Catch Michael Chemers on the #PirateBroadcast™ - russjohns

Catch Michael Chemers on the #PirateBroadcast™

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Introduction: [00:00:00] Welcome to the #PirateBroadcast™, where we interview #interestingpeople doing #interestingthings. Where you can expand your connections, your community, #kindnessiscool and #smilesarefree. Let’s get this party started.

Russ Johns: [00:00:10] I'm excited about this conversation today because well, welcome to the #PirateBroadcast™. We're going to be talking about something unusual and very unique in life and it's about monsters and it's about the history. Some of the things that go along with that. And today we have Michael, we're going to be chatting about his studies, his work and how he's documented monsters. So welcome, Michael, how you doing?

Michael Chemers: [00:00:41] Thank you so much. I'm very happy to be here among the pirates.

Russ Johns: [00:00:45] I don't know if pirates fall under your jurisdiction, however,  I'm sure when Halloween rolls around, there's always some pirates that are gonna be showing up.

Michael Chemers: [00:00:53] Oh, absolutely. I would say they're adjacent. Pirates are monster adjacent. Yeah.

Russ Johns: [00:00:57] Yeah. We're the best kind of pirates because we believe that #kindnessiscool and #smilesarefree, so we're out there. We're out there spreading the enjoyment and hopefully a little bit more kindness. So Michael, we were talking before the show and this subject fascinates me at so many levels because for the longest time in our history and storytelling and everything else, one of the things that draws a lot of people into storytelling is the effect of the monsters and what it brings to the table in terms of excitement and intriguing in the storytelling episodes. So give us a little snapshot about how this study that you're working on came to effect in and how it developed and then how did you get hooked into this?

Michael Chemers: [00:01:52] That's a great question, Russ. Thank you for asking that. So I think that for me personally, the beginning of my interest in monsters had to do with the fact that I grew up in in the 1970s in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Russ Johns: [00:02:05] I grew up in Leighton.

Michael Chemers: [00:02:06] Oh, you did no kidding. No kidding.

Russ Johns: [00:02:09] Small world.

Michael Chemers: [00:02:10] That is a small world.  Nice to see you, countrymen.  But I was Jewish, and and it was a Mormon dominated environment. And I was bullied a lot. And the terms by which I was bullied had to do with monsters, they were asking me like, where are your horns? Where's your tail? Do you have black blood? That kind of thing. And so I think that was, without harping too much sad childhood, I think that was the beginning of my interest in monsters and I never stopped being interested in monsters. From the time I was a little kid, I was terrified of monsters and then I became fascinated by them and then I made them into my career and I think that one of the things that I'm most interested in is the way that we project our anxieties onto people through monsters, right? So monsters, as we were talking about before the show, monsters by definition are not real. They are cultural bodies only, but we project them often onto living bodies in order to make ourselves feel more reassured about our anxieties, right? Because once we have them in a physical realm, we can defeat them. We can confront them. But you'll notice that, for instance, Frankenstein, as an example, is a lot of people have argued over the years that Frankenstein is a manifestation of a fear of new technologies and what will happen if unethical people get their hands on a dangerous science. So that was a concern of people in the 19th century. And it's still a concern for us, which is why Frankenstein is still very much in our culture, right?  If the fear that the monster embodies is no longer a fear in the culture, then the monster loses currency and kind of disappears. But you look at the monsters that have real staying power in our culture, Frankenstein, vampires, werewolves, ghosts. These are all monsters that embody some kind of present salient fear that our culture has, our society has.

Russ Johns: [00:04:03] An emotional trigger of sorts,

Michael Chemers: [00:04:05] Absolutely. And we want to see that played out.  We're attracted to that. Not only because it scares us, but because it's possibly therapeutic for us, as well.

Russ Johns: [00:04:15] And I want to come back to that, but one of our friends, our mutual friends, Howard Kaufman, what are some of the characteristics that make a good monster? And I don't know what's a good monster in terms of monster identity.

Michael Chemers: [00:04:27] Yeah, absolutely. That's a really good question. Great question. Yeah. Thanks for that.  It depends on what you mean by good, obviously. But if we're talking about longevity, then the monster has to be adaptable enough to to continue to respond to cultural fears or social fears and anxieties and as well as personal ones. So the vampire is a perfect example, because the vampire straddles the boundaries between life and death.

Russ Johns: [00:04:51] The struggle is to resist.

Michael Chemers: [00:04:54] Exactly. To resist your darker nature. I think that a lot of our attraction to monsters is not that we fear that the monsters will come and eat us, but that we fear that we may actually be those monsters, that we may be the predator. We may be the unrepentant ghoul that is behaving badly in order to survive. So some monsters tap into some deep seated social anxieties or personal anxieties. Others adapt. So you take the zombie, for instance, one of my favorite monsters is the zombie in the 1930s. When the zombie first appeared in American culture, it embodied a fear of a racial other. . Of people of African descent from south America coming into America and with their diabolical witchcraft and taking us over. That was the initial fear. And then  somehow that turned into communists in the fifties. And then somehow that turned into Aids in the eighties and nineties, and now it has to do with a fear of globalism, so we've got these zombies that come from all over the world and attack us, but it's always about the outsider bringing disease and contagion.

Russ Johns: [00:06:02] Have you found any monsters that are no longer in existence that were in centuries past?

Michael Chemers: [00:06:09] Oh, sure, absolutely. Yeah. There's thousands of monsters that have fallen off the wayside. The fear darg for instance which was evil, fawn kind of creature that terrorized the British Isles for many centuries and then disappeared. The Amphisbaena, the two headed snake, that used to be in the jungles of Africa. The Romans were terrified of that, but that disappeared so there's a graveyard of monsters that if I showed you them now, you'd be like, that's not scary.

Russ Johns: [00:06:37] Here's a tight rope. Does Bigfoot fall into the monster category or the kind of the UFO eccentric kind of...

Michael Chemers: [00:06:50] Yeah. Bigfoot is a very interesting case, right? Because I try in my work to distinguish between monsters, which are cultural manifestations of these creatures and the cryptids, which are supposedly real creatures that are out there, that people have made legends about. So I would say to the extent that Bigfoot is real, he's a cryptid. And to the extent that he exists only in stories and myths  and folktales and rumor, then it's very productive to see him as a monster and we can analyze him as a monster. . If he shows up in a movie or a play or a video game or something like that, then he's a monster. But if he shows up in the wild behind a boulder in a slightly out of focus area, then he's a cryptid.

Russ Johns: [00:07:31] That's fantastic. That makes sense. Wendy joins us, joining the pirate ship is a fantastic adventure. Welcome, Michael.Ahoy!

Michael Chemers: [00:07:39] Thanks, Wendy.

Russ Johns: [00:07:42] And then Elise in from South Africa. Good morning, Russ and Michael and pirates. Fantastic. Angie gets to join us today. Good morning everyone. I really appreciate it. Wendy says I'm loving this conversation because monsters morph based on the fears we need to fight.

Michael Chemers: [00:07:59] Absolutely, Wendy.

Russ Johns: [00:08:00] Absolutely. That's so true. Nancy says good morning to all. And I find it fascinating because some of our darkest deepest fears are manifested by the stories that are told as kids and everything else. And monsters bring that element of excitement and intrigue and fear and anxiety and all of the emotions come to light. When we think about monsters, especially when it comes to stories, the Grimm's tales and all of the the theater that's going on, are monsters in a lot of theater. So I can see where it can be used as an enhancement to a story or the center of a story. And so how do you maneuver the studies and how do you categorize these monsters as you're studying the history and everything about them?

Michael Chemers: [00:08:58] That's a great question, Russ. Because of what I'm interested in, I categorize them according to the fears that they, let's see how to phrase this in a way that will sound interesting. When I'm looking at the Frankenstein monster or the Frankenstein story, I'm looking all the way back to ancient Greece because Mary Shelley subtitled her novel,  Frankenstein, the modern Prometheus and that is that's something that scholars don't really investigate very much. They just assume that oh yeah, the romantics were interested in Prometheus as the rebel God, the God who rebelled against Zeus and stole fire for humanity, thus saving humanity and condemning himself to thousands of years of torture. But she has to be referring to the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. So when I teach my classes, I start with Prometheus Bound as the first play that we read, and then we get into Frankenstein.  So we can say, okay, what does she really mean by him being the modern Prometheus? What exactly would a modern Prometheus do as opposed to an ancient one? And again, he transgresses against God, I guess you might say by creating life himself, that giving that spark, stealing that spark from the divine and making it his own. But interestingly, that's not why he suffers. That's not why. Frankenstein suffers because he's a bad parent because he abandons his creation after he finishes the job. He abandons the monster. And so the monster then learns that it's unwanted. That it's a monster,  that no one loves it and it becomes a murderous creature as a direct result.

Russ Johns: [00:10:32] There's a lesson there.

Michael Chemers: [00:10:34] Yeah. Absolutely.

Russ Johns: [00:10:35] Bad parents create bad kids.

Michael Chemers: [00:10:37] Bad parents create monsters. Yeah. Yeah, no question. So then most scholars read the book and then they look at the movie, the 1931 James Whale film and say, wow, why is it so different? But what I know is that there's a hundred years of theatrical production in between those time periods, right? In between the publication of Frankenstein in 1819 and the and the movie which was based on a play by Peggy Webling in the thirties. And look at the theatrical record, you can see how the story changes with every theatrical adaptation over a hundred years to become this, the Frankenstein that we know today. And why that's so different from the novel. Anyway.

Russ Johns: [00:11:18] And there's been a lot of versions of Frankenstein just in the last century.

Michael Chemers: [00:11:23] Countless.  And then if you add to that, Jurrasic Park is very much a Frankenstein story. It's got a castle, it's got a form, right? It's got a laboratory. Blade Runner is very much a Frankenstein story. The Matrix, I think is very much a Frankenstein story. Yeah these stories pervade our culture and they affect us in so many ways and sometimes we don't even know it. 

Russ Johns: [00:11:44] How do you catalog these stories as you're studying? Because of the enormous and range in diversity in monster, And especially in theater there's nuances. And just like you've mentioned, there's so many, there's a thread that goes through these things. So how do you catalog them for people to break it down and understand it?

Michael Chemers: [00:12:06] History Yeah, sure. Here it is theater history. This thing of darkness published by Rutledge a philosophy. And I'll give you a link That's a great question. So I have a book, I guess I should probably pitch it.

Russ Johns: [00:12:20] You should probably pitch your book.

Michael Chemers: [00:12:22] Pitch my book. This is it. It's called the The Monster in Theater History. But in this book, what I do is I take different monsters, I take the Frankenstein monster, vampires, werewolves, the Golem and ghosts and I do what I just did with you just now. I create genealogical studies of them so that you can see how they manifest in different cultures over different time periods or in the same culture over different time periods. And then how that can indicate how that cultures fear, how the social psychology of that culture is changing over time. And what they're afraid of is different over time. So what I'm particularly interested in looking at how a zombie in 2020 is different from a zombie in 1930, right? What are the characteristics of them that are different? How did it change and then why did it change? Vampire is particularly interesting in that regard.

Russ Johns: [00:13:16] Cuz Walking Dead.

Michael Chemers: [00:13:17] Yeah, exactly. What about walking dead?  What does that have to do with it, right?

Russ Johns: [00:13:21] Yeah. There's a connection there. Man, we got some comments here. Let's answer some questions here. Yeah. Wendy says I'm loving this conversation because monsters more based on our fears need to fight. And then Nancy goes morning all. Good morning, Nancy, how are you doing? Nancy says, I think some of our deepest, darkest fears are from the unknown. Monsters are a way to concretize our fears, gives us something to fight against, actually solidify it. That's a great concept.  I like that.  I'd love to learn about pirates feared as young children. Me, vampires. Taking something from me that I urgently need... blood. Now we're producing a series of novels about TV, about blood with a twist, my golden blood. Yes. I love that project. Hey, #piratenation Martin says. And Martin says, hi Nancy, the Frankenstein story mirrors, what we all feel. And it is universal. It is universal. It is that essence of, wow, what do I fear? What's my deepest, darkest fear and abandonment is a huge part of that.

Michael Chemers: [00:14:35] Yeah, absolutely.

Russ Johns: [00:14:38] Are monsters accelerating in the 20th century and 21st century?

Michael Chemers: [00:14:43] Yes, I think so. They've always been a vibrant part of our culture, but I think possibly as what we used to call when you and I were kids, Russ,  there was a thing we call  geek culture. Now we call that culture, right? Monsters, fantasy, Lord of the Rings, superheroes, right? This used to be the province of geeks, now it's everybody.  And I think that has a lot to do with this, this object right here, the pocket computer which enables us to have access to technology is designed by geeks for geeks. And so the rest of us just run along and I'd say the rest of us, I'm a geek. Yeah. We're geeks. So I think that as geek culture has become culture, the interest in monsters and other fantasy creatures. Has just become more and more prevalent and And I like it. I like it. But I also think that as we continue to, if you look at our nation right now, Russ, it's very hard to say that it's not very polarized and and people are. Of what the future will bring. The climate is changing and the, and and we seem to be very divided in our culture. There's a lot of things to be afraid of. And the more fearful we are, the more monsters are going to manifest in our society.

Russ Johns: [00:15:55] What's the most fascinating monster you've studied so far?

Michael Chemers: [00:15:59] Wow. The most fascinating monster I guess for me personally, just personally, it's the werewolf. The werewolf is the most interesting monster to me personally, but that's because my psychology, my fears from when I was a child, they specifically revolve around wolves and getting eaten by wolves and becoming a Wolf and things like that. So for me, I used to be terrified of werewolves. And even when I was in college, I couldn't go see a werewolf movie because I was too scared of them. Now, because I know a lot more about them and because I know a lot more about myself, I'm absolutely enthralled with them and I can't wait to see the next werewolf movie and I just love werewolves now. So that's something too. You can change your fear into joy if you study this stuff. And you learn a lot about yourself if you investigate the monster that scares you the most. Like Wendy said, she was really scared of vampires. Like I would probe that Wendy, I would see if you can get in there and see if you can figure out why it is exactly  that the vampires scare you so much because you fear the loss of that thing that makes you alive. What is threatening that? So it could be a lot of fun. You can learn a lot about yourself.

Russ Johns: [00:17:08] I love it. There's a lot of people that fear different things and one that you had mentioned was clowns.

Michael Chemers: [00:17:16] Oh yeah.

Russ Johns: [00:17:18] Clowns don't fall under exactly the monster category because they are real. But you also had a fascination with joining the circus.

Michael Chemers: [00:17:27] Oh yeah, absolutely.

Russ Johns: [00:17:28] It's not too late, Michael, you can still join the circus.

Michael Chemers: [00:17:31] I did. I got involved with a group in Seattle called circus contraption, which was this amazing sort of dark burlesque circus troupe that was very popular for awhile. And unfortunately they don't exist anymore as an organization, but  luckily I developed some very close friendships with some of the members of them and so we collaborate on different projects.

Russ Johns: [00:17:51] I was thinking of something along the lines of monsters and cirque du soleil so I was like, that'd be a interesting combination.

Michael Chemers: [00:18:00] Absolutely. But clowns are scary because they straddle a nightmarish realm of pain.  I had a clown explained to me once that when a juggler juggles, the whole point is to make it look easy, right? And when a clown juggles, the whole point is to make it looklike it's about to collapse into this horrible destruction at any moment, right? So clowns are scary, and clowns know that they need to be very careful when they work, because they know that they straddle that boundary, that they could become monsters at any second. Yeah, definitely.

Russ Johns: [00:18:31] So monsters, what's on the future and the horizon for monsters in this study? You've been studying this for a number of years now. You're documenting this in theater and some of the things that are coming out. Any epiphany's that took place, any kind of large gotcha, I was like, wow, I had never even imagined that.

Michael Chemers: [00:18:51] Yeah. A couple of things. One is I don't know  if your listeners know about the slender man is a really terrifying monster that only exists on the internet. And I dunno if you, have you heard about Slenderman?

Russ Johns: [00:19:02] I haven't.

Michael Chemers: [00:19:03] Oh, he's a very scary, faceless, tall creature in a suit, he wears a suit and he appears in photos, usually of children. And he's watching the children from  the distance, and as far as I can tell, this is a brand new monster. This is a monster that doesn't have any antecedents in older monsters, which is very nice. So I think that this is the monster that when we use the internet, we ignore the fact that we're being watched, that our data is being gathered that there are people who are paying very close attention to what we do online, who do not have our best interests at heart. And in order for us to use the internet, we have to ignore that fear. But it comes out, it bubbles out. It bubbles out. And so it becomes the slender man, or the the virus creature in the matrix. That terrible virus creature. So I'm very interested to see what Slenderman does in the next few years as a new monster.

Russ Johns: [00:19:53] Wow. These things are Fascinating subjects. And it's all about our psyche and how we perceive life and where we are going to take our next steps.  Cause we don't  wanna create any more danger in our life than there already exists. So a monster is just a way of describing and bringing into reality, of sorts, some of our darkest deepest fears.

Michael Chemers: [00:20:18] Exactly. There's a case that I think is really interesting that Europeans used to be very terrified of fairies, F A E R I E S, the Fey creatures were these alien creatures that live just on the other side of the mirror or just in the shadows. And they had their own nations and their own politics and they had their own values and they were very difficult for us to understand why they did anything in particular or they would steal children. They would curdle milk. They would, do terrible things to you.

Russ Johns: [00:20:48] Everything that happened bad was because of the fairies.

Michael Chemers: [00:20:51] Exactly. And I had a student who did a study of aliens as monsters, and she came to the conclusion that we're no longer scared of fairies, but we are scared of aliens and  they fill the same ecological niche, if you will. They are these terrifying creatures that live just beyond our sight, that we don't know why they do what they do. They steal children.  They cause bad things to happen and we don't know why, because we don't know what their values are.  But that's kind of interesting.

Russ Johns: [00:21:22] That's fascinating.  Nancy says slender man, my elementary students talk about him all the time. He creates fear and fascination.

Michael Chemers: [00:21:31] Yeah. Yeah. The kids are terrified of slender, man.

Russ Johns: [00:21:34] Yeah. And that is a scary monster. Martin hadn't heard about him until now, but I think that he just became my number one monster.

Michael Chemers: [00:21:44] Sorry about that, Martin. The slender man is very scary.

Russ Johns: [00:21:49] Yeah. He says, I love clowns as a kid and I feel they are being vilified unfairly.  I might be coming out as a clown activist.

Michael Chemers: [00:21:59] And I think it's great that you love clowns. Clowns of course, are not really monsters unless they appear as monsters,  but I do think, and so I'm sorry if you feel that the monsters are being vilified, i that was not my intent. If the clowns are being vilified, it wasn't my intention to cast aspersions upon a whole people who are good entertainers.

Russ Johns: [00:22:16] Yeah. Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Yeah for me. Yeah. Wendy says wolves are bullies, Michael, you have found joy.

Michael Chemers: [00:22:24] Yeah, I have. Thanks, Wendy.

Russ Johns: [00:22:28] Humans took  monster form in our childhood. Now we have to see a few humans are actually monsters. Never again.

Michael Chemers: [00:22:36] Yeah.

Russ Johns: [00:22:38] Down with clowns.

Michael Chemers: [00:22:39] Oh no. They're in a tweet war.

Russ Johns: [00:22:42] Yeah. It's like the pineapple on pizza, right?

Michael Chemers: [00:22:45] Talk about monstrosity.

Russ Johns: [00:22:47] Yeah. So Michael, how do people connect with you and catch up with you? Where do they go?

Michael Chemers: [00:22:53] Anybody can write me at chemers@ucsc.edu, that's my work address. You can check out our website, there's not a lot on there right now, but that's going to change rapidly in the next few months. monsterstudies@ucsc.edu

Russ Johns: [00:23:13] Wow. Thank you so much for showing up and sharing this. I know we attempted a couple of connections earlier on and finally got to happen. So it's absolutely wonderful experience.

Michael Chemers: [00:23:23] I'm very thankful to be here and it was a great conversation. I really appreciate it, Russ. I'm happy to come on any other time.

Russ Johns: [00:23:29] Yeah, I know it goes by quick. So definitely have to come back and share with the pirates some of the activities that you've got going on. And as this expands and we evolve as our own little monsters, we can actually see what's going on around us.

Michael Chemers: [00:23:43] Absolutely. I'll be happy to give reports from the field. I'm out there with the monsters. I'm happy to give reports.

Russ Johns: [00:23:48] Love it. Love it. Thank you so much.

Michael Chemers: [00:23:50] My pleasure.

Russ Johns: [00:23:51] Everyone, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it. Howard Kaufman says fascinating, Wendy says this is great info. Martin says as just proven LOL.  Martin says you the clowns. They seem to be everyone's favorite fear character.

Michael Chemers: [00:24:08] Okay. All right. Thanks Martin.

Russ Johns: [00:24:12] Thank you so much for being here, everyone. As always, #kindnessiscool, #smilesarefree, like, comment and share. Click on that subscribe button as much as possible so we can be found by others. And as always#kindnessiscool, #smilesarefree, and you #enjoytheday. Take care.

Michael Chemers: [00:24:32] Thanks, Russ. Bye.

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