The Haunted Classroom

Post date: Nov 1, 2018 1:41:09 AM

It's Halloween at my middle school. My kids are already loaded with sugar. Teachers are hiding in corners praying for the day to end. Yet, in my classroom students are engaged more deeply in a lesson than they have in been in weeks. What is going on..?

In my opinion The Haunted Mansion is Disneyland's most fully-realized attraction. It isn't my favorite (Space Mountain) but I am always amazed by how much there is to it. From beginning to end the guest is immersed in a very specific experience and it never deviates from that. This immersion turns what is a rather boring ride at it's core - sitting in a slow moving ride vehicle that doesn't really do anything more than follow a track - into an incredible experience.

It starts at a distance. Just seeing the old style mansion rising up above New Orleans Square starts the draw. While it doesn't outwardly look haunted it feels just old enough to tease that feeling out. The line for the attraction winds through the front yard leading you past a terrifying looking old carriage and through a graveyard. There's some fun Disney joy in the names on the tombstones that brings some levity but it still is building tension for the experience.

At the end of the line you enter a waiting room which is dark and mysterious - lit only by a few flickering lamps. The doors open and the ride soundtrack ( begins with a slow, plodding, mysterious organ track. Your "ghost host" points out that in this chamber "there are no windows and no doors" as it begins to slowly stretch. This segment ends with the chilling "of course... there's always my way..." line followed by total darkness and a piercing scream. It took me years to realize what the host was referring to. If you don't know, don't let me spoil it for you. Let me just tell you that next time you ride look up!

You then walk the hallway with the famous hologram heads that watch your every step before finally boarding your own "doom buggy" and the ride begins. The ride itself is a special effects showcase that hides an unbelievable level of depth. I see something new nearly every time I ride. It ends with a couple of "hitch hiking ghosts" and an eerie hologram crying out "hurry baaaaack." You finally exit after a 14 minute soundtrack and however long you were in the line and only then are you removed from the experience.

When did the attraction actually begin? Was that the beginning of the ride or was the elevator? The waiting room? The cemetery? The magic of The Haunted Mansion is that the entire experience from beginning to end builds on itself. Yes, there is a "ride" portion but it truly is an attraction from beginning to end.

Being Halloween I wanted to bring a Haunted Mansion experience to my classroom. I've been doing my Black Death History Mystery on Halloween for about five years now. It seemed like a good fit. I've been adding to it annually to make it an attraction from start to finish. Like the Mansion is it hard to pinpoint exactly where the experience begins. My students first were introduced to it on Monday in their weekly calendar reflection. Today's entry reads:

*SPECIAL EVENT* History Mystery: The Black Death - You thought it was gone? Think again! Prepare for an incredible experience involving a tragic mystery of history.

I rarely use the SPECIAL EVENT tag and haven't yet this year so that stood out to them immediately. Then yesterday I reminded them that it was coming up and would be unlike anything they'd ever done in school. Today, they arrived to the find the front door marked with a red x, biohazard warnings and a label reading "QUARANTINE" in the door window. My kids learned about the quaratines a couple weeks ago when learning about the disease.

I shut off all the lights and open the door to greet them. I am in full costume as a plague doctor - historical yet creepy! Their reactions are excellent. Some are scared, most say "that's so cool!" (On that note, thanks Fortnite for making plague doctors cool!) This isn't the first time they've seen me in costume so it doesn't have a sense of pure novelty but it again is adding layers to the experience.

They come in and, for the first time this year, find the room surrounded in flickering LED candles.

I bought a bunch on Amazon for like $10 and placed them at each of the exhibit stations around the room. It was a small, simple, cheap addition and it added a ton to the feeling of the activity. With the lights off the room is fairly dark but light enough for students to work. Still, nearly all of them picked up a candle at some point and used it to light their papers or exhibits. They didn't need it, they were just so immersed they wanted to experience every available option.

That's when you know you've got them! Once they sit down and do their daily agenda a video begins on the screen. I show the first few minutes of the 2010 movie "Black Death." It shows a monk in a monastery who has been locked up after having been possible exposed to the Disease. It is tense and closing with a sharply rising musical stinger and a late title card that simply reads "Black Death." Perfect!

We review the instructions and I send them out to the exhibits. 20 minutes of calm working with no more surprises right? Wrong! Last year I played some scary music softly in the background. This year I created a video loop of Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death to run in the background. I added some fog effects to make the painting a little more sinister (if that's possible.) The soundtrack is a typical Halloween track of howling winds, thunder and the like. Then, after a couple minutes an eerie girl's voice comes on singing "Ring Around the Rosie" which always freaks the kids out. One of the exhibits they examine discusses the origins of the rhyme and its possible connections to the Black Death so kids slowly get the connection as they go through the lab.

When the exhibits close students write their evidence-based conclusions on the cause of the disease and we discuss the most recent findings. They ask all kinds of questions because they are truly locked into the subject. They are in!

I guarantee this is an experience my students will remember. If the lab were just the lab itself it would almost certainly get lost among the costumes, candy and general excitement of the holiday. Adding the extra touches of sound, anticipation and lighting really makes it unforgettable. Disney did it with the Haunted Mansion. I did it with the Haunted Classroom!

Update 10/29/21

This year I moved to a new school where I'm now teaching Government and Economics to seniors. I debated whether or not to bring back the Haunted Classroom. The topic no longer fit the content and we hadn't done any other history mysteries this year either. Plus, the classroom wasn't set up for it. In my old room I added a few bits each year so the set up wasn't so bad. I'd be starting from nothing this year.

Meh, let's do it anyway!

We're starting a unit on media and debate so kicking it off with a lesson where sources are purposefully contradictory seems like a fine lesson. I added a couple new touches to up the game a little bit. The intro now uses the pre-show spiel from Disneyland's Haunted Mansion complete with a simulated stretching room. The exhibits are now lit by motion-sensing lights that seem to awaken like magic when students get close. I also added a string of red LED lights that give the room an eerie glow.

It ended up looking great! The students have been engaged all day long. I've heard comments like, "This is so cool!" and "this is kind of crazy." One even said, "This is why you're such a great teacher." They really appreciated the effort I put in. It has been incredibly hard to get these kids to say much of anything this year so having so many positive comments is a clear reflection of how much they enjoyed the lesson.

Keep it up and put on a show!


If you want to know more about the Haunted Classroom it is discussed in a bit more depth (but admittedly not much more) in my book Teach with Magic!