Grendel, Golems and Godzilla and more: For one weekend, UCSC becomes Monsters U

An illustration of a monster
(Via UC Santa Cruz Center for Monster Studies)

The UC Santa Cruz Festival of Monsters, slated for May 20-22, asks big questions about the figures, sliding between life and death, that have captured the human imagination for centuries.

“We’ve never actually heard the ‘Monster Mash,’ just a song about the ‘Monster Mash.’”

Wallace

— Randomman16 on Reddit’s Showerthoughts

If “Frankenstein” taught us anything, it’s that the nature of the monster is to be misunderstood. As if to drive home the point, in the minds of most contemporary folks, the term “monster” itself either refers to a fun but rather silly area of interest reserved for 9-year-old boys (and those with the emotional maturity of 9-year-old boys), or it’s a trendy term of disapproval to slap onto someone for some grave moral shortcoming (“Putin is a monster!”).

But at least for one weekend, on one UC campus, the monster will get a fair appraisal.

Yes, there is a thing called the UC Santa Cruz Festival of Monsters, and it’s a good opportunity to shake off, like so many cobwebs, all those lazy assumptions and wrong-headed interpretations that have accumulated around that word. On May 20-22, the Center for Monster Studies at UCSC (yes, that’s a thing, too) will host a festival mixing scholarship and fun, to explore the many faces of the monster in literature, folklore, film and popular culture.

Sure, there’s a panel discussion of learned scholars on the many faces of the monster and the monster’s meaning in humanity’s dreams and nightmares. But that’s not all. Also part of the festival will be a screening of the 1920 German silent horror film “Der Golem,” a staged reading of “Grendel’s Mother,” by ex-UCSC prof Kirsten Brandt, based on the famous monster from “Beowulf,” novelist Riva Lehrer reading from her memoir “Golem Girl,” a horror writing contest for UCSC students, and an ambitious multimedia show billed as a “docent tour” of mythological monsters.

Most of that monstrous mayhem will take place on campus. But the festival will also move into town to host a Monsters’ Masquerade Ball, free and open to all humans and humanlike creatures, on the evening of Saturday, May 21, at the Tannery World Arts and Dance Center, with prizes for best costume.

The Victor Frankenstein behind all this madness is Michael Chemers, the director of the Center for Monster Studies and the chair of the new Department of Performance, Play & Design at UCSC.

Monster Studies is now just an affiliation of scholars who work on monsters, not yet a major program. Several departments offer classes having to do with monsters, with several hundred students. Chemers’ popular Theater Arts class, “Monsters in Drama,” has between 350 and 400 students enrolled.

Chemers has been at UCSC since 2012. The son of psychology professor emeritus and former UCSC chancellor Martin Chemers, Michael Chemers has written several books on theater and dramaturgy, including his latest “Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show.” He says his favorite monster is the werewolf.

This festival is an offshoot of a 2019 event Chemers also brought to life called “FrankenCon,” a three-day conference on Mary Shelley’s timeless novel, “Frankenstein,” and James Whale’s film adaptations.

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“As far as I know, it’s unique,” said Chemers of the upcoming festival. “I don’t think anybody else is doing stuff like this at all.”

Monsters have been a preoccupation of scholars for eons, Chemers said. But monsters as a discrete field of study, that’s relatively new. Chemers credits Jeffrey J. Cohen, currently dean of humanities at Arizona State University, as the pioneer in monster studies, dating from the publication of his book “Monster Theory” in 1996. Cohen will be on hand at the festival, participating in a discussion of monsters in the modern age called “Making the Contemporary Monster” with Chemers, bioethicist Rosemarie Garland Thomson and horror writer Mike Carey.

“This is really exciting for me,” said Chemers. ”These are three people who I really admire tremendously and have for many years. To be able to get them all together into one room so that they can talk about the creation of monsters and what it means to be a monster in contemporary culture is very exciting.”

Chemers himself is a central figure in the field of monster studies. As a theater arts professor, he was a popular draw for his “Monsters” course, and he also wrote the book “The Monster in Theatre History: This Thing of Darkness.”

So, how does Chemers define “monster” for the purpose of this festival? He thinks of it as a creation of the human imagination.

“We’re not interested in quote-unquote ‘real’ monsters,” he said, “like the Loch Ness monster. If a werewolf comes walking across the campus looking for a snack, that’s not my problem. We’re only interested in cultural manifestations of monsters. Or, in the way that real people get characterized as ‘monsters,’ such as Jews during World War II, as a precursor to atrocity.”

Chemers said that the monster in folklore and literature has been that creature trapped between two worlds, the human and the nonhuman. “(The monster exists) on the border between the possible and the impossible,” he said. “But that’s what Cohen provided for us, the monster as this figure that has one foot in something that we recognize and one foot in something that’s impossible. So usually they exist at the border between two binaries that we don’t think are normally crossable — like, between human and beast, that’s your werewolf, right? Or between alive and dead, that’s your vampire, right? Or between now and then, that’s your ghost.”

Playwright and director Kirsten Brandt is also participating in the festival, presenting her play “Grendel’s Mother” as a staged reading. Brandt, a longtime professor in UCSC’s theater arts department who is now at San Jose State, said her play focuses on one of Western literature’s most famous female monsters, the mother of the troll-like monster Grendel in the old English epic poem “Beowulf.” Brandt’s play reimagines the second battle scene in “Beowulf,” in which the poem’s heroes track Grendel’s mother to her cave, where she and Beowulf fight to the death.

“I’m really interested in unpacking the ‘monstrous feminine,’” she said, “you know, the female monster, and how just by doing a point-of-view shift on her, you can really talk about ‘Well, who is the monster?’”

The piece, said Brandt, is “really about the collateral damage of women in wartime.”

Frankenstein and his bride
(Via UC Santa Cruz Center for Monster Studies)

Monsters have been part of the human imagination for millennia, from Medusa in Greek mythology, to the Leviathan in the Bible, to the “Slender Man,” a shadowy supernatural figure that has surfaced in internet memes in the past decade.

“He’s a representation of the anxiety that we feel when we’re on the web, that we are being watched by corporate or government interests,” said Chemers of the Slender Man. “And he’s a new monster, because we haven’t had the internet before.”

Popular manifestations of monsters such as the zombie or the vampire keep resurfacing because they are durable and meaningful symbols of different recurring fears, in many different cultural and political contexts.

“The vampire has always embodied our fear of crossing the boundary between life and death,” said Chemers. “That’s a pretty core fear that people have. But the vampire also embodies a lot of very interesting queer politics that change over time, for example. The zombie, when it first came out, it was very racist. It was about the fear of slaves that might rise up against their masters. And then in the ’50s, zombies became communists. Now, they represent globalism out of control.”

Cultural depictions of monsters are almost always embodiments of human anxieties, said Chemers. Whether it’s Grendel, the ancient Jewish figure of the Golem, or the Japanese creation of Godzilla, monsters give shape and form to our fears.

“And so therefore,” said Chemers, “when you go to witness a monster movie, you’re engaging in a therapeutic process by which your anxiety is teased out and given form, and then defeated. So it’s reassuring to you to see a monster movie, or to see a monster play, or to read a monster story. That makes you feel like you’re getting somewhere psychologically with your anxiety. But of course, it doesn’t really work. So you have to do it again and again and again. And again.”

The UC Santa Cruz Festival of Monsters takes place May 20-22. All venues will be on the UCSC campus, except the Saturday night Monsters’ Masquerade Ball at the Tannery World Arts and Dance Center. Those interested in attending the Monsters’ Ballmust RSVP. All events are free, except the multimedia “docent tour” of mythological monsters “Amduat: The 12 Hours of Ra” on Sunday, May 22. For more information on the Center for Monster Studies,go here.

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