English - Truly terrifying tales

19th October 2012 at 01:00
Inspire your pupils to pen stories infused with Gothic drama

"There's one heck of a storm coming." Hopefully that is not the weather report for the autumn term. Instead, it is the tag line of the Hurricane Sharon trailer used for the return of the character Sharon to EastEnders.

From the eerie swing and creak of the Queen Vic's signage to the swirling debris in the market square and the torrential rain, the 40-second footage is a gem of an homage to the Gothic. Sharon is depicted wearing a white wedding gown, adding to the sense of foreboding. It makes an excellent resource to use when teaching the Gothic motif and conventions in writing, and as a prompt for pupils' own original writing.

Ask the art department for images of the Gothic landscape or download the stark black-and-white photographs of Fay Godwin to use as a springboard for writing focusing on setting.

Previously, I have shown the cartoon Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School, with its decaying castle on the edge of a forest complete with drawbridge, or used a description of the anonymous castle in the Gothic novella Carmilla: "The road, very old and narrow, passes in front of its drawbridge... and at the right a steep Gothic bridge carries the road over a stream that winds in deep shadow through the wood." For real fright factor try the isolated house in the film The Others, with its endless corridors, locked rooms and permanently drawn curtains. Be they houses in Albert Square or Castle Dracula - "a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky" - buildings make great prompts for writing.

All of this links well with the book Crime and the Gothic, in which author Sian MacArthur explores the way writers of crime fiction take and adapt features of traditional Gothic fiction and incorporate them into their crime fiction texts. Her links are so deft that it prompted me to scare myself silly reading Robert Bloch's 1959 novel Psycho, noting the "half light of the coming storm... porch boards creaked... the wind rattling the casements of the upstairs windows" - a direct parallel to Hurricane Sharon. The novel fuses the detective aspect of the search for the missing Mary with the sinister presence of Bates and his mother in their house behind the infamous motel that so encapsulates the Gothic genre. The setting is a metaphor for the multiple personality of Bates, just as the house of Dr Jekyll is a metaphor for his public and private self.

MacArthur shows how the fusion between Gothic and detective fiction combines to produce chilling narratives. She explores the Edinburgh of Inspector Rebus in Ian Rankin's novels to show the city as a physical metaphor reflecting the mindset of the villain - a chief intent of early Gothic writing - and parallels this with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Such psychogeography of cities shows pupils that monsters are quite literally lurking in the deepest shadows, and how to craft a suspense-filled piece of writing. Just be careful not to give yourself nightmares.

Julie Greenhough is an English teacher and an Extended Project Qualification coordinator

What else?

Help pupils to write their own Gothic stories in a lesson on techniques from TESEnglish.


Introduce the conventions of the Gothic genre using a PowerPoint shared by stephrenn.


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