, talking about it manifested in horror. Fast-forward again to today. What are so many of our current horror films about? Home attacks and senseless violence. I mean, how many “purge” movies have there been? And what kind of things are people in our society afraid of? Home invasion. Mass shootings. Acts of terrorism. In the United States, we fear both the escalating violence of our country and our inability to stop it. This can be seen in the never-ending arguments over gun control. But it has also been made manifest in our horror movies.

So why do we like scary stories? Because they give us an outlet to express the things we are afraid to talk about, be that the fear of losing a child, being shot, or being sexually attracted to someone you can’t have. Scary stories allow us both to be frightened and to openly discuss what frightens us. And where does my ghost story fit into all of this? Well, it stars a villain who is so bent on revenge he is ready to take down his entire school. But his greatest threat is not killing people, it’s revealing all the deep-held secrets of his classmates. Sharing my fears and vulnerabilities has always been something that frightens me. It frightens a lot of us, especially teenagers. But if we can’t find a way to open up, we risk turning into the villain, who is consumed by his emotions, a bit like me, running blindly back to my bed because I couldn’t contain my fear. Thus, the story is literally about having the courage to admit your fears to others. Because sharing that fear? That’s how we defeat the monster.

Posted in Favorite Teaching Moments, Tabletop Teacher

Adventures in the Role Play Classroom

Schools these days have a lot of trouble deciding what is acceptable for students to access online, and teachers often plan lessons only to find they are thwarted by technological blocks–like when I decided to make videos explaining parts of speech to students only to find out video streaming is not allowed in our school. But the one that bothers me more than anything else is “the category of games has been blocked.”

Now I get it, I do. I locked up my chrome book cart for a week because I was sick of my students getting on video games while I was leading class discussion. But I think we’re going about this all wrong. Because this message says games and school do not mix. Games are for home. When you come to school, you put the games away. But what we’re really saying is: school is supposed to be boring. Think about it. Games are fun. Games are so much fun that we play them for hours. We play them in the checkout line. We play them at the DMV. We play them in the car. We lose sleep telling ourselves, just one more level. Just one more level. Just one more level. Now imagine if you could make school like that. From day one of being a teacher, this has been my greatest goal in the classroom–make my class into a game. The proper term for this is “gamification.”

My most recent foray into this process lead me to create a classroom RPG. In case you don’t know, RPG means Role Playing Game. Think Dungeons and Dragons. It’s basically a method of co-operative storytelling, using dice to determine positive and negative outcomes. There are lots of different RPGs out there, but I made one up, trying to keep things simple for my students. I invented a fictional world (Bell’s Academy for Superheroes), wrote some scenarios, made some character sheets, and gave it a whirl with my students.

Student character sheet from Bell’s Academy

Now, I thought the game was pretty clever. In most RPGs, the characters have stats–numerical values that represent how good they are at something. Stats are usually broad categories, like charisma, strength, and wisdom. These make different things easier or harder for your character to do, or give you bonuses. You generally role dice to determine your stats. In my game, my students had stats in six broad areas–pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, and speaking–and rather than rolling dice, they ranked themselves in each area on a scale of 0-3. Then, instead of rolling dice to determine how successful characters are at what they do, we used flashcards and assignments to determine success. The stats became attack bonuses–providing extra damage when fighting monsters. Oh, and I laminated the character sheets so we could use dry erase markers on them. I thought this was a particular stroke of genius.

So I handed out the character sheets, and began a role playing game with a group of students who not only have never heard of Dungeons and Dragons, they don’t know what either of those words mean. I test drove it for a week with two different classes and had some fascinating results…

In one class, students began to self-regulate, telling each other to put their phones away because they wanted to play the game.

I also learned that I didn’t need much of a story line. One day, my students’ characters did nothing but go to class. And they still had fun.

And then there were the characters.

One student decided to play Queen Elsa, from Frozen, but she had a secret pet dragon. Another decided shIt also gets students reflecting on their personal values. For example, I presented my students with this scenario: you overhear some teachers talking in the hall about a student who got attacked in the library. Do you follow them and find out more, or do you go to class? Every single one of my students decided to go to class. Every single one of them. I never would have done that. I absolutely would have followed the teachers. And what does that tell you about me versus my students, about who actually thinks school is important?
e had the power of evaporation. A third chose the power of translation. And because she actually helps translate for new students, she didn’t bother to imagine herself with a new superpower–she recognized the one she already had. Other students reflected on their actual lives entertaining, if less poignant, ways, like the students who decided their weaknesses were food.

The game also had students reflecting on their personal values. For example, I presented my students with this scenario: you overhear some teachers talking in the hall about a student who got attacked in the library. Do you follow them and find out more, or do you go to class? Every single one of my students decided to go to class. Had I been playing rather than running the game, I absolutely would have followed the teachers. And what does that tell you about me versus my students, and who actually thinks school is important?

Now, this is not to say there were not problems. For example, what do you do when one of your students writes invicible for their superpower?

Or when you give your players a map of their location only for them to tell you there’s no bathroom.

pencil drawing is hard to see, but this is the third floor of the school.
Student A: Where are the bathrooms?
Student B: On the second floor.

Or if, in the middle of a battle, instead of fighting the monster, your student offers it tacos? I like to imagine this as a real-life scenario. You’re in class. A monster materializes out of nowhere, throws a book at a student. Half the class goes running in terror, the other half tries to kill the monster, and then this girl walks right up to it and says, “would you like some tacos? I’ve got some salsa too.” And the best part is? This is the student that the monster threw the book at.

We talk a lot about autonomy and creativity, and the RPC is a great mechanism for these. The open-ended question of “a monster attacks you, what do you do?” means that students can come up with literally any solution. And sure, if it’s too open-ended, you can always say, “do you want to fight it or run away?” Now when I set about creating this storyline, I drew on gothic literature, and I wanted to incorporate this theme of not letting your emotions control you–because that’s an important life skill. But my student beat me at my own game! She decided that when faced with a conflict, rather than respond with aggression or fear, she would respond with generosity. And she didn’t get there by sitting in a desk and taking notes. She got there by playing a game.