STEM Tuesday

STEM Tuesday — Spooky and Scary Science– Writing Tips & Resources

The Lizard Brain & the Science of Fear

Spooky and scary! What a great October theme for STEM Tuesday. I’ve been looking forward to this month for a long time, especially that awesome book listOctober or not, we can’t really look into the spooky and scary without taking a step back and taking a dive into why they are appealing and how they work on our brains.  

Many people are drawn to media and entertainment that contain a scary or spooky element. The scary and the spooky are all around us. Movies, TV shows, games, music, haunted houses, and literature. Fear sells!

We don’t think much about nonfiction when considering things that scare us but, as our book list exhibits, nonfiction can also use the power of the scare to entertain and inform readers. To put a fine twist on an old saying, the truth is scarier than fiction.

It all starts in the brain. In the limbic system to be exact. It’s a neurological system so inherent in biology that it is often termed the “lizard brain”. The scare (the stimulus) triggers the amygdala in the brain to signal the ancient fight-or-flight response. Motor functioning is put on high alert, the sympathetic nervous system goes into action and there is a release of stress hormones. 

SoniaM2020, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

You are ready to respond physically to the scare just as eons of biological organisms have responded. Our primal response is primed! 

  • The brain becomes hyperalert.
  • Our pupils dilate.
  • Breathing accelerates.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase.
  • Blood flow to the muscles increases bringing more fuel (glucose) to them.
  • Digestion and other systems that are not immediately needed for fight or for flight go into a reduced-function mode.

At the same time, the amygdala communicates with another part of the limbic system, the hypothalamus. Now is the time for the brain to think and analyze the potential threat the scare brings. The hypothalamus and the prefrontal cortex rapidly take in all the perceived data, assess it against memory and learned behavior, and then process whether the threat from the scare is real. If no real threat exists, the lizard brain shuts down the flight-or-fight response and we can now relax after the zombie character who chased us in the haunted house.

Young, Art, 1866-1943, artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With literature and other media, this fear response can actually be a positive experience, which provides one explanation for why so many people love the spooky and the scary. There’s also research showing that controlled fright situations can actually benefit cognitive and emotional well-being. When the limbic system kicks in, the external stressors currently causing anxiety and lowering cognitive abilities get biochemically shoved to the back burner. The individual is given a respite from their problems for a period of time and is able to function again at a higher emotional and cognitive level. We feel better and perform better after a controlled fright!

See? Scary and spooky–in an appropriate and non-threatening manner that is unique to each of our individual brains–are actually good for us. Scary and spooky fiction AND nonfiction fit this bill perfectly. Children’s fiction and nonfiction allow readers to experience and learn in an age-appropriate way.

How about that? The trash in/trash out theory my mom used to preach to me when I read scary things, watched scary movies, or dissected frogs and examined roadkill was not 100% true. I was training my lizard brain! (I do believe Mom would agree with the labeling of my adolescent brain as a “lizard brain”.)

As writers, readers, and consumers of all kinds of media, we can learn to use the tool of fright in our work to enhance, entertain, and educate at a higher level. We first must learn to tap into and put to work our limbic system. Knowing how the brain works can help creators appeal to the brains of our audience. Fear can be a powerful thing.

Have a great October 2023 and enjoy a fright or two! I know I will. Bwahaha…



Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded, equal-opportunity sports enthusiast, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports/training-related topics at and writer stuff at  www.mikehaysbooks.comTwo of his science essays, The Science of Jurassic Park and Zombie Microbiology 101, are included in the Putting the Science in Fiction collection from Writer’s Digest Books. He can be found roaming around the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64 and on Instagram at @mikehays64.


The O.O.L.F Files

This month’s version of the O.O.L.F.(Out of Left Field) Files creeps into the dark and dank cellar to explore the scary and spooky side of our brains and how fear works to manipulate our behavior.

What Is The Limbic System? Definition, Parts, And Functions via Simple Psychology

TED talk Dr. Margee Kerr: Why do we like to be scared? (2018)

5 Things You Never Knew About Fear from Northwestern Medicine

Smithsonian Magazine


Hidden Brain podcast The Science of Fear (2015)


Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic Nervous System


And finally, where would Spooky & Scary Science Month be if I didn’t include my scariest movie scene of all time?

(Thank you, John Carpenter for understanding how my lizard brain works!)




STEM Tuesday — Spooky and Scary Science– In the Classroom


I admit it, I’m a wimp. There were some books on this month’s list that I didn’t even attempt. I read a book about yellow fever years ago, and it kept me awake at night. There was no way I was going to try tackling American Murderer.

I’ve also learned that you can’t always predict what’s going to make you squeamish. I researched different animals for a book series a few years ago. I thought the spider book was going to be a problem – it wasn’t. Turns out peacock spiders- and jumping spiders, in general – are super cute. I didn’t anticipate having a problem with walking stick bugs. They ended up sending shivers up my spine and getting visions of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom stuck in my head. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Check out this clip:

As you work with this month’s list, don’t forget that everyone has different phobias as well as different spook thresholds. Here are the books I read.

Zombie makers: True Stories Of Nature’s Undead
by Rebecca L. Johnson

This book explores what can cause a variety of animals to behave like zombies. This was definitely the creepiest of the books I chose to read this month. In addition to interesting info about zombie-makers, it’s got lots of photographs and information about the scientist who discovered and/or studied the creatures.


Spi-ku: A Clutter of Short Verse on Eight Legs
by Leslie Bulion, illustrated by Robert Meganck

I love creative ways to convey facts. So, of course, I had to read this book. I loved learning about different types of spiders. I also enjoyed seeing all the different poetic forms used to describe them.


Yuck, You Suck!: Poems About Animals That Sip, Slurp, Suck
by Jane Yolen & Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Eugenia Nobati

Here’s another book that uses poetic form to present information. This one focuses on animals that suck, one that doesn’t (although people think they do), and another that has suckers but doesn’t suck.


Monster Science: Could Monsters Survive (and Thrive!) in the Real World?
by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Phil McAndrew

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but the title had me intrigued. Turns out, it mixes history, mythology, and science, which makes it a winner in my mind. It had some added bonuses, too, First, it has lots of variety – both in monsters and in the science covered. Second, all the science cast doubt on the existence of all the different monsters covered in the book.


As always, I can think of lots of great things to do along with reading these books. Here are a few that really struck a chord with me.

Explore Spiders

Spi-ku includes lots of different spiders. Pick one of them – or one of the many spiders not covered in the book – to research. Then create a poster or slide show to convey what you learned about it.

Print or color a life-size picture of the spider. (This might be difficult with the tiny ones.)

Find different ways to group and order the spiders.

Line them up from smallest to largest or vice versa.

Place them on a map of the world so you can see where they live.

Figure out their leg to body ratio (size of leg: size of body) and order them that way.

What other ways can you come up with?

Get Poetic

Both Yuck, You Suck! And Spi-ku use poetry to present information. I love that Spi-ku includes back matter that explains the poetic forms used in the book. I thought it would be fun to explore some poetry as an activity.

Turns out, there are some great resources for poetry.

First, I found a collection of Halloween related poems that – according to the Academy of American Poets – are good for young readers. Here’s that list, with links to the poems:

I found another post that provides a list of easy poetic forms, along with examples of each. This is from Teaching With Poetry and can be found here:

If that’s not enough, check out a list of 168 poetic forms, compiled by Robert Lee Brewer on Writer’s Digest: Each of these includes a link to a more detailed post about the poetic form.

So now that you have the details on different poetic forms, here’s the challenge. Pick a spooky, scary topic – perhaps something from one of this month’s books. Do some research on that topic. Then present what you’ve learned in a poetic form.

You might want to start by writing down words and phrases that capture the most important – or interesting – things you learned about your topic. Then reword and reorder those thoughts into your chosen poetic form.

Monster Ethics

While reading Monster Science, several ethics questions were raised. In several places, there were mentions of the ethics of genetic engineering. I also remembered having heard some controversy around HeLa cells.

Before delving into a specific topic, it might be good to talk about what ethics are.

There’s an interesting worksheet from Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs that looks at norms, morals, and ethics. That can be found here:

There’s also some good information on New Zealand’s Science Learning Hub:

On to the specific topics from Monster Science.

There is a whole section of the Johns Hopkins website dedicated to Henrietta Lacks: This includes a page called “Upholding the Highest Bioethical Standards”: This shows how things have changed between the 1950s – when Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken – and today.

There are also questions about the ethics of genetic engineering. Here’s one summary of the ethical concerns of genome editing from the NIH National Human Genome Research Institute:

If you’d rather have a philosophical debate, how about discuss/debate the following.

What is a monster?

Are robots alive?

Or maybe there’s another topic in these books you’d rather sink your teeth into (pun intended).


Janet Slingerland is the author of more than 20 books for young readers. To find out more about Janet and her books, check out

STEM Tuesday — Spooky and Scary Science– Book List

Who needs a shivery, shuddery story about werewolves and zombies when there are truly scary things living all around us?

American Murderer: The Parasite that Haunted the South by Gail Jarrow

This book is about microscopic worms living in the soil… invisible vampires that enter your body through your bare feet, travel to your intestines, and stay there for years sucking your blood and draining you of energy. The focus is on Charles Wardell Stile, the scientist who discovered the worm and played an important role in educating the public on treatments and eradication. There are gross diagrams and photos of the vampiric worms and a not so subtle reminder to wear your shoes when you head out on Halloween night – or any time.

Something Rotten, A Fresh Look at Roadkill by Heather L. Montgomery

This book is not for squeamish souls; it is full of parasites, intestines, and bloody bodies. At the same time, it remains an entertaining and informative read. We meet David Laurencio, the archivist of the DOR (Dead on Road) collection at the Auburn University Museum of Natural History. Every specimen bears a toe tag with an identification number that references a file. A file filled with notes about where the animal was found, when, how it was killed, its gender, and DNA information. By mapping where animals are killed, scientists can learn more about where they live, what they eat, and whether they are migrating because of environmental changes.

Animal Zombies by Chana Steifel

Welcome to the Zombie Zone, where you’ll meet harmless ladybugs turned into monsters by parasitic wasps, zombie cockroaches and crickets and ants. You’ll meet plenty of other scary monsters, and the scientists who study these real-life bloodsuckers and body snatchers. But don’t worry – there’s a list of items you can stow in your very own Zombie Emergency Kit.

Zombie makers: True Stories Of Nature’s Undead by Rebecca L. Johnson

Zombies are real, and they’re closer than you think! Fortunately, the zombie-makers don’t (yet) attack humans. But they do take over the bodies of insects, spiders, snails, and rats. In this book you’ll meet the fungi, worms, wasps, and viruses that take over animal brains – and learn the science behind the story. And you might be inspired to do some zombie hunting in your own backyard!

Spi-ku: A Clutter of Short Verse on Eight Legs by Leslie Bulion

No matter where you are, there’s probably a spider lurking nearby. Some are busy weaving webs, others riding silk balloons through the air, and yet others on the prowl. In this book you’ll meet diving spiders, dancing spiders, and social spiders. You’ll learn how they kill and digest their prey, engage in foolery – and even how they become prey themselves. There are great tips on how to hunt for spiders at night plus a poetry guide for folks who want links to literature.

Yuck, You Suck!: Poems About Animals That Sip, Slurp, Suck by Jane Yolen & Heidi E. Y. Stemple

These poems highlight thirteen real-life suckers that live on our planet. You may even have been a victim of a vampire! Think about those mosquito bites and the yucky leeches that stuck to your toes when you went wading in a stream. Not every featured creature sucks blood; there are bees and butterflies (they suck nectar) and pigeons who can use their beak as a straw. Back matter includes a fun list of anatomical terms for parts that suck.

Monster Science: Could Monsters Survive (and Thrive!) in the Real World? by Helaine Becker

Despite all the stories, monsters aren’t real. But if they were … what science would guide the lives of vampire and bigfoot, zombies and werewolves and sea monsters? Beginning with Frankenstein, we look at what makes a monster, and explore whether you could bring the dead to life using electricity. [note: Using a defibrillator to restart a heart that’s been stopped for a few seconds is a far cry from bringing a corpse to life!]

Scary Animals (Gross and Frightening Animal Facts) by Stella Tarakson

Combining detailed photographs with speech bubbles and comic asides, this creepy book from Australia (where a fair portion of the animals can kill a human) examines common phobias – freaky spiders, giant snakes, and swooping birds – looks at spiky creatures, skulls and super strong jaws, mysterious murders (who knew sugar gliders were so violent), myths and missing species, and a host of spooky spaces where animals live. It includes a bit on genetics and a glossary.

Toxic: The World’s Deadliest Creatures by Ico Romero

After grounding the reader in the difference between poisons, toxins, and venoms, this boldly illustrated book explores poison dart frogs, unique venomous mammals, ocean stingers, snakes, fantastical fish and jellyfish, insects, spiders, and more. An excellent discussion on the career of a toxicologist, a fascinating guessing game (“Healthy, Sick or Dead?”), and a glossary round oud out this engaging book on deadly creatures.

Gory Details: Adventures From the Dark Side of Science by Erika Engelhaupt

Though slightly older, the humorous, manageable chapters (5 to 7 pages), examine “gross, taboo, or morbid topics…up close, through the lens of science.” Including, whether dead owners would be eaten by their dog, maggot farming, head transplants, face mites, and the worst places to be stung. A few chapters like roach invasions and eye worms are not for the squeamish or to be read before bed. With interviews of scientists in each field, an index, and a detailed list of sources this is a great book to spark curiosity or jump start research into some scary, gory science.

Frightlopedia: An encyclopedia of Everything Scary, Creepy, and Spine-Chilling, from Arachnids to Zombies by Julie Winterbottom

Tucked among ghost stories, witches, vampires, and haunted houses are lots of short chapters about creepy crawly critters: slithery snakes, killer bees, Komodo dragons, rats, sharks, stonefish, and vampire bats. It’s a complete A-to-Z guide for everything spooky, beginning with Arachnids. What makes spiders so creepy? Maybe it’s their eyes, or the fact that they make sticky webs that cling to your arms. Not only does the author introduce a few arachnids, but she even provides instructions for a Halloween prank. There’s a “fright meter” at the beginning of each chapter (to let you know just how scary the stuff on the pages will be), lots of hands-on activities, and a chapter on how to be an “evil scientist.”


Scary Science: 24 Creepy Experiments: 24 Creepy Experiments by Shar Levine & Leslie Johnstone

If you want to make a shrunken head, some festering ooze, or alien barf, this book is for you! Each experiment lists materials you’ll need, what to do, and explains the science behind what happens. There are so many ways to make slimy, gooey polymers! As with any lab work, young scientists need to wear eye protectors, maybe a lab coat, and definitely pay attention to the warnings to not eat the experiments!

Gross Science Experiments: 60 Smelly, Scary, Silly Tests to Disgust Your Friends and Family by Emma Vanstone

The name says it all. With a conversational, and at times conspiratorial, voice, this book weaves history, science, jokes, and the scientific process throughout these easy and gross experiments. While some are even edible, others are guaranteed to induce cringes. It’s a great book for exploring scary, creepy science in a classroom or at home.

Oh, ick! : 114 science experiments guaranteed to gross you out! by Joy Masoff

From bacteria hotels to zits, this book is filled with ick-tivities, ick-speriments, and ick-splorations. They may not be scary, but they are guaranteed to be gross. Explore earwax and old eggs, garbage and farts, eyeballs, bad breath, and odious odors. Plus a guide on how to think like a Nobel Prize winner (hint: it’s all about experimental design).

This month’s STEM Tuesday book list was prepared by:

Sue Heavenrich, author

Sue Heavenrich, who writes about science for children and their families on topics ranging from space to backyard ecology. Bees, flies, squirrel behavior—things she observes in her neighborhood and around her home—inspire her writing. Her most recent book is The Pie That Molly Made. Visit her at

Maria Marshall, a children’s author, blogger, and poet who is passionate about making nature and reading fun for children. When not writing, critiquing, or reading, she watches birds, travels the world, bakes, and hikes. Visit her at