Chelsey Weber-Smith is host of American Hysteria, a podcast that investigates moral panics, conspiracy theories, and fantastical thinking from the Puritans to the present in both hilarious and horrifying ways. As a poet-turned-podcaster, they tell forgotten stories from history and influential popular culture in our modern day, and use sociology, psychology, philosophy, and biology to get at the heart of why we fear and believe the wrong things and the real social issues our American freak-outs and national fairy tales act to cover up.
This list of podcasts and the people that make them have been vital inspirations to our show, in both serious and hilarious ways, teaching us about the beauty of pop culture and low art, the power of conscious true crime, the long arc of justice, and the human side of the paranormal.
Emil Amos’ Drifter’s Sympathy
Emil Amos of Holy Sons looks back at the 1990s underground music scene through reviving obscure bands and weaving in stories of his own wild teendom, reflecting on the philosophical meaning and the particular power of youth. If you were a bad kid and a compulsive spiritual seeker like I was growing up in a suburban town, you’ll love the punk rock heart Emil brings, and he’ll help you see the true value of what it means to be young and dumb and filled with exuberant and beautiful pain.
Hanif Abdurraqib is one of our greatest living writers, period. He once brought me to the kind of tears where you can’t catch your breath during one of his book-tour readings. A poet, essayist, and cultural critic, his season of Lost Notes covers stories from the annals of music history in the year 1980, with fascinating examinations of figures from John Lennon to Grace Jones as well as anecdotes from his own life as a young Black music lover growing up in Ohio. I could not love this man more.
I find so much value in looking at what is traditionally considered “low art”, and Page 7’s hilarious Pop History episodes give me deep dives into the movies, shows, and people that have shaped American popular culture. A longtime fan of the Last podcast Network, true beautiful goofballs Jackie Zebrowski, Holden McNeeley, Molly Knefel, and Natalie Jean have brought me so much stupid joy over the years. In particular, I recommend their episodes on the Jersey Shore that inspired me to go back and watch it all again, and boy am I glad I did.
In the Dark
This show was one of the huge inspirations for American Hysteria; their first season looks at the kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling and how the slate of child murders of the 1970s to 1990s caused a moral panic around what we now call Stranger Danger. Journalists Madeleine Baran and Samara Freemark Use use this true crime mystery to open up a compassionate, nuanced space to talk about the realities of the dangers children really face. Their second season also helped exonerate a Black man on death row named Curtis Flowers who was accused of murdering four people and had been wrongly imprisoned since 1997. I cried on the bus as secretly as I could but everyone 100% noticed.
Someone Knows Something
David Ridgen is deeply committed to the conscious responsibility it takes to help and not hurt, which can sometimes be rare in the genre of true crime. His writing is poetic and affecting, and he shows a kind of fairness and calm courage, even when confronting potential suspects. Season three revives a cold case of two Black teenagers, Charles Moore and Henry Dee, who were murdered by the KKK in 1964, with David joined by the victim’s brother, Thomas Moore, as they find and confront one of the murderers long thought to be dead.
Stories with Sapphire
Formerly the host of Something Scary, this new show from Filipino-American creator Sapphire Sandalo still looks at stories of the paranormal, but focuses on providing a look at the culturally diverse spirit realm, rather than the same old boring white ghosts we hear about again and again. Through stories, interviews, and even poems, this show is a very cool twist on the mysterious and unknown, and if you like what you hear, Sapphire is a prolific animator as well.
This one is personal to me, as I got my start as an assistant producer on this show that features personal paranormal stories from across the country. Using field recording and cinematic production, Jim Perry’s podcast gets at the heart of why we believe in ghosts, aliens, bigfoot, and so much more. The show isn’t interested in whether the stories of the paranormal are real, but rather what they can provide emotionally for the believer, and Jim is a sensitive and non judgmental host and a great writer (and friend) at that.
Guide to the Unknown
I like to call the hosts of GTTU, Will Rogers (our resident voice actor) and Kristen Rogers-Anderson, the wonder-siblings of all things strange, and two of my favorite friends. Covering ghost stories, horror movies, and bizarre happenings, they are light-hearted, funny, and have a superior knowledge of the popular culture that surrounds the most fun iterations of our fears. If you are looking for passionate looks at Scream and the Blair Witch Project as I constantly am, these are the macabre wonder-siblings for you.
The Deep End Friends Podcast
I came to know this show through the unparalleled work of former Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia Renee. Along with co-host Reagan Jackson, these two brilliant and fearless creators interview people of color and ask questions about healing and self-love modern America, focusing on personal journeys from all kinds of different perspectives, and how these stories can contribute to movements toward justice, self-empowerment, and liberation at large.
Special Lady Day
Jessica Lohafer and Caitlin Morris are two writers-turned-podcasters who have great chemistry as they discuss stories of rad women through history. With a thread through self-love and discussions of mental health, this is a great show to listen to if you want to feel compassionately empowered and have some hearty fun along the way. Don’t we all need that right now?
This true crime investigates the deaths of the Hart family, a white lesbian couple who drove themselves and their six adopted Black children off a cliff (I know, it’s horrifying). Posturing as a kind of utopian progressive family, it’s a look at how social media presentations can take over reality, and how children of color can be used as pawns to signal liberal virtue. Their family seemed to be everywhere there was a photo opt for Facebook, showing up in the backgrounds of Bernie Sanders rallies, or in viral photos hugging police officers during the protests in Ferguson, all while rampant abuse was happening behind the scenes.
First and foremost, what? This true crime series is absolutely insane. It’s really long so you have to stick with it. It’s full of actual audio diaries of a bizarre and narcissistic father and son, one of whom would go on to do the unthinkable, but the kicker really is the awful, hauntingly overproduced songs created by the father. This one is honestly just pure true crime, and a look at the internal monologue of a people horrifyingly unaware of who they really are.
Every Little Thing
As someone who loves the history of pretty much anything, this show, hosted by the hilarious and whip-smart Flora Lichtman, just proves what I have found as a cultural investigator: the origins of everything ever are totally bizarre, and oftentimes, very problematic. If you want to know the truth about cheerleading, flamingos, or the Limbo, get at this funny podcast that asks their audience to call in with their burning questions and then takes the listener on a journey to figure it out.