Monsters onstage

As a testing ground for the monstrous, theater manifests the cultural processing of fear, said Michael Chemers, professor of dramatic literature and theater arts. This 1823 engraving by Nathaniel Whittock depicts T. P. Cooke as "The Demon" in the first-ever theatrical adaptation of Frankenstein, entitled Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, by Richard Brinsely Peake. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When Frankenstein’s creature lurches onstage, or Dracula disappears into the wings, what do the audience’s shudders convey? Michael Chemers, professor of dramatic literature and theater arts, sees the cultural processing of fear.

“I’m interested in freaks. I’m interested in monsters. I’m interested in deviants of all kinds,” said Chemers. He is preoccupied, he said, with how humans define and demonize the “other.”

The theater brings this question to life, literally, as actors embody society’s greatest anxieties. In his 2017 book, The Monster in Theatre History: This Thing of Darkness, Chemers explores how theater acts as a testing ground for the monstrous. For example, in her 1818 novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s monster turned evil only after his creator abandoned him. But by 1931, the movie monster played by Boris Karloff was an abomination from the start. Bridging the two depictions is more than a century of theatrical reinvention.

Performance art has served as a tool of monsterization throughout human history, Chemers said, including, for example, medieval European plays that demonized Jews. Today, the same tropes pop up in political rhetoric, stoking fear of immigrants and Muslims.

“Fear is very important to humans. It keeps us alive,” Chemers said. “But it also leads us into error—the more we know about fear and how it operates, the better we are prepared to move to a more just and harmonious society.”

—Stephanie Pappas