10 Poems to Old-School Your Halloween

Jackolantern via Matheus Bertelli / "Bookmark" by Quinn Dombrowski

Watching horror movies is an obvious (and fun) way to celebrate on the 31st, but if what you want is something a little more intimate and atmospheric, lighting a bunch of candles or gathering around a campfire and reading some creepy poems aloud really can’t be beat. So I’ve chosen ten of my favorite seasonal poems for you to old-school your Halloween.

I’m also including notes on what’s to love about each, whether it be a great story, rhyme and rhythm, the scary factor, modernity, etc., because everyone has different taste. Hopefully there’s a little something for everyone on this list. And finally, a few tips for reading aloud, which you’re welcome to take or ignore as you like. Happy reading!

1. “The Sleeper” by Edgar Allan Poe

Any list of horror poetry by me is going to be bracketed by Poe. Deal with it. This one is nice because it’s lesser-known. It’s long enough to really sink into and savor, but not so long that people grow restless or the reader’s voice gets tired. It has a lovely, melancholy and haunting quality, shot through with nice punches of overt grotesquerie.

Reading tip: Do your best Poe impression. Go slow, alternating between soft sorrow and bouts of crazed passion. When you need to pause, just stare longingly off into the distance.

2. “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley

This one is great for traumatizing the children in your life. It’s also fun to read if you’re into silly accents, but tricky if you struggle with reading patois.

Reading tip: As the poem draws to a close, make claws with your hands and creep closer and closer to the audience. At the last line of the last stanza, jump out and grab them, tearing apart their fragile young bodies and guzzling down their souls wrapping them in a big bear hug!

3. “The Hag” by Robert Herrick

This one’s great for the half-assers. It’s not too long to scare off those with a fear of commitment, but it’s still long enough to make it worth reading. It’s old-fashioned enough to invoke that rich historic feeling without being difficult to understand (despithe some crayzee spellings). And it has an easy rhythm and rhyme that are really pleasing to the ear.

Reading tip: This one is great fun to relish! Read it once to get the hang of it, and then read it again to really enjoy the full package.

4. “A Rhyme for Halloween” by Maurice Kilwein Guevera

I have to tell you guys: it’s not easy to find a modern rhyming poem about Halloween that doesn’t suck. This one fits the bill. In fact, the more I read it, the more I love it. It has enough classic imagery and ideas to feel genuine, but enough fresh turns of phrase and interesting thoughts to be truly original. It also feels like it has more important things to say than just “Boo! Halloween is creepy,” although it feels that way too. It’s the best of all worlds.

Reading tip: Go slower than you think you should. No, even slower. Twice as slow as feels comfortable. Yeaaaaah. Now you feel it. That’s the good stuff.

5. “Ghost House” by Robert Frost

I had to include one by Frost or the teachers would revolt. This one’s for those who don’t care for the scary/creepy/fun side of Halloween. Or, really, for anyone who wants a little sad this year. (Maybe you didn’t get invited to a party. Maybe your cotton candy costume melted in the rain. Maybe you’re following politics. I don’t know.) This one involves ghosts in the softest, most melancholy way possible, and is actually very poignant.

Reading tip: Put your heart into it.

6. “The Hexli” (“Little Witch”) by Johann Peter Hebel, translated by James Gates Percival

What list of unsettling poems would be complete without a creepy little girl? While this translation is less than perfect in its rhyme and meter, the story is so chilling that it’s well worth the read. On first pass, it seems a straightforward story of a little witch hexing a man. On second pass, it strikes me more as a truly disturbing admission of pedophilic obsession. Creepy on both levels – yes, please.

Reading tip: I love the way this one sounds in an almost conversational tone. Sit down, rest your elbows on your knees, and talk the poem out just as if you were telling your friend a little story that happens to rhyme.

7. “The Shed” by Annie Neugebauer

I mean, I’d have to be stupid not include at least one of my own poems, right? I chose this one because it’s modern (no rhyming here) but still reads aloud well. Due to its free verse and building momentum, this is a great one for the ‘not so big on poetry’ folks in the crowd.

Reading tip: Not good at reading aloud? Listen to it read by Pete Mesling in this episode of The Bare Knuckle Podcast. All of the selected poems are fun to hear, but if you’re in a rush, “The Shed” begins at 16:50. (And if you’re not, then bonus 14 poems!)

8. “The Apparition” by John Donne

This one is for those who want to really, really old-school their Halloween… forsooth style. Can’t get enough of that antique poetry feeling? Need more thous and thys in thine life? Donne’s got you covered. But don’t worry; this poem isn’t unreadable fluff. It’s actually a pretty intense and unsettling threat, and poetry simply doesn’t have enough of those.

Reading tip: This one’s a creeper. Lean toward the candle/fire, drop your voice as low as you can – raspy is good too – and take your time. Read it like it’s a love poem and you’ll have your S.O. giving you the side-eye all night.

9. “All Hallows” by Louise Gluck

The first time I ever read this poem, it took my breath away. It’s slow and subtle for such a short poem, but boy does it pack a wallop. This is a great one for readers who don’t like rhyme or old-fashioned poetry; it’s thoroughly modern. The more you read it, the more you understand and the more you wonder.

Reading tip: Read this one almost like a haiku: at least twice back to back. Once fast just to get the feel of it, and then again slow, to really let the meaning sink in.

10. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

I know it’s not original. I know you’ve read it before. But have you read it aloud? WELL, HAVE YOU? If the answer is no, then that’s not good enough. This poem begs to be read on Halloween, dramatically, out loud to eager listeners. So no whining about how it’s cliché until you’ve actually done it IRL. You guys, it is so, so good. It’s a classic for a reason, and it’s perfect for the season.

Reading tip: Pace yourself. This one is long-lined and long overall, but the time is worth the effort. This is a master class on rhyme, so enjoy the sounds!

What are your favorite Halloween poems? Share in the comments below.

Annie Neugebauer

Column by Annie Neugebauer

Annie Neugebauer likes to make things as challenging as possible for herself by writing horror, poetry, literary, and speculative fiction—often blended together in ways ye olde publishing gods have strictly forbidden. She’s a two-time Bram Stoker Award-nominated author with work appearing and forthcoming in more than a hundred publications, including magazines such as Cemetery Dance, Apex, and Black Static, as well as anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 3 & 4 and #1 Amazon bestsellers Killing It Softly and Fire. She’s an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and in addition to LitReactor, a columnist for Writer Unboxed. She’s represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. She needs to make new friends because her current ones are tired of hearing about House of Leaves. You can visit her at AnnieNeugebauer.com for news, poems, organizational tools for writers, and more.

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C Patrick Neagle's picture
C Patrick Neagle from Portland, Oregon is reading words, words, words October 30, 2016 - 3:49am

Thanks for the links. I think I'm going to start a new Nightmare Before Christmas tradition where we all sit around, drink, and read these poems out loud.

AnnieNeugebauer's picture
AnnieNeugebauer from Texas is reading Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5 October 31, 2016 - 12:39pm

That sounds perfect! :D Have fun!