Perhaps you’ve noticed that America isn’t holding it together very well. Every airplane seems to have a middle-aged man throwing a temper tantrum about his facemask, every state house has some woman with artificial hair coloring and too much facial filler screaming about some imagined threat to “the children,” and every time I think I have found a normal person on Twitter it only takes twenty seconds of browsing their timeline to find a post that compares the Covid-19 vaccine to the Holocaust.
It would be easy to dismiss this as just a particularly nasty lull in our collective sanity, but it’s time to be real. We have always been like this. Our nation wasn’t founded when the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock, as they taught us in kindergarten. The true origin point was when those first settlers decided to murder a bunch of women because some teenage girls accused them of being witches, and all the supposedly enlightened patriarchs were like — yeah, OK, sounds about right.
Remember when we all collectively thought people were being abducted onto alien spaceships for medical experimentation and sexual probing; when there were multiple bestselling firsthand accounts of said abductions, experiments and probes; and when one of those said accounts was turned into a big Hollywood film starring Christopher Walken? Or maybe you’ll recall the time when we thought there was a Satanic conspiracy where children were being abused, raped and slaughtered by cults in neighborhood parks and in the basements of local bankers, and where school principals and a bunch of other people went to prison for these entirely imagined crimes?
Chelsey Weber-Smith remembers, and the podcast American Hysteria is a well-researched and highly entertaining dive into these freak-outs and fanatics. There are series on witch hunts, religious revivals, “stranger danger,” apocalyptic fantasies, UFO cults and various other parts of the very normal American imagination.
As a confirmed former conspiracist, Weber-Smith tends to go easy on the duped and the terrified, saving scorn and wrath for the people exploiting the hysterical fear. Weber-Smith is also good at showing the links between the panics: how each one seems to be a continuation of the one before, merely renewed and reshaped by the people profiting from them. The work on QAnon and its origins in the Satanic Panic of the Eighties and Nineties is particularly useful. Why are we so drawn to tales of elites drinking the blood of babies and Satanic cabals behind the curtain of every global news event? Weber-Smith has some answers.
And speaking of hysterical men, Norman Mailer (1923-2007) seems to be having a mini-moment. The formerly acclaimed writer is now known primarily as a major misogynist and all-around Bad Guy, famous more for his scandals and criminal activity — you know, that one time he picked up a penknife and stabbed his wife in the chest with it — than for his literary work. But he recently resurfaced, thanks to his publisher deciding to cancel a collection of his political nonfiction out of fear that he’d offend a more sensitive modern audience. Or maybe it was because his sales are way down — it depends on whom you ask.
The podcast Penknife decided to wade into the moral muck of Mailer’s legacy with a new limited-series investigation into, among other things, one of the darkest moments of his career: the Jack Henry Abbott murder. Abbott was a convict and writer who corresponded with Mailer, and Mailer was an admirer of Abbott’s descriptions of life behind bars and his condemnation of the abusive prison-industrial complex. Mailer publicly vouched for Abbott in his effort to be released on parole, but he got caught up in scandal once a newly freed Abbott murdered a waiter only six weeks later.
Hosts Corey Eastwood and Santiago Lemoine are less interested in the scandal than in the literary culture of the time. Why were violent and egotistical men like Mailer and Abbott so celebrated for so long? Why were their worst deeds covered up or played down by both publishers and fans, allowing them to hurt others, just because they were brilliant writers? And is our more moralistic stance now, by which we condemn and ignore the works of people we deem bad or evil, any better an approach?
There are no easy answers. No one is going to tell you whether you should read The Executioner’s Song, arguably Mailer’s masterpiece, about the execution of Gary Gilmore (you probably should) or whether we should toss these men down the memory hole. But one thing is clear: the dark, strange, twisted and irrational moments of American history aren’t just fringe tales. This is the story of our nation, wild-eyed and bizarre.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2022 World edition.