8 Poems That'll Give You a Fright

Sometimes real life is too good to be true. Weeks before Halloween, a clown attack is sweeping the country, causing people from all walks of life to weigh in on the origins of those grease-painted jesters we love to fear. Hearing about clowns, though — and maybe weirdly — reminds me of poets. And, believe it or not, some scary poems can be really frightening.

I'm not just talking about Edgar Allen Poe, though of course he's capable of being straight-up eerie AF. No, I'm talking about poets of yesterday, today, and the future (Melissa Broder, horoscope-tress for Lenny Letter, this is you). Poets are a little like clowns, confusing and beguiling and terrifying audiences with a sight-gag or a honk. I mean, c'mon: what is a water-spraying flower if not an image? A pie in the face: straight-up objective correlative.

Because they needn't bow down to sense-making structures like narratives, poems are often jam-packed with utterly haunting moments. That's what happens when you "make it new," after all. The most adept poets turn the most banal language on its tidy little head and show you why that head is capable of rotating, Exorcist style, a full 360.

Halloween is a prime occasion to be terrified by verse, and these eight poems will goosebump you all day and all night.

1. "Theme in Yellow" by Carl Sandburg

On the last of October

When dusk is fallen

Children join hands

And circle round me

2. "Totem" by Eamon Grennan

Night and day it gapes in at us

through the kitchen window, going soft

in the head. Sleepwalker-slow, a black rash of ants

harrows this hollow globe, munching

the pale peach flesh, sucking its seasoned

last juices dry.

Quite possibly the most stomach-turning description ever of a decaying pumpkin.

3. "Halloween in the Anthropocene" by Craig Santos Perez


or treat, smell my feet, give me something good

to eat,” sings a girl dressed as a Disney princess.

Let us praise the souls of brown girls who sew

our clothes as fire unthreads sweatshops into

smoke and ash.

Because the scariest lines are often those closest to our realities.

4. "All Hallows" by Louise Glück

This first line is a spine-tingler.

Even now this landscape is assembling.

5. "Dream-Land" by Edgar Allen Poe

Forget haunted houses. This poem by Poe depicts a haunted, uncharted landscape. (The psyche? Just saying.)

By a route obscure and lonely,

Haunted by ill angels only,

Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,

On a black throne reigns upright,

I have reached these lands but newly

From an ultimate dim Thule—

From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,

Out of SPACE—Out of TIME.

6. "Kingdom of Debt" by Erika L Sánchez

Present-day history suffused with o.g. fairy-tale gruesomeness.

A butcher sweeps blood

from an empty street. Death

is my godmother, he repeats.

Death is a burnt mirror.

7. "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti

This nineteenth-century stand-by is a brief epic.

Morning and evening

Maids heard the goblins cry:

“Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy

8. "Red Sky" by Caryl Pagel

Pagel's two collections engage with the afterlife in haunting, chic verse. This poem is newer.

What awaits

What will break

The thrall of the Devil