Interview: Benji Geary on the Return of Meow Wolf's Monster Battle

The history behind Meow Wolf’s family-friendly Monster Battle, happening on June 28, 2024 from 6-10pm at Santa Fe’s Railyard Park.

The monsters are rearing their shaggy, be-horned heads once again for Meow Wolf’s Monster Battle, this June 28th at Santa Fe’s Railyard Park. 

The Monster Battle is a time-honored Meow Wolf tradition that is a free, open invitation for all ages. Started in 2009, the Battle predates all of the other Meow Wolf exhibitions. The conceit? There’s monsters. They have differences. They must battle it out for typhonic supremacy while also dancing to electronic music. It’s a family-friendly event, but one that will speak to the feral little freak who lives inside all of us. 

I sat down with Meow Wolf’s Benji Geary to talk about the history of Monster Battle and the unspoken cosmic importance of monsters and all things monstrous. 

Monster Battle in Santa Fe Plaza. Photo by Reyes Mendez

How did you get involved with Monster Battle? Has this been happening for years? Centuries? How did Monster Battle find a home in Santa Fe?

Benji: I like incorporating the term ‘centuries.’ You know, it might have been a collective subconscious channel of something happening for millennia. Maybe at the dawn of abstract thought. 

In our physical plane, it manifested in Santa Fe around 2009 on the Plaza. It started as a flash mob. It was unsanctioned by the city; it was just something we decided we were going to do. Dada-ist and abstract enough, but also overt enough that people knew something was happening even if they couldn’t pin it down as a specific event. They thought, ‘Oh. This is just happening on Earth. These monsters are just showing up here.’ It was strangely well-received.

It was a nice summer day and then a flash mob showed up. People were psyched on it. Really happy. 

Then, some years later, it got too big. We published something in the (Santa Fe) Reporter. We made all these flyers and stuff. We showed up and the police were waiting for us there. We couldn’t do it on the Plaza any more. But then the bandstand accepted it and now it’s institutional. Insane.”

What is a monster? And what does it mean to be monstrous?

Wow. That’s philosophical. I think of, like, the Pixies song (‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’). ‘If man is five, the devil is six, then god is seven…’ 

I think there’s something more than people– something that humans have discovered on the road to apotheosis. Monsters are misunderstood and they come from different stock, more divine stock. They have that concept of steps to apotheosis and hybridization. What does it mean to tap into that? We’re on our own anthropological journey, merging with tech, merging with animals. (The monstrous) is a form of evolution, being beyond or getting into something where we can accomplish more than we can normally. That or the Other. On the Outside. (The monstrous) is about things that are misunderstood.

Monster Battle in Santa Fe Plaza. Photo by Kate Russell

Why do monsters battle? And what kind of things do they fight about?

I guess they have their own beefs, interpersonal beefs with each other, but maybe it isn’t about fighting in general. It’s about fighting the status quo. It’s about fighting for existence, perhaps. 

These two monsters could have beef left over from elementary school, but it’s not about that. It’s about fighting in general. It’s like Valhalla, you know? This is what you do. This is what you’re good at. And if you can do that forever, then battling is probably the best way to settle long-seated, unspoken beefs. Perhaps it’s a way to give something out. It’s a battle to be recognized. To prove you’re alive.

How many monsters are living in New Mexico as we speak? How do we compare to other places in the country? Are conditions here more or less hospitable to the monstrous?

I imagine monsters that are indigenous to this area have to stay within what we see already in terms of flora and fauna. They gotta be hearty enough to survive the high desert. They have to conserve water, survive what the elevation takes. They gotta have efficient lung capacity or oxygen absorption, like succulent plants. 

You know, Zozobra apparently lives in the hills all year round until he’s burned. He’s up there! So we know of at least one! That’s the weirdest thing for me to think about. There’s, like, a cryptid dude, this dress-man who lives up in the hills. He eats a bunch of gloom until he gets that big.

Weird shit like that is always happening in New Mexico.

You enjoy fighting sports and fighting games. Do you think Monster Battling could eventually have a league of its own? Why or why not?

Wow! It comes to sumo wrestling to me, for sure. It’s so ritualistic. It has so many chaotic moments and it can be a blood sport, but there’s so many rituals involved with it. I also love Street Fighter 2 and other fighting games from back in the day.

I think (Monster Battling) could be a league! In sumo there’s types. You have the lifters, the pushers, the slappers. There’s all different ways of fighting and hundreds of moves. You wouldn’t imagine there being that many ways to just push someone out of a ring, but each style has its own thing.

That could exponentially grow with monster variants! This monster’s winged. This monster has claws. This monster has weird mummy powers. There’d have to be a standard, though, a goal. Otherwise it’s hard to unequivocally say what a ‘win’ looks like. Wow, that’s hard.

On the left, a being in green and pink with small feet sprouting from the head. On the right, a purple and green being with lots of eyeballs on their head.
Monster Battle in Santa Fe Plaza. Photo by Kate Russell

Who are the monsters to watch in this year’s Battle? I bet on Mothman every year but he never shows up. >:(

“You never know what you’re going to get in a Monster Battle. It runs the gamut. A lot of times monsters show up that are very topical. There was a group of BP executives one year. That was really odd. Sociopolitical.

But there are some other elements I’d like to see, too. Like a good ol’ fashioned orc horde. I love it when people come in hyper groups. 

I don’t know if I should mention this, but... well, I always wanted to go as an angry mob. Built on me. A puppet situation. A bunch of torch-wielding villagers are attached and when I move, they move. That is so. much. work! but it’s my holy grail.

I’ve been to a few of these Monster Battles now and I noticed that monsters really enjoy dance music. Why do you think that is?

They do! As it evolves and becomes sanctioned and the police are no longer waiting for us there, you get music. The battle is still a part of it, but monster battle can be a dance battle form, too. If you have beef, you find someone there to engage with you in dance. That’s always a part of it. 

The vast majority of monsters just like to celebrate being out in the daylight for this small period of time. They like to have fun too, you know.

Child dressed in an ice cream cone costume at the Monster Battle in Santa Fe
Monster Battle in Santa Fe Plaza. Photo by Kate Russell

Who would win in a battle? La Llorona or the Chupacabra?

That gets into our earlier questions. I mean, the chupacabra? If it was a straight-up brawl melee battle, then I think he wins that one. But…

What would the beef be between those two? Does the chupacabra have kids? You know, because La Llorona could go after them in retaliation. It might be a sad ending for the chupa. And as far as psychic and aetherial powers? Llorona would win for sure. 

Once when I was in high school I set up a shrine in an arroyo. I wanted to quell the wrath of La Llorona. Putting salt in cups. Offerings in cups. I was wearing a fox mask and this guy passing by said I was worshiping the Devil. I was like, ‘Dude, I’m doing this for all of us!’ 

But maybe it was easier to say I was doing that. What I was actually doing was way harder to explain.

What do you do to prepare for Monster Battle? Walk us through the day. Any tips for newbies?

Personally, for me, it’s the process. It’s the ritual of channeling the monster by mentally or straight-up getting physically into the costume you’ve built. And meeting up with your squad. The squad is the good part of it. It’s a good psych-up ritual to get over any weird hesitance you have. If you show up with a crew, that hesitancy turns into ‘fuck yeah! I’m so excited and we’re all in this together!’

That gasses you up to battle, with your squad and the shared trauma and experience of beefing and dealing with people who are staring at you. If you can weird people out together you’re more solidified as a crew.”

Tell us about the first real monster you ever saw. What was that experience like?

As far as corporeal monsters go, I haven’t had that experience yet. But of the more extraterrestrial UFO sightings, the more ghost sightings, yeah definitely. In each of those events I felt like— well, beside the initial terror— it’s less of a corporeal threat to your existence and instead it feels like— Oh my god! There’s other planes! There’s other planes of existence simultaneously existing with ours and we don’t know what they are!

Even if these things are demonstrable or figure-outable by science, we still don’t get it. We only know that there’s other shit going on in other planes, in other worlds, in the micro and cosmic scales. That’s more exciting than terrifying to me. Terror is there. And awe. But I walk away thinking, ‘This is absolutely insane even if there isn’t anything more to this world.’

I had a few experiences. When I was on the roof of my old house in Santa Fe I saw these hovering, glowing orbs that seemed to move in a systemic way. What could it be? I don’t know, but they’re bright. And, of course, after this someone will say that you saw the planet Venus even if they were moving with intent. 

That’s always when they show up, too. When no one will believe you.

A person dressed as a t-rex standing on a sidewalk with other people and children dressed up for Monster Battle in Santa Fe.
Monster Battle in Santa Fe Plaza. Photo by Kate Russell

There are Bigfoot researchers who claim Bigfoot is a terrestrial creature, essentially an animal who has yet to be confirmed by science. There are others who say Bigfoot is an ultraterrestrial, something that briefly intersects with our world before disappearing into aether. Where do you fall on this debate?

I usually think of Bigfoot as corporeal, kind of like a hominid-esque animal. That’s what I usually think of. 

The weird thing is that he’s still an animal even if he’s slipping in and out of our dimension. So where did he come from? Is he as confused as we are? Maybe that’s why he looks so confused when he’s photographed. He was in the fourth dimension just a second ago.

God, the ultraterrestrial thing makes me feel sad for him. If I were zapped in and out of dimensions like that, I’d feel confused. Just imagine for a simian-esque beast; that has to be even more confusing. He’s just living with the earnest nature of how his brain works. 

Or maybe he has learned to be really chill about it. ‘Well, I’m here now. I’ll just walk around until…it happens again.’

Are you “calling out” anyone this year? Do you have any personal scores to settle?

As far as monster-to-monster, I don’t. But I do remember that one year I made a very abstract costume. It was a multi-headed cosmic ghost-beast I built out of cardboard. I labored on it, I was really proud of it. It was this perfectly-fitted thing. It was very cumbersome so I couldn’t ride in a car with it; I had to walk in it.

So here I am in this elaborate costume and when I showed up there was this five-year-old kid in a pirate costume. He had a plastic sword and immediately started thwacking all of my hard work and ripped it to shreds before I had even arrived. This kid was shredding it. I wanted a moment before it was shredded. I wanted to earn the battle. But how do you get back at a five-year-old?

So yeah I guess I have a score to settle with this pirate kid who is probably an adult now. Pirate-kid? I’m coming for you.

Is it better to be loved or feared?

Definitely loved. I’d say. Perhaps that’s what all the monsters are looking for anyway.

“Twilight Zone” plot-twist time: Are we the monsters? And what do we do with this knowledge?

It turns out it was people! We’ve always been the monsters. The monsters have always been the monsters. I feel like it’s all a tale of the stories we tell ourselves as we grapple with our own existence. In our shadow-selves, we find elements we can choose to embrace. There’s a defiant way to embrace that. If this is what we are deemed to be, if society deems us as freaks, misfits, monsters, degenerates, then why not embrace it? If that’s what makes us wrong, we don’t want to be right kind of shit. 

I love this stuff. The way it started out. It’s an institution now, a family-friendly event. Not that it wasn’t always family-friendly, but it started as something illegal because we wanted to weird people out as a group. 

Monster Battle is not about the Battles as much any more, I’d say. But the thing about it is, you just have to start one, right? You can do a new version of this and it can begin again. It’s like weeds growing out of the sidewalk. These are things that actually make local culture and make our hometown really weird.