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Safety and containment for the truly unhinged.
thought digest, 04.21.2023
Spring has finally sprung in Chicago.
Substack encourages me to include these.
Not “fool’s spring” or “the spring of deception,” two names for the little blips of warm weather we get during the winter that trick us into thinking we’re out of the woods, but spring fully realized. It’s been a nice reminder that the Midwest isn’t so bad—winter here does a real number on my mood. Great timing, too, since I just paid an exorbitant amount of taxes and learned that I probably shouldn’t be doing as much traveling as I have been.
Chicago in the springtime reminds me of all the best parts of Texas. There’s just something about the energy here that starts jogging my memory.
One of those memories is this brief period of time in 2019 when I slept on a red pleather couch in a then-uninhabited punk house. The floors were dirty in that way that made them impossible to really clean, there were too many spiders in the shower, and the place stretched on and on. I felt like I was constantly discovering new rooms—new places to hang out—new places to convince myself there were ghosts.
The AC didn’t work very well, meaning it was easy to get dehydrated and even easier to get sick: I even ended up in the hospital one day from a minor, not-enough-AC-induced heat stroke. The place was a shit show.
Needless to say, it’s one of those memories I over-romanticize and a time in my life I treasure more than I should.
At the time, I was friends with a 40-something goth ex-stripper who lived above a bookstore near the University of Texas. Once a week, I’d head to her place for a women’s spirituality group she hosted in her living room. The apartment was weird and overcrowded with junk. She was a doll collector, a sometimes professional tarot reader, you could tell she’d once been a stripper. She had a Sphynx cat that was perpetually battling some kind of skin disease.
All her stuff emanated personality. You’d look at a grandfather clock and feel like it was smiling at you, or a 19th-century throw pillow and just know it was angry. Sometimes you’d look at one of her porcelain dolls and sense a subtle change in expression. Hard to explain unless you’ve been in a place like that. It was animated.
I remember sitting there one night and looking around at all the women—at the room—and thinking, you know, I’m okay with who I am. It’s okay that I’m like this. If every mistake I’ve ever made led me here, it was worth it.
Not much in terms of internet culture on my mind right now. I quipped on Twitter yesterday about how I think excessive (romantically slanted) reply guying is worse than pornography which is probably fine fodder for an essay.
My issue with, e.g., faving dozens of photos of e-girls or low-level Internet personalities is that they’re theoretically accessible, even if they aren’t in practice. It has a different texture than porn. It’s not parasocial in the same way having a favorite porn actress is: e-girls often know you exist. E-girls might like the attention in a way porn actresses certainly don’t, even if they don’t have a shared romantic investment in the reply guy. I don’t know. Either it’s objectifying an ordinary person (bad?), or it’s not (worse?). I don’t think it’s harmless or the same as just following a member of the opposite sex. You know it when you see it. There is something so uniquely heartbreaking about it, in a way that porn isn’t. Anyway, people have made this point ad nauseam about Instagram models, and my sense is we don’t need my unique spin. Not 1,300 words of it, at least.
This isn’t an attack on anyone who follows me, by the way. It’s just one of these disturbing thoughts that float through your mind when you have too much free time. OK, more accurately, when you’re procrastinating on more important things.
I think I’m spreading myself too thin again. I need to pick a single topic and home in on it. That’s not in my nature, but it’s impacting my work as it often does. I should probably figure out how to focus. Nicotine gum helps a little bit. Sunshine helps a little bit. I let my phone die so I can tech detox. We’ll see. Always growing…
That’s what’s up with me.
Now for the second installment of our Art Bell series from Ivy Astrix.
Safety and containment for the truly unhinged.
Katherine’s note: One of three songs I know of about Coast to Coast AM.
I’ve always loved talk radio.
I was (and still am a bit of a night owl), and one night I had left my radio on. When 1 AM rolled around, I heard the Coast to Coast intro for the first time. Some thunder, Giorgio Moroder’s Chase, and Art Bell’s voice.
His voice is unique and comforting, and I was instantly hooked. I’ve always been weird, and into weird subject matter, including the Coast to Coast staples: alien abductions, UFOs, and government conspiracies.
Soon after that first episode, the major talk radio station in the city where I grew up was eventually purchased by a religious group and pivoted to Christian rock, which was definitely not my cup of tea. For some reason, they kept Coast to Coast (good Christians must go to bed early, I guess).
The format of Coast to Coast was one of its most attractive qualities. A conversational format, very loose boundaries, and a call-in portion of each show. Art’s interviewing style was not totally uncritical, but he erred on conversation versus interrogation.
In the conspiracy media episode of my podcast The Outgroup, friends of mine who are long-time C2C fans agreed on Art’s style. Jake of The Damn Woods (another conspiracy media podcast) said that Art’s major strength was knowing how to wrangle weird people in an interview.
A gem of Coast to Coast programming was the annual New Year’s Eve prediction show, where Art would take a hundred predictions from listeners who called in. Some of those predictions were prescient, one being that a newspaper headline would read ‘Obama gets Osama.’ Some were more esoteric, like the reason for the sharp decline in the honeybee population would be related to extraterrestrials.
Coast to Coast was also deeply embedded in the internet zeitgeist of the late 90s / early 00s. The most interesting digital spaces were usually forums, like BellGab, filled with funny, weird people. Besides BellGab, Something Awful was another one of their main gathering places. Threads would recap the predictions, and one year it was clear Art was aware of SA’s interest by opening the prediction show with a shoutout to ‘The Goons’, a nickname for SA forum members.
It was still the internet, though, and there was trolling. A fairly epic troll was a SA forums member faking a deep southern accent and telling Art about their vision of a ‘mass homicide situation’ involving a steamroller. Another was about a cargo plane explosion showering the Midwest with pencils (taken from a popular meme on the forums at the time).
Some trolls rose to the level of performance art, such as the infamous Area 51 caller. During the call, the Coast to Coast satellite transmitting system went down. Much of the internet is still split on whether the DoD was responsible for the interruption.
You might classify Coast to Coast as a canvas for that kind of art as much as a paranormal/conspiracy interview show. Callers often claimed to be the antichrist, time travelers, and ghosts.
It was fascinating to see the pillars of conspiracy media rise (and sometimes fall) during the run of Art’s Coast to Coast (Art eventually handed the reins to George Noory).
John Titor has always been my favorite, and he’s been a large focus of C2C over the years. A lawyer claiming to represent Kay Titor, John’s mother once guested but was unable to provide anything but vague answers.
Art Bell died in 2018, and the internet mourned and celebrated. Art had already retired, but I think many who had kept listening viewed his passing as a sign that the magic was gone. George Noory was never my cup of tea, and I stopped listening regularly soon after Art retired—I never got into Dark Matter, or as it was later known, Midnight in the Desert—but I did feel that his death marked the end of an era.
Coast to Coast left a legacy, though.
Podcasts rose to prominence during C2C’s run, and my conspiracy media colleagues and I agreed that they had been one of the most impactful developments. Removing the friction and policing of the airwaves created a new canvas for the crazy and weird. People previously confined to calling into Art’s show now had the reins.
The best of Coast to Coast is available as a podcast on Spotify, and it’s rather surreal to scroll past descriptions of pet psychics and demonic entities. You can also find specific spots on YouTube, and it’s far easier for the general public to consume content when they don’t have to sit through the entirety of C2C.
Art is often critiqued for being one of the catalysts in the rise in misinformation and conspiracy theory proliferation, both in giving guests a platform and his relatively hands-off approach to callers. Essentially the argument is that the FCC is good, actually, and some perspectives are too dangerous to exist without oversight.
The legacy that Art and Coast to Coast has for me personally is one of warm feelings and remembrance of the golden age of the internet. Normies stayed away from the most interesting digital spaces, and there seemed to be a common camaraderie in discussing Art’s show across the digital diaspora of the 90s and 00s.
You just never hear someone asking the anti-christ what their favorite food is anymore and finding out they’re a cheese pizza kind of demigod—at least, not without an air of irony, a wink at the audience that they’re identifying against the mainstream culture. Coast to Coast was an exceptionally special liminal space: both containment and safety—in the truest sense—for the extremely unhinged.
Me around the web:
I was on the Wisdom of Crowds podcast yesterday. By the time you read this, the episode may or may not be posted. They’re worth subscribing to though, really interesting group of people.
Lawrence Anton recorded a response video to my UnHerd article about antinatalism.
I’m retiring the advice column.
I’m doing a meet-up in LA at the end of June. More details to come, but you can sign up here.
Help me recover from tax theft.