V Interesting

Moral Panics and Urban Legends with Chelsey Weber-Smith, Nonbinary Wins, Deepfake Election 2024

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Two performers made history this week when they became the first openly nonbinary actors to win Tony Awards. AI-generated images and videos are infiltrating politics, causing concern over the dangerous potential of deepfake technology in the 2024 presidential election. And V chats with “American Hysteria” podcaster Chelsey Weber-Smith about the phenomena of moral panics, urban legends, and the legacy of “Jackass.”

Follow Chelsey Weber-Smith on Instagram @chelseywebersmith and @americanhysteriapodcast and on Twitter @AmerHysteria.

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Chelsey Weber-Smith, V Spehar

V Spehar  00:00

Hey friends, it’s June 16, 2023 Welcome to V Interesting, where we break down the viral and very interesting news you may have missed. I’m V Spehar. And today, two performers made history this week when they became the first openly non binary actors to win Tony Awards. Ai generated images and videos are infiltrating election season, causing concern over the dangerous potential of deep fake technology. And Chelsea Webber Smith is here to talk about moral panics, urban legends, and how fantastical thinking has shaped our culture. All that more on today’s be interesting from Lemonada Media. Let’s be smart together. And now for some headlines. Did you guys catch the Tony Awards this week? I am a Broadway baby. So you know that I did. We had a whole party surrounding it. And I thought that Tony’s absolutely nailed it this year. In fact, I was kind of hesitant to be so praiseful of the show knowing that for the first time there was no script. Ariana DuBose was the host and you may remember her as the recent viral but of every internet joke for the way that she rapped. Angela Bassett did the thing, which was scripted by WGA writers as part of a skit song for the 2023 BAFTA Awards. Well, this time, Ariana with no script was incredible. Her vamps and jokes and intros and even her ability to control the flow of the night was truly the best I have ever seen of any award show ever. Another thing that we’ve never seen go so well. To Broadway performers became the first openly non binary actors to win Tony Awards. J. Harrison ghee one best leading actor in Some Like It Hot a musical based on the famous 1959 film and Alex Newell one Best Featured Actor for their performances Lulu in the new musical shocked Yes, ma’am. You heard me correctly. Alex Newell won a Tony Award before Lea Michele, their alleged bully from the glory years and we love that journey for them. Last year, composer Toby Marlow of six became the first openly non binary person to receive a Tony Award ever. The Tonys still use gendered categories like Best Actor and Best Actress. The same goes for other major award shows like the Oscars, the Golden Globes and even the Emmys. Nonbinary actors typically have to decide which category to submit their work in Best Actor or Best Actress or decide neither of these fit me and I’m just not going to submit my work at all. But some celebrities are protesting this. And McLaren who played Princess Diana and the Crown has spoken out in favor of having genderless categories that award shows.

V Spehar  04:21

Liv Hewson said they didn’t submit themselves for any consideration for the hit Showtime series yellow jackets because, quote, there’s no space for me. And at the Tonys themselves performer Justin David Sullivan withdrew their consideration for an award for the musical and Juliet due to the gender requirement. I should note that ghee and Newell both won in the men’s category. Newell told The New York Times that they chose that category because they see the word actor as genderless. Quote, we don’t say plumb s for a plumber. That’s how I look at the word and that’s how I chose my category. But this did get me wondering say non binary person who was assigned male at birth submitted in one in the Best Actress category. Do you think that they would get caught up in the firestorm we’re seeing in sports right now when it comes to trans female athletes competing against what they call biological women. Could that be in part why ghee and Newell decided to submit in the male category, since both of them were assigned male at birth. All of this backlash is forcing some award shows to consider doing away with gendered categories altogether. And we should point out that there already are many awards that are gender neutral, like Best Director, Best Editing and best sound effects. There is one award ceremony that is completely genderless. The James Beard Awards, which honors chefs, restaurants and food writers. They don’t have any gendered categories. Although I have to say as someone that used to work there, this led to years and years and years of only white male chefs winning the top award, so let’s not necessarily look to them as our brighten shining star. Okay, there’s a lot of work to be done over there too. What do you think? Should award shows eliminate gendered categories? Would it add to greater inclusivity and diversity? Or would we end up with less? Too bad we can’t do a dress rehearsal and test it out before the reviews come in. Let’s turn now from singing and dancing to swinging the old club around. That’s right. I’m talking about the wonderful world of sports, golf to be exact. And the humongous mega deal just announced between the world’s biggest golf League and its Saudi Arabian competitor. Now you’ve probably heard a little bit about the merger between the PGA Tour and the Live tour. It took the golfing world by surprise. First off live golf made its debut just last year, while the PGA has been around for nearly a century. Second, live is backed by hundreds of millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia, which let’s just say Saudi Arabia is not America’s best friend. Okay, we’re not we’re not typically pals as countries. The deal could create a new company that would consolidate the PGA Tours, prestige television contracts and marketing muscle with major Saudi influence. US Senator Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut says He’s launching a probe into the deal. He’s demanding a host of records by the end of the month in the first concrete investigation into this arrangement. And okay, okay, I know most of you probably aren’t really like huge golf fans. And even if you are, you’re probably not coming to me for your golf news.

V Spehar  07:26

You’re probably thinking like, who cares V aren’t their worst things to worry about? If Dustin Johnson wants to swing a club in support of the Crown Prince, who’s to tell him he can’t do that? Listen, Saudi Arabia has a terrible track record when it comes to civil liberties. They repress critics of the regime, they mistreat women and religious minorities. And according to the International lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex Association, same sex sexual acts can be punished with the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. And what about the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Saudi Arabia still refuses to return his remains or even disclose their location. And then there’s 911 15 of the 19 hijackers on 911 were Saudi nationals and US officials concluded that Saudi nationals helped fund al Qaeda families of 911 victims say they are shocked and deeply offended by the merger. So that’s why we need to care. We can’t think it’s like totally cool and fine for authoritarian countries to swoop in and purchase Western culture. Because the Saudis aren’t just buying golf, they’re buying influence. And if they can buy professional golf, then what else is for sale? The more they take, the less control we have over the democratic values that are so important to this country. Don’t mistake this for ping pong diplomacy. It’s it’s a golf dictatorship. It I’m just going to call it how I see it. And what other sports is Saudi Arabia interested in? They’re already dipping their toes into soccer Formula One, the WW II. I mean, if Josh Allen starts playing football for Saudi Arabia, you better believe people in Buffalo are going to be learning Arabic. Is this sports washing? Am I in my conspiracy era? I mean, I don’t know. But I’m certainly not alone in my concern. Hence, Senator Blumenthal’s investigation into the finances behind this secretive deal. I mean, how are you going to tell me you want to ban Tiktok for fear of China influencing America but then let the Saudis buy golf as a double bogey if I’ve ever seen one? man All this golf talk can really drive you to drink get it? Well, not all of us are drinking it seems music venues around the country are noticing that Gen Z ears are drinking less at shows. And no, we’re not just talking about the swarm of underage preteens gonna see T Swift. Billboard magazine reports. Venues big and small, are noticing substantially fewer liquor sales at shows that are popular with Gen Z. Alcohol just doesn’t seem to be that rule for people born after 1997, especially when you compare them to the predecessors, the millennials, my generation, the generation of wine moms and craft beer culture. In fact, a study at a Texas State University found that alcohol consumption has been declining in young adults for the past decade and a half, the number of college students who abstained completely from alcohol increased from 20% to 28%. Between 2002 and 2018, according to the same study, and rates of alcohol abuse in that group were nearly cut in half during the same time period. Yep, gens ears are drinking more mindfully and consuming much less than previous generations. And I think this is a really good thing. I think it’s amazing that younger people aren’t getting peer pressured into drinking culture. I mean, alcohol is not only bad for your health, but it can lead to dependency and addiction issues. Remember, this is a generation that is also leading the way when it comes to harm reduction, whether that be testing your drugs with fentanyl test strips, or having Narcan on you now that it’s become available over the counter. But while it’s a good thing for society, it’s a bad thing for music venues, at least in the short term. They were already hurting from COVID shutdowns, and now they’re dealing with subpar liquor sales to and don’t forget, that’s where they make most of their money. music venues are like movie theaters. While the majority of ticket sales go to the artist and the promoter. The venue makes its money off the food and drinks. So instead of selling craft beer and craft cocktails, bartenders are getting crafty in other ways. They’re creating elevated mocktails with alcohol free spirits. They’re finding better non alcoholic beer options, which is great because if you’ve ever had no duels, I mean, it’s not something you’re going to pick first right? And more and more places are stocking their fridges with THC or CBD drinks for the California sober folks. So next time you’re on a live show, check out what alternative options they have behind the bar. You may be able to drink, drive and support your local venue all while remembering the memories you’re making. That’s a triple shot that goes down clean.

V Spehar  12:04

You know what else GenZers. know a thing or two about viral videos. They make up a huge part of my audience on tick tock, but I gotta say I am deeply concerned about the future of viral content in this new age of AI, especially as we are entering election season. Last week, Ron DeSantis campaign used doctored images of Donald Trump hugging Dr. Anthony Fauci in an attack ad on Twitter. The fake photos were part of a video shared by the DeSantis War Room, which the campaign often uses to start Twitter fights with Trump supporters. The new site semaphore says it’s perhaps the biggest example yet of manufactured images coming out of a political campaign, and a sign of more troubling things to come. So far, in most cases, images and videos coming out of political groups have been clearly labeled as AI. Like the video made by the Republican National Committee shortly after President Biden announced his reelection bid. It showed a dystopian future full of global unrest under a second Biden term, with the RNC made clear that the video was built entirely with AI imagery. When it comes to supporters outside the formal campaigns, though, it’s not so clear when they’re playing with the truth. Maybe you saw the video with Ron DeSantis superimposed onto Michael Scott from the office, with his face and voice and everything, arguing he’s not wearing a women’s suit. It got 2.9 million views. Even Donald Trump Jr. passed it around. And sure, it was funny, and it was obviously fake. But videos like that just scratched the surface of the vast potential of AI deep fake technology. A more convincing piece of propaganda could manipulate the public into believing things that just straight up are not true. I mean, did we learn nothing from War of the Worlds? Do we not have enough fake news going around right now? What with the election deniers and everything? Look, Russia interfered in the 2016 election? Now it’s A I. I can’t believe I’m going to agree with Senator JD Vance right now. But he was right to tweet, quote, We are in a new era. be even more skeptical of what you see on the internet. You gotta check your sources. You got to flag questionable content. And just like last election cycle, don’t believe everything your uncle sends to you. There’s a lot of spooky fake stuff out there a lot of wild conspiracies that people believe and guess what surprise none of that is new. This is just how humans human. My next guest Chelsey Weber Smith explores how fantastical thinking has shaped our culture since the dawn of time. Why does it happen? Who’s typically behind bogus theories? And what happens when an urban legend turns from absurd and harmless to malicious and dangerous? Stick around? We’ll be right back.

V Spehar  14:57

Welcome back, friends, I’m sure the neighborhood or town you grew up in had some kind of urban legend a hoax or moral panic ghosts showing up in the backseat of your car as you drive past a cemetery. razorblades and Halloween candy clowns snatching up children, any of those kinds of things ring a bell? Or maybe you grew up believing The Blair Witch Project was a real documentary, or wondered why trash talk shows and televangelism were so popular in the 90s. If you’ve ever pondered any of those things, and been curious about the impact they’ve had on society, then you’re gonna love my conversation with Chelsea Webber Smith. Chelsea is the host of the podcast American hysteria, which explores how fantastical thinking has shaped our culture. I sat down with them to chat about some of their latest episodes, including one that explores the popular MTV show jackass, and another one on the myth around naked swimming requirements in gym class. We also talked about the practice of legend tripping. At about the time Chelsea tested an urban legend having to do with ghosts of local children pushing cars up a hill. You guys heard that one? If this sparks questions or brings up any memories from your past? Stay tuned and find out how you can ask Chelsea to investigate your urban legends from your hometown. Here’s my conversation with Chelsey Weber-Smith. Chelsey, welcome to the show. How is life going for you these days?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  18:18

Oh, well, thank you. I’m so happy to be here. And so grateful that you asked me. I guess like everybody life is is going a little strange in terms of bigger picture stuff. But personally, I think things have been going alright for me all things considered. How about you?

V Spehar  18:36

Tell me how you feel about this. Okay, because we’re right in the middle of Pride month when we’re recording this and it is a moment of celebration, but it’s also like Pride Month always makes me feel like, just so nervous. Maybe I’m a naturally anxious person. How do you feel about pride this year?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  18:49

No, I’m nervous as well. I’m incredibly nervous. And I’m gonna have my wits about me for sure. And I felt that way last year and it’s just only amping up so everybody be safe be aware. I think that’s that’s okay for all of us to think about while we still try to have as much fun and as good of a time as possible.

V Spehar  19:08

I mean, Pat Robertson died today. How could we not celebrate just a little bit?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  19:12

We like to call him melting elf skeleton. Pat Robertson’s so arrestin something.

V Spehar  19:19

I hope you got a warm welcome in hell. I was also just shocked to find out that his name is actually Marian Gordon and I was like, Okay, we just we get to respect sometimes when somebody picks their own name, just not all times when somebody wants to be called a certain name.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  19:35

Godspeed Marian Wherever you are.

V Spehar  19:40

oh my gosh. Well, Chelsey is a poet turned podcaster and I’m wondering, as a podcaster myself, this is a hard job. This is like a very uniquely challenging, weird place. What is the shift from poet to podcaster been like?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  19:55

Well, you know, I think the difference between our podcasts and a lot of other podcasts is that we are basically completely scripted. And it is I speaking most of the time, and I also write the script. And then we also have a lot of multimedia elements, we have some voice actors. So it’s a little bit of a variety, our each episode, but I think I still incorporate as much of poetry as I can just because I think storytelling is really how you get people to, to really digest information and to look at the world differently. And so I think poetry naturally kind of gives to that, because you’re able to tell the story in a more what would I say, like, a more poetic way? And just have people kind of be more maybe affected by the words that you can combine together the rhetoric.

V Spehar  20:52

Yes, this is why I wanted to have you on the show, because I do gentle news. And I often get accused of cheerleading the news, and I was a cheerleader. So I was like, see, it’s okay, to just take the thing you used to do and incorporate it into this thing you do now.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  21:06

Or a cheerleader. That’s fantastic. I love that.

V Spehar  21:10

Cuz, you know, when you’re in the closet, sometimes you find things in there that could help you survive high school like cheerleading uniforms, ugly, bleached, blonde, long hair, and lash extensions, and all of the girly things that I thought would make me not gay, but just made it so that I don’t have pictures of myself as a child where I look like myself.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  21:36

I’m sure they’re still fantastic pictures.

V Spehar  21:38

They’re beautiful. But parents who are listening, take pictures of your children in all different types of outfits so that way, they no matter how they turn out, they’ll have something to look back on and go okay, yes, that looks like me. Yes, absolutely.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  21:51

I’ve got a few of those backwards hat, Mary Kate Olsen kind of emulations that I was hitting up and I do those are the ones versus the ones where I have been put into a dress and you can tell I’m still like feral within that dress running around. But they both exist, luckily.

V Spehar  22:08

I should have gotten for the Mary Kate Olsen backwards hat look because instead my mom watched a lot of like daytime TV and I went for the Ricki Lake. Look, I’ve actually got to talk to Ricky about this. Because she was like, Did you think I was a lesbian? I’m like, No, I didn’t think you were lesbian. I thought you were a straight girl who wore blazers and I was like, well, that’s closer than what I’m getting to. So I just went with like, the Ricki Lake, Hillary Clinton pantsuit. I was like, no, but they’re straight women.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  22:33


V Spehar  22:36

I wanted to get your take on a couple of the headlines. Before we dive into talking about the American hysteria podcast, your podcast. There’s been some good news throughout pride month more than I thought it was going to be and not just related to the to the death of Marian Gordon, but a Florida judge has ruled that a ban on gender affirming care is actually unconstitutional. Did you think we were ever going to see that kind of turn of events out of Florida?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  23:00

I don’t know. It’s always weird to say we always hope the Constitution prevails. Because it’s not something that I feel in my bones or my soul. I don’t have a ton of feelings about the Constitution. I guess it does reassure me a little bit that there are some checks and balances going in this huge, like, bullish campaign toward the dissolution of all of our rights and the rights of people we love.

V Spehar  23:27

I felt like I learned a lot about the roots of the current kind of Christian fascism we’re experiencing right now by watching the shiny happy people documentary about the Duggars. Have you seen this yet?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  23:37

Literally starting it tonight? I haven’t started it yet. But I am. I know a little bit about kind of where they came from. But I am very nervous to watch it. But I’m also part I’ve been waiting for it for like a year for sure.

V Spehar  23:50

I think it’s phenomenally well done. I think it answers the questions about the Institute of basic life principles, the church that this group is a part of. And it really pointed me to the origin of some of the rhetoric we hear today. Like, Jim Bob was talking about, quote, partial birth abortion back in the 90s. Right, that term came from this organization. So when you’re watching it now you’re like, gosh, oh, my god, like, what we thought was this, you don’t shiny, happy people on TV, just like people who had these really well behaved kids. It’s like, no, it was, you know, perpetuating an awful lot of abuse and patriarchy and finding out that they have like Institute’s to teach young men how to run for office. I was like, okay, yeah, scary. Really. If we know that’s what’s happening, then we can know how to react to that we can react in real time and sort of have like a good plan. Definitely. But I’ll be interested to know what you think about shiny happy people.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  24:45

I’ll get back to you.

V Spehar  24:48

And there’s all this complaining about like, you know, because we’re in the middle of Pride Month, and they’re like, why did the gays get Pride Month and everything’s a rainbow and I’m like, Y’all get December where we you could not Get more celebratory than every single person being forced kind of into this red and green celebration of the Christian Son of God and nobody complains about that. Just jump in.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  25:12

And of course, we do have our secondary Pride Month, which is October because it’s absolutely we do get to we should really admit that.

V Spehar  25:21

I mean, I wear and I go hard for Christmas, too. I go so hard for Christmas. And this is gonna be an admission. I also do Christmas in July with the Hallmark Channel.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  25:30

Oh, my goodness, your Christmas crazy.

V Spehar  25:33

It’s those heterosexual vibes from my cheerleader days that I’ll just never get over enjoying Hallmark?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  25:38

Well, we did a hallmark episode for Christmas, where we really dove into the whole history of Hallmark and Hallmark movies. And I think you would enjoy that if you you know, and we honor them while we also critique them, as we always do on the show.

V Spehar  25:53

I appreciate that. Let’s get into the podcast, speaking of it’s called American hysteria, and it explores moral panics, urban legends, hoaxes, and how they shape our society. You’ve covered the show Jackass having to swim naked in high school, which is like a nightmare beyond my wildest nightmares, astrology. How did you decide what to cover? And what the audience and what can the audience expect?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  26:17

Well, you know, I grew up with a parent who was really into like the 2012 conspiracy, like apocalypse and things like that. So I grew up with conspiracy theories, and believing in certain conspiracy theories, especially during like the Bush years, right when I was growing up. And so coming out of that, I still had an interest in the stories that we tell that are untrue, or at least mostly untrue, and how they develop, why they develop and what they say about human nature and kind of our national politics at any given time. So that’s like the route. You know, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with urban legends with the scary stories to tell in the dark, which I always keep right here. And just folklore in general. And I love the stories that went through my elementary school and middle school, you know, about my local town and about other places. And so I think that I’ve just been so interested in why we believe things that are untrue, and what that serves for us psychologically, not just like, not not just taking all of it at surface, right, but going underneath and saying, Okay, what’s this fulfilling for people, even if they’re believing something like we did the Westboro Baptist Church as an episode, and we didn’t just, you know, we looked really deeply into like, what is the core of what these people believe? And then what can that teach us about how to more successfully combat that type of extremism?

V Spehar  27:47

Did you grow up somewhere spooky, where there was a lot of urban legend?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  27:50

No, I grew up in Shoreline, Washington, which is just a suburb of Seattle. So Washington spooky. You’re right. Actually, I were the serial killer state for sure. So we have Yeah, we’ve got and you know, yeah, we do have some very creepy forests and rain forests and stuff here. So you’re right, that there’s a vibe for sure.

V Spehar  28:09

I grew up in Connecticut, which is basically it’s like the birthplace of so many spooky stories in the same town as the Warrens, the infamous ghost hunters. And we had like no way melon head urban legend that was allegedly like this gang of people who lived in the road between the high school to my grandma’s house.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  28:28

I can’t believe you had melon heads. We’re working on an episode that involves the melon heads as we speak right now. I was just reading about them. So it’s so funny that you would grow that he would have had such personal experience.

V Spehar  28:41

It’s got everything spooky. It’s got everything and nothing. It’s just a place that you hope to leave someday and take with you. A bunch of terrible stories.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  28:50

Yep, sounds like it.

V Spehar  28:53

You also covered reproductive justice, the show’s coverage featured flamboyant Abortionists, dangerously determined doctors and problematic feminists. Yes. How did you approach covering this topic without making everyone mad?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  29:07

Well, that’s not always the question, my friend. I know. So we try our very best to stay in history. Because it’s harder to argue with history, right? I mean, people do all the time. But it’s less inflammatory to give a history of something than it is to give a live commentary. And I think that when you give a history, you can kind of like arm people with the information that they need to come to their own conclusions, which often tends to, I think, be a productive way for people to like, not just change their mind, but like live in that change eventually, right. So I’d say that’s the best way we do it. But yeah, we covered all of the surprising different groups that were lobbying for abortion, whether they were doctors attempting to get power away from midwives. and women who had been kind of controlling that part of of life in order to, you know, make money, or even, you know, up through the Moral Majority who was working to use abortion to inflame their base and get Reagan elected. So you can kind of trace through history, a lot of different, we also sorry, we also covered different people who were Abortionists that people went to, and they are often these very flamboyant characters. And they were, you know, they were both good and problematic at the same time. And we really do try to try to show the complications of each person we cover in each event we cover and try to do it, I wouldn’t say from a centrist view by any means, but from a view that understands that nobody’s perfect, and that every event is complicated and has a million factors that make it come into being and simple, simple narratives often don’t actually serve anything other than whoever’s telling that narrative.

V Spehar  31:04

Is there anything that you have tried to do a story on that you’re like, you know, what? No, I’m not going to touch that topic. That’s too. Too long. Yes.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  31:14

We tried to do an outrage culture episode. And that is that was coming around the time of George Floyd’s death. And we just said No, not right now. You know, that, that it’s hard to talk about outrage in a time when so much outrage is needed. Because of course, there’s a huge industry around outrage, that I think most major media conglomerates participate in no matter what, no matter what their leading is. And so I think we had wanted to look at that from kind of both sides. How are we tricked into outrage? Not so much. Why do we have outrage? Because there’s plenty of reasons for that. But how are we tricked into outrage? And how are these kinds of bad actors able to make money off of our outrage, but the timing of it just felt just didn’t feel right. And we wanted to pivot and talk about other types of stories.

V Spehar  32:08

This is something I struggle a lot with outrage Tiktok, or call out to be interested if you’re going to pick this up again, someday. Because so much of the content that we’re delivered is people reacting to like I think of the target story, the woman who went and target and was like this tucking bathing suit for kids, which wasn’t she was one person makes me

Chelsey Weber-Smith  32:28

I hate that.

V Spehar  32:28

I just, I wasn’t even going that far. But in fact, it was a lot of creators on who might identify as being on the left or being progressive that stitch that video so much that she became a national celebrity for this take. And then other people felt like it was okay to jump in. And I wonder, you know, where is the line between outrage when it comes to creating content and when it comes to actual change? And is the left doing more harm by platforming these people as they call them out?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  32:59

You know, I think I think that that is a great question and one that maybe we won’t even know for a long time. And I think that’s part of like, why we focus on history as much as we can. Because, you know, I, I so admire people like you who really do take on the moment. It takes a lot of guts. And, you know, I try my best on the show to Find solidarity common ground within reason, of course, let’s be clear, with those where there is still hope, right, where there is still a possibility of moving the dial just a little bit and finding ways to, to connect with people who otherwise might fear or hate not want that connection. And I find that to be to be helpful, but I also find direct call outs to be really helpful. At other times, I think that we play to our strengths and my strength is not confrontation and my strength is like not, I just don’t have the I don’t have what it takes in that way. So I think we have to do Yeah, that’s a rough life. I don’t know how people I don’t know how people do it. I go on Twitter and like make one like snarky comment on someone. And then I’m like, No, I gotta delete this little one.

V Spehar  34:19

The second somebody likes something snarky. I’m like, I can’t do it.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  34:23

Yeah, but I can be at a protest and like scream in the face of somebody. So you know, it takes all kinds and every different moment calls for a different level of action. I think so. I personally wouldn’t replatform this outrage again, and again, and again. I find I don’t necessarily find it to be helpful. But I don’t think that my opinion on it is correct in any way. I just think that because at this point, I don’t know how much hope there is to bring people back from this. I don’t know what you would call it this mindset that’s been stoked and just blown up to almost cartoonish proportions making us into villains. And I don’t know, it’s really hard to undo that. And when you dehumanize an entire group of people and make them demons and monsters, it’s pretty hard to, to turn that train around and so that I don’t I don’t know what we do next. Exactly. So I think trying to do our best to connect in the small ways that we can where we still find hope is really important. Because what else are we doing? You know, like what else is there to do except to try to win people back at least into some version of the reality of who queer people are who trans people are?

V Spehar  35:53

You talk a lot on your show about the moral panics, urban legends and hoaxes that have shaped our culture and in some ways brought us to this very strange moment that we’re in where the truth is, anything can be true, everything is a lie. Individualism reigns. Is there any particular moral panic, or urban legend or hoax you think is, has really changed what the truth is of like our everyday life.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  38:03

The very first episode we did was stranger danger. And I think that that was a really good template of what a moral panic, how a moral panic works, and why it exists on like a deeper subconscious level for people because as many of us who remember in the 80s and 90s, there was a huge movement. And today, of course, the 80s 90s and today, there was a huge movement around the fear of children being kidnapped off the street, which had overblown statistics, like, overblown to the point of, again, cartoonish pneus. And it was caught. I mean, there was all these after school specials on all the TV shows, and parents. I mean, there were times when there were little panics around my town, and we weren’t allowed to go outside, we weren’t allowed to ride our bikes. And it just added to the sense that there were these roving evil agents all around us that could snatch to the children, right, you starting to hear a little bit of something similar in there, right, that the children were in danger by, you know, later in the 80s, it would become Satanists who were taking children and sacrificing them in the woods. But this idea, really, the really important part of this is that the reality of child abuse of all kinds is that it happens 90% of the time with people that the children know really well, especially family members. So that is a really, really hard thing to tackle. Like, I don’t know how to deal with that. Like, nobody really knows how to combat something like that. And it’s so scary and so hard and so much more disturbing in a way than a stranger and so, if we have this like psychic thing, which in sociology is called a folk devil. So we create this folk devil, the evil stranger in the van driving around. In order to kind of take what we know exists child abuse, Child Sexual Abuse, and take it out of its true context and put it on this folk devil so that we can feel better. And we can feel like we know where the real villain is. And we can take whatever actions we need to that are so much less complicated than actually facing. Like, they’re very disturbing and upsetting and very personal fact that like the American family is often the site of so much pain and brutality and abuse.

V Spehar  40:32

And we see it happen so much, even to now this othering, this demonizing of someone else to try and project, the harm that’s happening, let’s say in a religious institution on drag queens, where there is no evidence of such a thing, but it’s more convenient to do that. Absolutely. I have a segment in the podcast called Urban Legends hotline, which is pretty risky, because you just let people call in, go investigate.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  40:56

That’s right. That’s right. It’s our new favorite. That’s actually why we’re working on a melon heads episode right now. And yes, people can call in quote, unquote, and leave a message on our website about an urban legend from their childhood. And we will, we’ve only done one so far. But it involved me going out on this like road in the middle of nowhere by this abandoned farm and like letting my car go into neutral and it was like suppose supposedly going to go up hill because these, the ghosts of these children killed in a school bus accident push you up hill, right. And you can see their little handprints on the back of your car, because you dust it with baby powder. That’s part of like the ritual which we call legend tripping in the industry. So yeah, and I did it and it absolutely worked. But the reason that it worked is what we’re also interested in, because we’re not a debunking podcast, we don’t like that. But we do like to try to, to get to the heart of why these things actually work. And it’s all it is, is that they’re called gravity hills and you slowly move downhill but it appears that you’re moving uphill because of the placement of the horizon and some other like boring scientific things. And then on the back, you’ll find handprints in the baby powder, because the oils on your hands stay on the car and just like a detective with dust for fingerprints, they show up on the car. So it creates this like perfect story that teenagers can go out and do together. And I think that legend tripping is such an important part of of growing up at least it was for me going out and exploring these these creepy stories and, and getting that kind of rite of passage. So yeah, we’re, I’m not always going to get to test them all because they don’t happen near enough to me. But yeah, we’re, we’re, I basically get to do this, like, this really fun thing on like, newspapers.com where I’m like, Okay, we’re working on what about like, pig people? Right? So it’s like, these roving bands of pig people that attack teenagers on you know, lovers lay ins. And so I get to go back into newspapers.com and be like, what is it about pigs and people, we just start there and just find what we can and it’s just a lot of fun because there’s kind of no, no rules. It’s lower stakes for me than trying to make some kind of like larger commentary on on America. It’s just it’s more fun for me, and I ended sometimes I need that break. And I think people are enjoying it. And I hope Yeah, if you have a urban legend from your childhood, people just go to American stereo.com and leave it for me and you might get it answered.

V Spehar  43:32

What do you think makes people so susceptible to hoaxes in urban legends and panics?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  43:39

I guess it’s like, just, if you want to believe right, it’s like, it’s pretty. I think these stories are made to activate certain parts of our psychology, you know, parts of us that are fear based. You know, so much of it is just like the classic boogeyman scenario where it’s just a cautionary tale. You know, don’t go to make out point because you’re gonna get attacked by a hook man. That’s a classic one, right? And then hoaxes are obviously designed I think of like, The Blair Witch Project, which is again like another kind of route for me because I believed that it was real you know, you could they there was the greatest marketing campaign of all time, they had a website, you can go on that had all of the posters of the missing people, they like put posters all over colleges, they went so far as to like go into message boards, where people were talking about it and add little facts like it was the greatest, the greatest thing that’s ever happened in cinema, in my opinion. And so of course, in that scenario, like why wouldn’t you kind of want to believe in something like that, like, it’s fun. And I think when we think of urban legends, they often have like a greater meaning and a greater like, you can put them in like sociological terms, which we do but at the end of the day, those end That kind of to me just being the fun ones versus the moral panics and the conspiracy theories that have like farther reaching issues.

V Spehar  45:08

I’ve had my heart broken by finding out that an urban legend that I so badly want it to be true is not true. Here in Rochester, we have this notorious urban legend called the white lady, as everyone does have their own white lady. And this is the white lady’s castle. And if you drive up to Durant Beach, there’s this brick you know, thing that looks like it would have been the remnants of a castle and her lover died in the back Lake and Rochester is super spooky. A lot of people end up in that link. But that’s for another story. And I investigated it because I was like, I really want to know about like this vintage thing. We got a lot of Victorian weirdo stuff up here. It’s the birthplace of spirituality and lots of different things. And so I like investigate it. And I got my heart broken to find out that this castle structure was actually one time just the concessions stand for the beach. And I was devastated. Because it wasn’t even a White Castle. It was there’s nothing to do with there was no white lady. There was no white castle. It was just a hotdog stand that had long burned down and had like, that’s it because I was like, you guys were to ruin it. Did you ever have an urban legend break your heart when it wasn’t true?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  46:16

Well, I shouldn’t say it broke my heart, I should say that I had a moment where a lot like a live experience of an urban legend where I was Mrs. Long before the show. This is when I was in my early like, maybe 20 years old. And I was at a big breakfast with a bunch of people at a restaurant and someone told a story that they had recently heard about a woman and maybe for this one, a woman who developed this rash on her face. And then she went to the doctor and the doctor told her that the rash could only have been caused by contact with dead human flesh. And she had just recently in Las Vegas been making out with a random man. And so they, you know, the FBI went to his house and found out that he had a bunch of corpses out of that I know it’s gross, and that they had like, transferred the corpse. And so I’m being told this story. And of course, I’m like, oh my god, like I’m just wrapped with both thing. And then my mom happened to call me at that breakfast and I stepped outside to talk to her. And I was like, You’re not gonna believe what I just heard. And then she was like, No, that happened to my friend’s sister. I you know, and then I was like, oh, shoot, it’s happening. It’s happening right now friend of a friend. And for me, it was very exciting, actually. Because it was like this, this exact moment of what I did love so much just occurring and it’s nice to know that that didn’t happen. Right? I’m glad that didn’t happen.

V Spehar  47:48

It’s good to know that it’s good to know. One less monster. Well, since it’s Pride Month, we should talk about the Gay Agenda. Now you have an episode exploring this topic talking about a certain Teletubby for those who don’t know, who is this Teletubby and what role does it play in supposedly advancing the Gay Agenda?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  48:13

Who is this Teletubby so Tinky Winky was one of the Teletubbies and if you don’t know who they were, it was a kid show in the 90s about these big kind of dopey looking aliens. Each a different color, very sweet and adorable, kind of tucked in like a babbling language and just kind of flounced about right. And they didn’t that was pretty much what they did. So at one point, Jerry Falwell senior, famously anti gay famously blamed gay people for, you know, a variety of, of American horrors and, you know, he went on like Katie Couric show and just talked about how Tinky Winky in particular, was this gay Teletubby because he had a upside down purple antenna on his head. He was purple and then he carried around a purse I’m also saying he, but these are like aliens that clearly have no sex like they’re like, I don’t really know exactly. Well, at

V Spehar  49:15

least thought it was a man because he was mad about the purse and he wouldn’t have been if they were if it was a lady Teletubby.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  49:21

And I think what’s what’s so important to remember about or to learn about this moral panic is that where Jerry Falwell got it from was from a kind of gay, satirical columnist writer who was talking about like how Tinky Winky was like this gay icon and it was totally just tongue in cheek, hilarious, just, you know, just like he teaches us that it’s okay to have accoutrements of the opposite gender, you know, just just something that we would write today offhandedly, and like a meme, right? But that’s kind of all it took. And Jerry Falwell ran with that and then it became like, basically, it’s what people will remember about This character is like that he’s gay. It’s a very bizarre, a bizarre moment in time, but it definitely encapsulates, I think this this one part of the moral panic around around the Gay Agenda and trans things of that kind is like, a lot of times, conservatives just don’t get the joke. And from there things like spin off, and it can be a really big problem. And it seems so silly. But that’s, that’s what happened with Tinky Winky.

V Spehar  50:31

It begs the question, why was Jerry Falwell senior reading gay columns in the 1990s? It’s not like you could just stumble upon it back then you had to know where to look. There wasn’t like internet, you could just Google it up. He had nothing advocate. The advocate? Yep. The Village Voice, the blade. And he was just that’s what he likes to read. Every accusation is that admission?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  50:55

I’d say feel that more and more every day for sure.

V Spehar  51:00

The National scare around the Gay Agenda is this representation of like fantastical thinking and misunderstandings. And just like boredom, in some ways, I think just trying to like have a voice or a strong opinion about something that otherwise most of these folks would never have an occasion to run into gay people or gay culture. You could very well live the rest of your life and just never interact with it if you wished to. But they really, you know, insert themselves in queer places deep in queer lore, and then try to reinterpreted in villainize it. What benefit does that serve their community to do that?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  51:39

I think that a folk devil always serves some means to an end. And usually it’s some kind of a sleight of hand right to distract from some other kind of issue, or to express psychically and underlying anxiety. And I think when it comes to the Gay Agenda, gayness is also very much about gender power and gender dynamics. And so I think, when people who believe in this American family, right, this father is the head and mothers next, the kids are submissive, like, you know, that’s what kind of the ideal institution is too many conservative Christian folks. And I think when even a small amount of people somehow threaten that, it frightens, especially, especially men, but definitely women as well, who are used to having a very strict hierarchy. And it’s like, if you have different genders together, if you have if, if, if a gender can change if these things are not solid and constant, then that freaks out those who feel that that will take power away from them.

V Spehar  52:55

No, it’s not necessarily gay. But I would say that these things maybe fall into the gay lexicon, boy bands, pop stars, and the urban legends that surround them. You had an episode on boy bands, what was the what was the hang up on the boy bands?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  53:13

Well, what we were trying to kind of do with that series. We also do crazes. That’s another part of what we do. And that was a little bit more what we were looking at. But the heart of that episode was looking at how the teenage girl of American culture has actually driven music. And like, you know, we looked at Elvis, we looked at Frank Sinatra, people who are now the Beatles, of course, those bands that are now so enormous and so important to the American musical lexicon. And how, at the beginning of their careers, it was swarms of teenage girls swooning, and crying and being so obsessed with them, wow. All of the critics and young men were like, you know, just really hating on them, because the teenage girls liked them so much, but just identifying the inherent sexism in that type of fandom culture, and actually the power that teenage girls have to create culture and how that’s completely ignored as soon as men decide or boys decide that something is cool.

V Spehar  54:26

So you talked a lot about astrology and kind of where we’re at with it. And what’s the deal? Tell me what you learned.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  54:32

Yeah, so we focused a lot of times, I’ll start with a topic and then I’ll be like, Okay, we’re focusing on this, this more narrow part of it. And what we focused on was how many different presidents used astrologers to make decisions. So, Nancy Reagan was a huge fan of astrology. And she was also kind of like the Dick Cheney to Reagan’s Bush, we could say No, no, that’s a crude comparison. But Nancy was back there pulling a lot of strings. And she had an astrologer actually make a schedule based on the stars for Ronald Reagan to like keep him safe and to make his speeches successful. And and when it came out in America after Reagan was out of office and his former I believe it was his chief of staff wrote an expose a about the astrologer. And then the astrologer wrote a book about it. And, you know, it was it was quite a scandal when when, when it aired out, but it turned out that, you know, all the way back to the 1920s. And you mentioned Connecticut and spiritualism. And that’s very much like, you know, mixed into what we’re doing with with that episode. And so I think, we think of astrology, like you’re saying is some kind of like, oh, hip, like, like, women, girl, queer thing. But really, you know, Harding, Nixon had an astrologer, there’s actually meetings that were taped with this astrologer so you know, it’s like, they’re everywhere.

V Spehar  56:09

Had to hate that too, though, because for following the star to Jesus Himself, they don’t, they don’t really want us looking at the stars very much anymore. They’re like, don’t use the stars anymore as a map, just that one time it was okay. Was the Christian response to the astrology

Chelsey Weber-Smith  56:24

with Reagan, probably, with the others, I had to just dig and dig and dig to even find this out. I had to order a magazine, a actual magazine from the 1920s in order to get any information about the astrologer with Harding. So it was like, you know, these are not these are not well known things they were talked about in whispers certainly. And there were like, you know, high society folks may be new are also seeing the same astrologer. And you know, there was lots of gossip around it. But you know, I think a lot of times, powerful people kind of get a pass as long as they’re enacting the agenda that that people want for sure.

V Spehar  57:08

Now, it’s not just the girl use, they get hooked on crazes and the urban legends and the hoaxes. Your most recent episode is about jackass. The television show featuring Johnny Knoxville, and Bam Margera and Steve Oh, that I remember watching finally, and thinking was just like the kookiest stuff and like, they must be professional stunt men. Watching my brother tried to do some of those tricks and get severely injured. What did you learn about jackass?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  57:35

We went into it, you know, not really knowing what we were gonna do just knowing that this was a huge cultural touchstone for the new millennium. And just wondering how did we get to the point where this is what the youth wanted so badly to consume. And so we started back in the 70s with like dog town and the skaters who started really like doing more dangerous tricks and taking those kinds of risks. We talked about Evil Knievel in the 70s, which I didn’t know a lot about, I was always like, oh, yeah, Daredevil stunt man. But I mean, this dude was out of his mind he like shot in a rocket across a canyon. And just, it was not even really very possible for him to make it he just fell into a canyon and there’s like 10s of 1000s of people there who are like doing a Woodstock 99 essentially like burning down porta potties and, and knocking over beer trucks and just complete malarkey. Complete, just absolute madness. And then we went, you know, through the 80s and 90s, the skate video culture, which is where Jackass came out of like C k y, and then Big Brother magazine, which was this like, problematic in many ways magazine that that really epitomized like 90s the beginning of like edge Lord stuff where it was like, say, the most offensive thing you can and then say, well, it’s free speech. We also and then that’s where Jackass came out of kind of the first stunts were happening in the 90s. They went to MTV, and they got this this big job. And so, but what we did want to talk about, were two things that we looked at the 70s and the 90s. And we looked at Oh, isn’t it interesting that the 70s was second wave feminism, the 90s third wave feminism, and a lot of sociologists whose papers I read talked about this thing called white male backlash, and maybe you can kind of see what that means already. But just looking at like, not necessarily that the crew of Jackass was thinking, Oh, we’ve got to do something against these women, but the fact that the culture was ready to consume like some boys will be boys type content, I think made it such a phenomenon around you know, also things like Fight Club and like Blink 182 You know, just these very masculine expressions that were also though, I think important to point out less toxic types of masculinity than say, the Reagan era. The At Bush era, the homophobia that was extremely serious, we started to get this like, jokey homophobia. And like though that was a problem. It was also like, seeing guys on Jackass shirtless, jumping all over each other, like touching each other’s dicks and stuff was actually a small movement forward. And if you look at what they’ve said, since the guys were like, No, we wanted to kind of challenge homophobia, we wanted to make straight America face these things, because it didn’t bother them. Right. It was just them having a good time. And they saw how ridiculous it was the actual real, angry homophobia that was happening throughout the 90s. And then, you know, we even went back to Big Brother, which you can look at as kind of a loathsome piece of journalism as it was, but they were also the very first skate magazine to ever feature a gay skater on their cover, you know, wearing assless chaps and a cowboy hat and you like, though that’s, you know, though, you could look at that and say, Oh, that’s, that’s reductive, or that’s something you know, in its moment, no one else would do that for a decade. Right. And so I think just looking at the Gen X edge, Lord culture, not just as a problem, but also in its time period being somewhat. I don’t want to necessarily say revolutionary, but a step in a different direction than others who are going.

V Spehar  1:01:29

It makes me think, did Jackass walk off a bridge so that Mr. Beast and Chris could run? I think, Mr. Beast for those listening does very similar things where you extremist stunts and events, you win money. Jimmy is a lovely guy. He’s a super nice guy, the guy behind Mr. Beast, and his best friend, his whole life is Chris who recently transitioned and Jimmy stuck by her. And we have to love that. I mean, these these are two people who are deeply entrenched in young male internet culture, which is not a super friendly place. And now they’re like, Chris has always been one of us. And she remains one of us, and we stand by her and we support her. And we’re here for the ride and we enjoy it. And we’re not going to be like the generations before us who cast people out when they’re showing us their true selves. I think it’s such a beautiful thing that Chris can trust her community and that they gave her that love right back so Jackass walked so Mr. Beast.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  1:02:24

Absolutely. credit where it’s due. That’s what I say. It’s always

V Spehar  1:02:28

so fun to put these things together right and and feel like wow, the world is the world can be okay, it can go in Okay, place. What’s next for you? What are you working on? What are you looking forward to exploring next?

Chelsey Weber-Smith  1:02:40

Well, we pray for us are doing a series called drag. So we’re gonna really get into the you know, we’re again, we usually we will touch on the present moment. But what we’re here to do is give as much context as we possibly can into the present moment. So that’s the big thing that we’re working on right now. I don’t have a ton to say about it. Because it’s really in its beginning stages. But as I mentioned, right now, we’re working on Roving Clans of cannibal pig people attacking teenagers at makeout point. So as you can see, we run the gamut here, we’ve dealt stick Yeah, we like to really bring a variety to our audience.

V Spehar  1:03:19

And the podcast again, is called American hysteria. You can get it anywhere you get your podcasts, Chelsea, tell folks where they can find you directly.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  1:03:27

Yeah, I mean, I think the best place is the podcast. But I am pretty active on Instagram at American hysteria podcast. I am terrified of Twitter. I’m on there once in a while. And that’s at a mayor hysteria. So yeah, if you want to if you have anything to say, you can come over to Instagram. And if you’ve got an urban legend for us, please send it to American hysteria.com. But please don’t be mean to me.

V Spehar  1:03:53

Sounds good. Thank you, Chelsea. So much for being here. This was super fun. I cannot wait to go binge more of the podcast. It’s phenomenal. Y’all will love it.

Chelsey Weber-Smith  1:04:02

Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m really grateful to you.

V Spehar  1:04:08

That was so fun. Thank you so much to Chelsey Weber-Smith. Melon heads. They’re in everyone’s town. I thought we were special out here in Shelton, Connecticut. But apparently that too was a hoax. Be sure to tune into next week’s episode where we dig into the headlines you may have missed, please leave us a five star rating on whatever platform you’re listening on. It really does help people find the show. And I really want to have more reviews than every other show on this network. Help us win. Follow me at under the desk news on tick tock Instagram and now on Patreon. And guess what friends? There’s even more be interesting with laminata Premium subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content, like Montana State Rep. Zoe’s ever and journalist Aaron Read on who’s the better cook and their relationship and whether Zoey plans to run for higher office? Subscribe now in Apple podcasts.

V Spehar  1:05:07

V Interesting is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Kryssy Pease, Kathryn Barnes and Martin Macias. Our VP of weekly programming is Steve Nelson. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittles Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Mix and scoring is by James Farber. Music by Seth Applebaum. Please help others find the show by reading and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @VitusSpehar, @underthedesknews and @LemonadaMedia. If you want more V Interesting. Subscribe to Lemonada Premium only on Apple podcasts and follow the show where ever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.

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