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

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

—Randomman16 on Reddit’s Showerthinks

If “Frankenstein” has taught us anything, it’s that the nature of the monster must be misunderstood. As if to drive the point home, in the minds of most contemporary people, the term “monster” itself refers to a fun but rather silly area of ​​interest reserved for 9-year-old boys (and those with emotional maturity of 9 years). -boys under one), or it’s a disapproving buzzword for slapping someone for a serious moral shortcoming (“Putin is a freak!”).

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

Yeah, there’s a thing called the UC Santa Cruz Monster Festival, and it’s a good chance to get rid of, like so many cobwebs, all those lazy guesses and misinterpretations that have accumulated around this word. From May 20-22, the Center for Monster Studies at UCSC (yes, that’s a thing too) will host a festival that blends scholarship and entertainment, to explore the many faces of the monster in literature, folklore, film and popular culture.

Of course, there is a scholarly roundtable on the many faces of the monster and the meaning of the monster in mankind’s dreams and nightmares. But that’s not all. The festival will also include a screening of the 1920 German silent horror film “Der Golem”, a staged reading of “Grendel’s Mother”, by ex-UCSC professor Kirsten Brandt, based on the famous monster from “Beowulf,” novelist Riva Lehrer reading her memoir “Golem Girl,” a horror-writing contest for UCSC students, and an ambitious multimedia show billed as a “guided tour” of mythological monsters.

Most of this monstrous mayhem will take place on campus. But the festival will also move to town to host a Monsters’ Masquerade Ball, free and open to all humans and humanoid 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 craziness is Michael Chemers, director of the Center for Monster Studies and chair of UCSC’s new Performance, Play & Design department.

Monster Studies is now just an affiliation of scholars who work on monsters, not yet a major program. Several departments offer courses on 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 Professor Emeritus of Psychology and former Chancellor of UCSC Martin Chemers, Michael Chemers has written several books on theater and drama, 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 about Mary Shelley’s timeless novel, “Frankenstein,” and James Whale’s film adaptations.

“As far as I know, it’s unique,” Chemers said of the upcoming festival. “I don’t think anyone else does stuff like that at all.”

Monsters have been a concern of researchers for eons, Chemers said. But monsters as a separate area of ​​study is relatively new. Chemers credits Jeffrey J. Cohen, currently Dean of Humanities at Arizona State University, with pioneering monster studies, dating back to the publication of his book “Monster Theory” in 1996. Cohen will be present at the festival, participating in a discussion of monsters in the modern age titled “Making the Contemporary Monster” with Chemers, bioethicist Rosemarie Garland Thomson and horror writer Mike Carey.

“It’s really exciting for me,” Chemers said. “These are three people that I look up to enormously and have had for many years. To be able to get them all together in one room so they can talk about creating 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 theatrical arts teacher, he was a popular draw for his “Monsters” course, and he also wrote the book “The Monster in Theater History: This Thing of Darkness.”

So how does Chemers define “monster” in the context of this festival? He sees it as a creation of the human imagination.

“We’re not interested in ‘real’ quote-unquote monsters,” he said, “like the Loch Ness Monster. is not my problem. We are only interested in the cultural manifestations of monsters. Or, in how real people are referred to as “monsters,” like the Jews in World War II, as a precursor to atrocity.

Chemers said that the monster in folklore and literature was that creature trapped between two worlds, the human and the non-human. “(The monster exists) on the border between the possible and the impossible,” he said. “But that’s what Cohen provided us with, the monster like figure that has one foot in something we recognize and one foot in something impossible. So usually they exist on the border between two binaries that we don’t think we’re normally crossable – like, between man and beast, that’s your werewolf, right? Or between living and dead, that’s your vampire, right? Or by then it’s your ghost.

Playwright and director Kirsten Brandt also participates in the festival, presenting her play “Grendel’s Mother” as a staged reading. Brandt, a longtime professor in the Department of Theater Arts at UCSC, 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 re-imagines the second battle scene from “Beowulf”, in which the heroes of the poem follow 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 feminine monster, and how just by making a change of perspective on her, you can really talk about ‘Eh well, who is the monster?’”

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

Frankenstein and his wife

(Via UC Santa Cruz Center for Monster Studies)

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

“He’s a representation of the anxiety we feel when we’re on the web, being watched by corporate or government interests,” said Chemers of the Slender Man. “And it’s a new monster, because we’ve never had the Internet before.”

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

“The vampire has always embodied our fear of crossing the line between life and death,” Chemers said. “It’s a pretty basic 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 who might rise up against their masters. And then in the 1950s the zombies became communists. Now they represent globalism out of control.

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

“And so,” Chemers said, “when you go to see a monster movie, you engage in a therapeutic process where your anxiety is teased and shaped and then conquered. So it’s reassuring for you to see a monster movie, or seeing a monster play, or reading a monster story. It makes you feel like you’re going 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 Monster Festival takes place May 20-22. All venues will be on the UCSC campus except for the Saturday Night Monsters Masquerade Ball at the Tannery World Arts and Dance Center. People interested in attending the monster ballmust RSVP. All activities are free, except for the multimedia “docent tour” of mythological monsters.Amdouat: The 12 Hours of Raon Sunday, May 22. For more information on the Center for Monster Studies,go here.

About Norma Wade

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