A new documentary investigates the Canadian origins of the satanic panic that swept across North America in the 1980s and ’90s.
Satan Wants You explores the story behind the 1980 book Michelle Remembers, written by Michelle Smith and psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder of Victoria. It recounts therapy sessions between Smith and Pazder in which she shared supposedly recovered memories of childhood abuse that occurred during satanic rituals.
Directors Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams spoke with CBC News earlier this year about the documentary.
“This book, and the story, that started in Canada was the origin story of the satanic panic,” Horlor said. “We sort of realized as we got deeper and deeper into the project that no one had ever told this before in a documentary.”
Satan Wants You premiered at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto earlier this year, and it’s getting a limited theatrical release in seven Canadian cities on Friday.
Satanic ritual abuse
In the 1980s and ’90s, there were widespread rumours in Canada and the United States of children being terrorized and subjected to gruesome rituals by underground satanic cults — leading to the term “satanic ritual abuse.”
One case in Martensville, Sask., previously reported by CBC News, led to nine people facing nearly 180 charges — with children saying that they had been hoisted into cages, stuffed into freezers, and forced to drink blood and perform sexual acts. Only two charges, neither of which were related to satanic ritual abuse, were upheld on appeal.
The filmmakers say they were taken aback by the scope of the panic.
“The amount of people who were prosecuted and imprisoned and, literally, on things that were completely made up and could never, ever happen,” Adams said. “It was wild to see what people were believing at that time.”
The impact on people’s lives was huge, he said.
“Anybody could be accused of being a Satanist, and … whole checklists were developed to try to root out Satanists within the community.”
When the pair started on the project in 2018, they set up a Google alert to get notified when something new appeared online related to Michelle Remembers. Horlor said they weren’t sure what to expect, given that the book was nearly 40 years old.
“Every week it would be, like, two to three or four blog posts, a new podcast, a magazine, somebody put a new archive online,” he said. “And that for us was sort of the sign that there’s this huge audience out there.”
Horlor said while people have investigated the story in other mediums before, the opportunity to hear from close family members of both Smith and Pazder presented a unique opportunity.
“They had never gone on the public record before, they had never spoken out and said, ‘No, no, this is my side of the story and what happened,'” he said.
One person who doesn’t appear in the documentary is Smith (Pazder died in 2004).
“We had reached out a few times and wanted to see if she was interested in participating in the doc,” Horlor said.
“Just really giving her a chance to explain what had happened or explain any part of the story that she wanted to. But unfortunately she declined to participate.”
Conspiracies, then and now
Horlor said he thinks Smith and Pazder released their book during a time that was ripe for it to grow into something bigger than them.
“I think that they got caught up in it and kind of had to roll with it,” he said. “Every good conspiracy, one of the hallmarks is a lack of evidence is evidence,” he said.
“Law enforcement, mental health professionals, the media, these authors who had a best-seller are all saying, ‘This is real, this is real.’ And people thought it was real.”
Adams said that when the pair started work on the documentary, conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and QAnon were in the public eye. Conspiracy theories, many initiated by former U.S. president Donald Trump, have also surrounded the 2020 presidential election, which was won by Joe Biden.
Horlor said he thinks conspiracies will always be with us.
“It happened before. It’s still happening right now. And I guarantee it’s going to happen again in the future,” he said. “It’s just part of being human, believing in these things and them coming to life.”