Above: Monster horror poster (Illustration by Man_Half-tube)
Monsters are coming out of the shadows and into academia.
A new research hub at UC Santa Cruz called the Center for Monster Studies may have a fanciful name, but its leaders say these frightful beings can help us better understand the world, explain human fears, teach us empathy, and cultivate a sense of compassion toward those who may be seen as disturbing or threateningly different.
The center studies monsters throughout history, like Frankenstein’s terrible creation, vampires, mummies, and more. Through a close look, scholars and artists are finding out society’s deepest fears and greatest hopes.
Michael Chemers, founder and director of the center, has always sympathized with monsters—he felt like he was treated like one when he was growing up Jewish in Mormon-dominated Salt Lake City. He was regularly beaten up by classmates, harassed by police, and denied job opportunities, he said.
“People asked me where my horns were,” said Chemers, 52. “It was evil to be Jewish.”
Chemers, a theater arts professor who is also chair of the Department of Performance, Play and Design, pointed out that labeling someone or a group a monster is a way to legitimize atrocities against them.
“Not only psychopaths commit atrocities,” he said. “If you convince someone that another person is not a human but a monster, they can feel justified in doing terrible things to that person.”
After a while, he embraced his “monster” identity and gave up trying to please the establishment.
“I found a lot of power and a lot of solace in being the monster,” he said.
The making of monster studies
Chemers found enjoyment from exploring monsters in comic books and video games. He also loved the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
As he got older, he was attracted to the horror genre in literature and movies. His favorite horror movie is 1981’s The Howling, about werewolves.
When he started developing courses on monsters as an adult, not everybody understood what he was doing. As a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he had to explain himself all the time.
But that changed when he began teaching at UC Santa Cruz about 10 years ago.
“When I came here, people were really excited about it,” he said.
Inspired by FrankenCon
The impetus for the Center for Monster Studies occurred in 2019 when the university presented a play by UCSC lecturer Kirsten Brandt called The Frankenstein Project, a feminist- and biotechnology-oriented adaptation of Frankenstein, in commemoration of the 201st anniversary of the original Mary Shelley novel.
In conjunction with the show, the UCSC Humanities Institute and the Arts Division presented FrankenCon, a three-day conference of scientists, theorists, authors, and artists who explored the Frankenstein legend.
The event included provocative discussion on topics such as, “What is ‘mad science’ and how do we guard against it?” and “What has Frankenstein taught scientists and cultural critics about the dangers of science without conscience?” Participants included Biomolecular Engineering Professor David Haussler, who led the UCSC team that assembled the human genome, and Emeritus Chancellor and Astronomy and Astrophysics Professor George Blumenthal.
The conversation, led by Chemers, was published in 2021 as the article “The Problem is Not Monsters” in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics.
“So, on what moral basis do we judge a future of [artificial intelligence] and genetically modified beings?” Haussler asked at one point in the discussion. “Who is going to be the moral authority in creating the new world that will exist? This is fundamental because technology is on an incredibly powerful curve at this point, and there is no doubt it will have a profound effect on everything, including what it means to be human.”
The conference worked out so well that Chemers wondered how to build on that success. He envisioned setting up a Center for Monster Studies and was amazed when his proposal for seed funding from the university’s Office of Research was accepted.
While the COVID-19 pandemic made everything more challenging, the new center was able to host an in-person Festival of Monsters in May 2022 consisting of a weekend of scholarly presentations and art focused on monsters and their hidden meaning. All participants were invited to a Monsters’ Masquerade Ball, and more than 350 people attended.
“I worked hard during the pandemic as a way of coping with the isolation,” Chemers said. “It was my way of dealing with the sadness and loneliness of lockdowns.”
Hear the fear
Listen in! Michael Chemers joins podcast host Mike Halekakis (Boom! Knowledge) for “The Show Where They Talk About Monsters,” a lively and hilarious discussion about the things that scare us the most.
Intersecting with monsters
The center is now a group of scholars and artists whose work intersects somehow with monsters. This includes faculty members in anthropology, sociology, engineering, literature, history, games, feminist studies, critical race and ethnic studies, and geography.
“It’s very exciting,” Chemers said. “We’ve got these people from all corners of the university.”
The students are eager to participate. Chemers teaches the class Monsters in Drama, which enrolls 400 students and has a huge waitlist every year.
“They come in ready to go,” he said. “They are raised on Twilight, Harry Potter, video games, and Dungeons & Dragons.”
Noah Wardrip-Fruin, a professor of computational media, connected with Chemers through their collaboration on role-playing games. One of their joint projects is a computational assistant for the role-playing game Cthulhu Confidential, which draws on the work of monster-loving science-fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft.
While monsters are often used as ways of othering and reducing empathy, “role-playing games are one example of ways people have subverted monster tropes and reworked monster tropes to build empathy,” Wardrip-Fruin said.
He said his colleagues in the Computational Media Department are not surprised by his involvement with the Center for Monster Studies.
“Computational Media is full of people doing weird interdisciplinary work,” he said. “Overall, the campus welcomes such things.”
Stand-ins for human fears
UC Santa Cruz students can connect with the center by taking one of the classes listed on its website—currently the 16 offerings include Monsters in Drama; Race, Gender, and Algorithms (Androids); and The Vampire in Literature and Pop Culture.
Ash Hough (Merrill ’23) recently took the class Exhibiting Monsters, team-taught by Chemers and Renee Fox, an assistant professor of literature. The class had students complete prep work for an upcoming exhibition of comic book illustrations by women. The exhibition is scheduled to be on display in October 2023 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
Hough, who is pursuing a double major in literature and linguistics with a concentration on creative writing, said she and other students examined comic artists from the 1930s through the 1990s and made digital mock-ups that may be used for the final show.
Hough also won first prize in the Center for Monster Studies’ 2022 horror writing contest for her short story “All of Us Monstrous.” The story is about a young girl who grows fangs, tails, and other mutations when she experiences moments of same-sex attraction.
“It’s a metaphor for not being comfortable with your sexuality,” she said, adding that she wrote it before she knew about the contest.
Like Chemers, Hough has always been a fan of monsters. She agrees that monsters seem to serve as stand-ins for human fears in contemporary society.
“Monsters might represent the fear of immigration, homophobia, any manner of societal fears,” she said.
Enlightening with the Dark Ages
Fox, the assistant professor of literature, was an early supporter of the center, as her field of Gothic and Victorian literature is a perfect fit. She teaches seven classes listed on the center’s website—the most of any faculty member.
Fox was an avid fan of vampires in high school and has fond memories of a college course on cinema and literature that focused on Dracula. That led to her scholarly interest in 19th-century British and Irish literature, which is at the root of many monster stories today.
In that time of European colonial expansion around the globe, some British writers had anxiety about whether the violence seen in other lands could come back to haunt them. This was also the time that Europeans were excavating sites in Egypt and bringing back sculptures and art from their colonies to Western museums.
“Egypt was a great empire whose artifacts could now be collected by European powers,” Fox said, adding that writers wondered: “What happens when you take all these things from this exotic place and bring them to a domestic space?”
These types of activities provided fodder for many horror and monster stories, Fox said.
Embracing the vampire
It’s fascinating to see how monsters have changed over time, said Chemers. For instance, vampires, fictional creatures that have always been strange and dangerous, are more popular than ever.
“People used to be afraid of vampires, but now they want to be vampires,” he said, adding that Angel and Spike were the most interesting characters in the popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (A show that had a UCSC connection—writer Marti Noxon [Oakes ’87, theater arts] was its supervising producer.)
The biggest challenge now for the Center of Monster Studies is planning how it is going to grow, Chemers said. He is looking for bigger grants, wider sources of funding, and ways to involve even more people.
“I think people are willing to take monsters seriously at UCSC,” he said.