Moral panics have been with us as a species since time immemorial. From the persecution of European pagans at the end of the Roman empire in the Fourth Century, to the Salem witch trials in New England in the 17th Century. Blame Canada, if you will, for the spark that lit the Satanic Panic fire in the early 1980s, the first great moral panic to be spread through television and daytime talk shows.
That spark was a best selling book written by Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder called Michelle Remembers, a lurid and sensational account of a year of psychotherapy sessions involving “recovered-memory therapy” (a technique that has since been scientifically discredited), in which Michelle recalled and recounted an escalating series of mutilations and sacrifices done in the name of Satan to her, and others, when she was 5 years old and growing up in a small town on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
The pair went on an international tour for several years hawking and profiting off the story, from CBS, ABC and NBC in the States, to the law-enforcement seminar circuit, and eventually exploding on Oprah, Sally-Jessy Raphael and, infamously, Geraldo Rivera. The latter proclaimed, “There are over one million Satanists in [The United States]. The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network. From police and FBI attention to their Satanic Ritual child abuse, child pornography, and grisly Satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town.”
Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams have assembled a superlative mix of archival footage and interviews that appeared at the time in the media, along with interviews with many of the key players, including a locally-involved police officer, a retired FBI “Mind Hunter,” Satanic Panic investigative journalists, and an articulate member of Anton LaVey’s still-running, surprisingly erudite Church of Satan. Various family members of Michelle and Lawrence offer a far more personal context of their ‘media’ life vs. their home life.
After 90 minutes of demonstrating how ridiculous and credulous those 1980s Americans and Canadians were, it brings up our current moment of QAnon. Many of the same tropes -- child abuse, shadowy cabals, secret basement rituals -- are the cornerstone of America’s most wackadoodle conspiracy drenched paranoia in the internet and social media age. Satan Wants You is an essential piece for contextualizing this pop culture moment. Moral Panics are not new, and putting them into the context of the human psyche, past and present, is essential. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with the directors of the film, Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams, at this year's Fantasia International Film Festival to talk about their film, the book that is at the heart of it, and the cyclical nature of moral panics in general.
The below transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for readability and flow.
Kurt Halfyard: I really loved the film, and I am astounded that you got access to the tapes [Lawrence Pazder’s recordings of Michelle Smith]. The are absolutely harrowing to listen to, whatever you believe, to hear those tapes and get that feeling. I wanted, however, to ask about the book itself; did you find it hard to physically find a copy?
Sean Horlor (SH): It is out of print, and yes, Michelle Remembers is a difficult book to find. When you go down that rabbit hole online, and start looking at used booksellers, it is quite expensive. If you are a serious “fan”, it is a financial commitment to getting a copy to read.
Steve J. Adams (SJA): The first one we got was pretty rough, and then [Melissa James, Producer] was able to get one of the original prints, and it was in pretty good condition. Towards the end of filming, we were able to find a hard cover. And it was kept in pristine condition, with the dust jacket, which set us back $180.
I have gone down this rabbit hole. I had a copy long ago, but lost it. Today it is not in libraries, and my theory is there is some collective shame around owning or displaying the book on a home bookshelf. Certainly there are probably many copies in boxes in people's attics next to V.C. Andrews novels. This book originally sold millions of copies. It astounds me that it is kind of buried, given the original circulation. Organically or not, that is a fact, and 1981 is not that long ago. Any thoughts on why?
SH: There is only so much you can put in a 90-minute film, but we did track down the publisher, and his wife is still alive. His name was Thomas Congdon. He was the editor of [Peter Benchley’s novel] Jaws in the 1970s. He had that before Michelle Remembers, and you can sort of see his fingerprints on how Michelle Remembers came together. He saw it as a bestseller. He helped connect Larry Pazder and Michelle Smith to a series of ghost writers.
My head just exploded.
SH: I know! I know. How deep do you want to go today?
Wow. That is the start of two major panics for Congdon then. The panic that JAWS caused when later adapted by Steven Spielberg. And the Satanic Panic caused by MICHELLE REMEMBERS.
SJA: We were able to track down one of the ghost writers, James Wickham Collier. He was quite old. He could only communicate by mail. He has his own magazine career in New York. He was quite a celebrated writer in the 1970s.
They flew him out to Victoria, British Colombia, and he worked with Michelle and Larry from a trailer. In that trailer, all three of them were writing a draft of the book. He sent me a typed letter from New York, and I managed at one point to get him on the phone.
Allegedly he has all this material, which still exists in his possession. But he is way too busy to go into his storage. This was disappointing for me, as I was, “I will fly to New York and go through your shed!” But his answer was, “No. No. No.” [Laughs]
They never made a film, like with JAWS, out of the book. In a way, your recreations are now, but the original text was never formally adapted into any kind of film. Usually moral panics have a mass-media film to accompany them. REEFER MADNESS, for instance, in the 1930s, or DUCK AND COVER in the 1950s, (or, later, THE ATOMIC CAFE and THE DAY AFTER in the 1980s) for the Red Scare and Cold War panics of the 1950s and 1980s. You know, for the people who do not read books, which is the vast majority of the United States.
SJA: They tried. We found newspaper articles, where Larry and Michelle were talking about having Dustin Hoffman playing Larry in a feature film. They got pretty far, until Michelle’s father, Jack Proby who was still alive at the time, and he filed an injunction. He said, “I will sue anyone who makes a film out of this."
So it was ‘clearer heads’ opposing or obstructing a film, as opposed to the subject matter being perhaps unfilmable?
SJA: They were on the path. Larry really wanted a movie. That is the direction he was pushing for sure.
Huge pop cultural moments like THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY'S BABY, plus a lot of satanist B-Pictures on the drive-in circuit in the 1970s, were feeding into the culture years before MICHELLE REMEMBERS was published. When the blogger in the film, Sarah Marshall, says that the book is ground zero, she is not wrong. But man, this stuff was in the air, or at least on screen, from 1968-1977 from the big blockbusters like THE OMEN and THE SENTINEL to smaller films like THE DEVIL'S RAIN and RACE WITH THE DEVIL.
SH: I wouldn’t be surprised if a movie was made going forward. Well, there was a porn film made during the pandemic… That we saw. [Laughs], and we were were still developing the film.
This stuff has always sort of lingered in pop culture echoes. There have always been articles being rewritten, addressing the Satanic Ritual Abuse cases, which happened later in the 1990s. And once podcasting started [in the early aughts] we saw this increasing.
Steve and I seriously started looking into this project in 2018, right after Pizzagate and QAnon were picking up steam. We saw this upswell in this book again, and people were obsessing online about it. Because you could search online, buy a copy, and see what it is all about. It was this moment, and then, well, the porn. So I guess we were on the right track. If it was made into porn, then, well...
If your documentary, along with online and podcast interest in the subject lead to a republication of the book, how would that make you feel?
SJA: That would be wild.
SH: Yea, that would be wild.
You make the explicit connection in the film to QAnon and Pizzagate. The modern conspiracy culture around child abduction and abuse. I was also wondering if you could comment on the recent film that is has been a major box office success, THE SOUND OF FREEDOM.
SJA [speaking to SH]: I haven't seen it. Have you watched the trailer for it?
SH: I have not really looked at the film. I just set it off to the side. It is definitely interesting, though.
It is unusual, in that after the film ends, in the credits, the star of the film, Jim Caviezel, makes a plea to the audience to scan a bar code, and buy a ticket for someone else. Like a Ponzi scheme. I assume there is mechanism for people without means to fetch free, pre-paid by a previous viewer, ticket. I’ve never seen this in a film marketing strategy before, getting people to pay twice.
SH: You are giving us some ideas. [Laughs]. It’s a bit different now. It was frightening in the 1980s, in that it was hyperlocal until it blew up on national news. The McMartin Trials, the Margaret Kelly Micheals Case, the West Memphis Three in the 1990s. This happened in Australia, Italy, and other parts of Europe as well.
The fear was that you could be dragged on trial, accused of doing terrible things to children that are all made up. Some people went to prison. Many had their lives ruined.
But I think the difference today, with the online and social media environments, is that it is more vigilante. Pizzagate is scary, because people are going to accuse Hillary Clinton, and others of all of that, but now people are going to show up with a rifle, and possibly shoot and kill. It is a terror.
Even here in Canada, the man who drove to Ottawa and got onto Justin Trudeau’s property was a QAnon follower. It is a different fear. Our current reality is a bit different than the 1980s. I don’t know if one is better or worse, but they are both terrible.
So as a media-consuming society, we seem to have not learned a damn thing in the past 100 years, only that the mediums have changed.
SJA: It is cyclical throughout history, ebb and flow. Every 40 years or so it hits a peak. Then it disappears. Then it comes back. It has always been that way.
SH: Jeff Victor, the sociologist we talk to in the film, the person who coined the term Satanic Panic, in his book he goes back through history on these things, and people who were killing babies and drinking their blood. "Blood Libel," was exactly the kind of allegations and rumours which were targeted at the Jewish community for centuries.
He took that a step further, and traced it back to ancient Rome, where Romans would accuse Christians of murdering babies, sacrificing them and drinking their blood. Anyone who is outside of the mainstream group. We see it with drag queens and the transgender communities now. We were already done with the film, so we could not include that element into the film. But it is often the same thing. It is always kids, and sacrificing.
SJA: Jeff talks about how in the 1980s, how that particular panic spread. It started in local church groups in small towns. Postings about it on bulletin boards. You could watch it move; he tracked it.
SH: The patient zero analogy is interesting, because it is not like Michelle was the actual first case, but rather she and Larry packaged it together, all of those things in the 1960s, and 1970s, from Hollywood productions, to changing cultural values, to Charles Manson’s cattle mutiliations. It was all repackaged into this book.
SJA: And it hit at the right time.
Someone should do a Michael Apted-like UP series of documentaries, but instead of following a collection of children, it should track the reinvention of moral panics. A new entry every decade or so. There is your pitch.
SJA: [Laughs] You want to produce? We will direct.
SH: Early in our film's festival run, when it was playing in Toronto, this article came out, in the Epoch Times, about this woman in Utah who is saying that she is a Satanic Ritual Abuse survivor, in 2023, and that this happened to her as a child. And they quoted our movie as the reason why she came forward to tell her story.
For us it was a weird thing to create this, showing the story behind the book, and here are all the people who debunked the book, and to have that turned around to restart this again. For someone to say, no this is real, it is a weird position for Steve and I to be in.
That is is the nature of these situations, everyone is in a weird position. I mean who is the morally superior or, rather, who is the winner here? I have yet to find one? People break with their families, people experience or re-experience trauma, people’s lives are ruined though accusations. It is a tough subject. But the documentary expresses this very well. The media itself is examined, the actual media of the tapes, through recreations; it is a fascinating meta way to process the incidents themselves.
SH: On the recreations. I do have something to say. Because Larry actually filmed the sessions. In addition to the audio tapes, he had a film camera and he shot them. A still from one of the sessions he recorded, where Michelle was deep in her ‘rememberings,’ made it into the book.
You can see her on lying on the couch. We knew that it had been filmed. And we said, this is the creative license for us to actually bring this back to life. We wanted to include it because we have a record of what they actually did. We had our production designer take that photo and bring it to life. It was so people could feel what happened.
After a successful run on the festival circuit, from SXSW, Hotdocs, Calgary Undergound and Fantasia, Satan Wants You opens in Canadian cinemas on August 11, 2023.