With panel discussions, readings, exhibits and a costume ball spread between the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and UC Santa Cruz the weekend of Oct. 13-15, the 2023 Festival of Monsters will explore topics involving the literary and cultural images of monsters, while still acknowledging the fun factor.
Blame it on Halloween — or maybe the “Goosebumps” books, or Chucky movies, or Pixar’s “Monsters Inc.” But somewhere along the line, we all convinced ourselves that monsters were kid stuff, that at some point on the path to mature adulthood, there comes a time to shed the silly concept of the monster.
Sure, we still use the term — to describe something immense, like a “monster storm,” or in a moral context, to condemn some horrific action or attitude. And, sure, we can enjoy monster culture in a campy or aesthetic way — who doesn’t love those old James Whale movies? But where is the serious respect for the iconography and symbolic influence of monsters in world literature and popular culture? Where do we go to understand the role of monsters in the dehumanization of the socially ostracized and the politically marginalized?
One answer to that question: at UC Santa Cruz.
UCSC is home to The Center for Monster Studies, which is presenting an ambitious weekend of activities both celebrating and examining for scrutiny several aspects of popular culture pertaining to monsters. The event opens Oct. 13 — Friday the 13th, it should be noted — with the opening of a new art exhibit at the Museum of Art & History titled “Werewolf Hunters, Jungle Queens, and Space Commandos: The Lost Worlds of Women Comics Artists.” The exhibit throws a spotlight on women who took part in the comic-book boom of the mid-20th century and how they viewed the monsters of that time.
That same day is the opening of the Festival of Monsters, which begins with a daylong celebration that includes a reading from author Addie Tsai of her book “Unwieldy Creatures,” a queer-centric retelling of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” That’s followed by a panel discussion with the group Black Nerds Create, a chat with the creators of the anthology “Theater of Terror: Revenge of the Queers,” and a talk with author Mallory O’Meara, author of “The Lady From the Black Lagoon,”a biography of designer Milicent Patrick, who created the title monster from the classic film “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
All that is just the first day. On Saturday, Oct. 14, the festival switches to UCSC’s Digital Arts Research Center, which will host a two-day academic symposium on different sociopolitical and social-justice aspects of monster culture, which includes a staged reading of Kirsten Brandt’s play “Grendel’s Mother” and a keynote address from writer Jess Zimmerman, author of “Women and Other Monsters.” (The symposium is free to UCSC students who register.)
Then comes the crowning moment of the festival, the Monsters Ball Costume Party, open to all symposium attendees, at the Institute of Arts & Sciences on the Westside of Santa Cruz.
This year’s festival is not the first of its kind. The festival was also held last year, but in the spring. The 2023 edition was moved to October because … well, duh.
“It should be in October,” said UCSC’s Michael Chemers, the director of the Center for Monster Studies and co-coordinator of the festival.
“Also, we were planning to do a bigger festival this year,” said UCSC literature professor Renee Fox. “So skipping the spring and pushing forward to the fall gives us more time to plan it.”
“Attraction and repulsion are really in a dance with each other. And I tell my students that if you look at the monster and see the other, then you are gearing yourself up to commit atrocities against other people. But if you look at the monster and see yourself, then you’re on the edge of some really amazing personal growth potential. — Michael Chemers, director of UCSC’s Center for Monster Studies
Chemers and Fox are evangelists for considering monsters as a proper subject for academic study, expressed in the burgeoning field of monster studies. They’ll both tell you that they’re not interested in claims of “real-world” monsters like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. Instead, their focus is on the paradoxical nature of monsters as both real and imaginary things. Monsters — in all their manifestations, from Dracula to the Wolfman to Godzilla — are products of the human imagination, but they also represent and symbolize real fears, anxieties and obsessions.
“We’re talking about monsters who have cultural bodies,” said Chemers, “in the literary imagination, the dramatic imagination, in performance venues around the world. We’re looking at video games, art, comic books. The monster is a text that, if you learn how to decode it, it can tell you a tremendous amount of information about the cultures that create and sustain that monster.”
Chemers is adept at talking about that fine line between the real and the imaginary when it comes to monsters. “I tell my students that monsters don’t exist,” he said, “but they are real in the sense that they have real effects on real people.”
Monsters, said Fox, are one of the most immediate and most vivid ways to understand broad societal fears: “We’re interested in the way that the monster is a particularly unique way to both understand cultural anxieties, and to think about how a culture produces its own anxieties.”
At the same time, monsters aren’t about only manifesting cultural fears, but also about identifying sociopolitical sympathies, to recognize that many of history’s oppressed or persecuted populations were often depicted as monsters.
“They’re important points of sympathy,” said Fox. “Most people who have watched a lot of Netflix over the last few years have noticed that a lot of the monsters in great teen dramas, for example, those are sympathetic monsters. Those are monsters that you kind of imagine yourself as. And so, that fuzzy line between being afraid and being sympathetic or being empathetic is a particularly rich one.”
In its darkest vein, the monster is a handy tool to dehumanize outsider groups. Chemers mentioned that the way Jews were depicted in Nazi Germany and the way Osama bin Laden was caricatured after 9/11 was in the exact same guise, as monstrosities that posed a threat to humankind. Such examples exist even in today’s world, especially with LGBTQ people who feel they are being cast as monsters by those who want to deny their freedoms.
Chemers said that the Center for Monster Studies at UCSC is the first institution of its kind anywhere, that even though there are plenty of scholars and writers who are exploring and studying the literature of monsters in various fields, from medieval studies to anthropology, there is no one common central point those scholars can bring together their ideas and research. In planning the scholarly symposium that forms the backbone of the festival, Chemers and Fox received ideas and inquiries from scholars from all over the world.
No matter the cultural context, monsters have a universal appeal. They seem to be built into the human mind as a way to bring into focus abstract fears and worries. But they can also represent a way out of those fears as well.
“Attraction and repulsion are really in a dance with each other,” said Chemers. “And I tell my students that if you look at the monster and see the other, then you are gearing yourself up to commit atrocities against other people. But if you look at the monster and see yourself, then you’re on the edge of some really amazing personal growth potential.”
Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.