October 1994. Harmon Middle School. Aurora, Ohio.
I’d always done Halloween sorts of things in my classroom in October. Early in my career, my students and I would read aloud an old radio play version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—Margaret Burns’ adaptation of Washington Irving’s story that appeared in a bruised set of brown readers that lived in my room. The script featured dialogue like the following:
ICHABOD. Ah, Mynheer Van Tassel (Nasally), this is indeed a salubrious occasion!
VAN TASSEL. Evenin’, Ichabod, evenin’! Fall to and help yourself to the vittles!
Some years, we used the school’s P. A. system to broadcast the show into other classrooms—along with taped sound effects of winds howling, horses galloping, people screaming. No one on earth can scream like a seventh grade girl—or a boy who’s still a soprano.
But in the summer of 1994—as I see on my syllabus from that year—my plans for the first quarter’s work included some activities in late October about Frankenstein. It’s likely I decided to do so because entertainment and news magazines that fall were running stories about Kenneth Branagh’s new film, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to be released on 4 November. I’d already taken some students to see Branagh’s 1989 Henry V and was regularly teaching his 1993 Much Ado About Nothing, a hit with my eighth graders.
So away I went, hand in hand with Mary Shelley, my vast ignorance about her no deterrent, my fading memories of the novel, which I’d not read since 1985, no impediment. I started checking reference books, learning from them enough to convince thirteen-year-olds that I was an authority. I quickly rounded up some video from The Munsters (YouTube link), bought a VHS tape of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) (YouTube link), found a recording of “Monster Mash” (1962, the year I graduated from high school) (YouTube link to a cartoon based on the song), bought a box of Franken Berry cereal, and began assembling other monster-related items that appeared on retail shelves around Halloween—including a Snickers wrapper bearing the creature’s face. See, class, I tell them, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is everywhere!
I even bought a rubber monster mask, which I used for several years. I would pretend I had an errand out of the room, don the mask in the hall, then leap back into class with a howl. Screams invariably ensued. Satisfying screams. (Not so funny in these current days of very real classroom terrors.)
And after I’d read them passages from the novel, after I’d showed them scenes from the old Karloff film, played the music, and after they’d watched some Abbott and Costello, tasted the Franken Berry, and had seen me in a mask and screamed, I ended our few Frankenstein weeks with the following writing assignment:
INTRODUCTION: You are serving an in-school suspension. After a few hours of staring at the wall, you become bored. Frustrated. In your high emotional state, you decide to punch the wall. (Dumb: The wall is made of concrete block. But you are beyond the stage of being reasonable or rational.) As you work your way around the room, punching concrete blocks (barely noticing the pain in your hands), you punch one that does not feel like the others. It moves. You stop. Look at it. And then you decide to push it. When you do, the entire wall swings open like a door. And that’s because it IS a door. As you peek inside, you see a set of stairs leading down into darkness. Should you go? Why not? It’s better than being stuck in that room all day. And so you step through the new doorway. The moment you do, a sort of dull glow accompanies you. You can see. Sort of. As you descend into the bowels of Harmon School, the ghostly glow continues. At the bottom of the stairs you see another door to your right. You open it, the glow following you. You have found the long-lost crypt of Harmon! In the center of this room, lying on a table, is something covered with a sheet. It looks humanoid. But too big to be a person. (Gee, I wonder what it is?!?) You pull the sheet aside and see—what else?—Frankenstein’s creature.
ASSIGNMENT: Write a narrative involving the Frankenstein creature and you. Begin the story at the moment you discover him. …
My students loved this assignment—produced some of their best papers of the year. Some wrote comedies and parodies; others, PG-rated horror stories; others, bizarre mixed-genre pieces (Martians arrive on the scene; cowboys, rock stars, and other celebs join the fray); I appeared in some of the tales, often quickly dispatched in sprays of red. The day we set aside to read these stories aloud in class was riotous—the shrieks of pubescents’ laughter rivaling their screams in the pure ability to pierce steel, shatter glass bricks.
For three more years—the years immediately preceding my public school retirement—I continued refining and repeating this assignment, spending more and more time each summer studying Mary Shelley, her novel, her milieu. My obsession germinated, sprouted, grew, flowered, mutated, and multiplied.