The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.
About Emily Zarka
Monster Expert, Writer/Host, Professor
Emily Zarka earned her doctorate in literature from Arizona State University where she currently serves as a faculty member and “official monster expert.” With expertise in the Gothic genre, horror, and monsters in literature and film, Zarka’s research looks at how human history can be read as monster history. Zarka is the creator, writer, and host of the popular YouTube series “Monstrum,” the flagship show on PBS’s Storied humanities channel. She also wrote and hosted a one-hour national broadcast documentary special for PBS entitled “Exhumed: A History of Zombies”, which aired October 2020, and currently serves as cohost for the Storied “Fate & Fabled” series.
As an educator and researcher, why does storytelling matter to you?
I am who I am because of stories. Stories have always been a part of my life. I firmly believe that storytelling is integral to our humanity. We share our passions, our fears, our cultures, our families, our histories, our narratives, and even if that story doesn’t take the form of the written word, if it’s visual, or if it’s shared orally, that doesn’t make it any less important. Stories connect us to ourselves and to one another, even across time and space. And that time and space, that historical element, is something I get to explore as a researcher. As an educator, I like to consider stories and teach them to my students as a tool for them to learn how to tell their own experiences more effectively, and how to interpret the experiences and stories of others open-mindedly and with clarity. Stories are important to me because I want to preserve them. I think that by trying to understand the stories of the past and the present and preserving those narratives, we can actually secure our future.
What is your definition of a story?
I believe a story is a narrative account of events, real or imagined, that provide us with knowledge and entertainment. And saying that it’s not just about entertainment is super important, at least from my own perspective. I think that it’s naive of us to think that we put these stories–these real or imagined accounts out into the world–and share them with one another and expect there not to be any repercussions, or at least any thought, or reflection, put into them when they’re heard by someone else.
As someone who teaches first year composition, I think that making sure we are telling those stories as effectively as possible, and ideally, necessarily unbiasedly, and that we are balancing the different purposes with our audience expectations is super important. That’s something that I work with a lot with “Monstrum” and my work as a public educator. I want to make sure that when I’m sharing stories, particularly experiences that aren’t my own, that I’m doing so with as much knowledge and respect as possible.
What is your storytelling thought process?
Every episode [of “Monstrum”] starts with research. I mean, that’s fundamental to who I am as an academic and a professional in my field. But I like to ask myself, “Am I looking at all the elements and perspectives of the story from the right voices? Am I doing the best to find information from the original creators in their own words? Am I honoring the story’s evolution? Am I not just looking at its origin point, but if it’s preserved, and grown, how is it done so and why? Am I sourcing from enough diverse sources?”
When I decide how I’m going to tell that story, in these visual and auditory formats with YouTube, the questions become about engaging the audience while still respecting the historical accuracy. A lot of that is about finding a link between past and present. It’s about making bonds and connections between people. And I think that finding a present moment, or a cultural theme I can connect it to in some way, is helpful. At the same time, the production team and I think all the time about what the visuals we’re using will look like.
We have an amazing illustrator, Samuel Allen, and I work with him and my director a lot about how we can represent the stories accurately in terms of the human figures we’re showing and the monster figures we’re showing. “Are they accurate to those original sources? Am I using visuals and sound provocatively, to hold interest and add accessibility?” I think perhaps more importantly, as an educator, “what can the story teach us, learning about it now?”
Have you ever decided to not tell a story and why?
This is something that we come across quite often, particularly with indigenous folklore and stories. And I try to make it very clear in “Monstrum,” that quite often we’re talking about “monsters” that not might not be perceived as monstrous by certain communities, and/or they are not pure fiction.
I think that’s an interesting thing to consider when we’re looking at folklore and its ties to mythology and culture, that even fictional stories for me have elements of truth in them. And some people still believe those elements of truth are more vibrant and alive, even today. It’s important to keep in the back of my mind, and hopefully remind my audience, that I might be talking about this particular monster, but someone else in a different part of the world might label that an ancestor spirit, or they might believe it as a possibility of something that they could encounter in their day-to-day life.
Honoring that, and trying to remind people and myself about that is super important. I’ve gotten a lot of requests for something like a Skinwalker. And I have had Diné students in the past, and I know that that’s something that’s very alive and feared even today, and for rightful reasons. I would never attempt to tell that story without having a member of that community. And this is something that has become more and more important as “Monstrum” has evolved–is finding other storytellers beside myself and beside my books and my archival research–finding a living member, if I can, to help give context to the culture and the story. I hope that in the future as “Monstrum” and my work continues to evolve, that I will have more opportunities to help other people tell their stories to a larger audience.
How are you measuring the impact of the stories that you tell?
I aligned myself with PBS because I firmly believe in their educational mission. Making money, becoming viral–that is not the main priority whatsoever. For me, success is in telling these stories and I know something is resonating. There is nothing more rewarding or more beautiful than having someone who is part of a culture, or who heard the story when they were a child, say something like, “oh my gosh, I remember my grandmother telling me about that,” or “I remember my auntie sharing that story from our past,” or “oh my gosh, you got it right for once.”
Of course, not everyone feels that way, but seeing positive feedback from people who have an invested interest in these stories is so rewarding. And the other thing that I find special is when parents with young children share that their kids are super into the series, and it’s helping them have these hard conversations. And that’s essentially what “Monstrum” is about. It’s about using monsters to look at difficult topics. So yes, we’re going to look at the Chupacabra, but we’re also going to talk about racism and the treatment of Puerto Rico in America. It’s never just about the monster. It’s about all the stories surrounding that one particular narrative character.
Anything else you’d like to share regarding general storytelling?
I want to encourage all storytellers to share their experiences and share their narratives. There are all different kinds of value in the stories we have to tell. And just because you’re not a published author, or you don’t have a PhD, or you don’t have some kind of title, it’s all arbitrary. We’re just trying to communicate with one another and build connection. And in those connections, we are creating history. So, for anyone who thinks they have any kind of story to share, find a platform to try to get your voice out there.