Satan Wants You: The Story Of Michelle Remembers And The Birth Of The Satanic Panic

A new documentary exploring the origins and the ongoing effects of the biggest religious moral panic of the 1980s and beyond.

Back in the early 2000s, I met a young woman – a friend of a friend – who seemed fun and attractive enough to ask out. The first date went well enough but on the second, whatever romantic plans I might have had were somewhat scuppered by her sudden and unexpected claim that as a child, she had been the victim of a Satanic Ritual Abuse ring that involved her parents and, apparently, most of the small town that she grew up in. This was, to say the least, a mood killer, not least because I was very familiar with the Satanic Panic and everything that she was saying seemed like textbook examples of the mythology, from the recovered memories through to the multiple personalities that only seemed to manifest themselves when she was discussing them. Nevertheless, we ended up as friends of a sort for a while until her odd, damaged behaviour became too much for me to bear, and so I heard a lot more about all this in a series of claims (not just about the alleged SRA) that were increasingly outlandish. Central to the claims was the idea that she had escaped the cult and was in some way in hiding. Yet she received mail and money from her parents, who were apparently major figures in the whole thing. It struck me as somewhat odd that a murderous cult could not track down a renegade member even when they had her address.

People like to think that the Satanic Panic was very much a phenomenon of the 1980s, one that consisted of a few hysterical TV specials and paperback exposés and which fizzled out in the early 1990s. But it has never gone away and has continued to ruin lives – while the days of the falsely accused being imprisoned because of hysterical claims and manipulated evidence are – perhaps – over, the belief in SRA and the ‘recovered memories’ that Christian psychiatrists have unearthed/planted in vulnerable and mentally ill people continues to tear families apart with parents losing their adult children to what is effectively a cult that convinces people that all their problems are because of a forgotten involvement in a ring of Satanic paedophiles that carried out the most unspeakable tortures and mass murders that went undetected because of powerful connections. This latter belief, the idea of a massive global conspiracy covering up the most grotesque crimes imaginable, has become even more prevalent in recent years. Far from being over and done with, the Satanic Panic is probably stronger than ever.

All of this arguably began with one book, published in 1980. We can probably point to predecessors – Mike Warnke’s The Satan Seller in 1972 and Doreen Irvine’s From Witchcraft to Christ set out some of the formats for later works but tended to focus on the idea of adults willingly joining Satanic cults rather than child victims, and these works have been widely discredited (Warnke’s book, hilariously, was proven to be fiction by journalists working for Christian magazine Cornerstone). But Michelle Remembers upped the ante considerably and remains the source work for every subsequent book on the subject. In the book, Michelle Smith’s recovered memories of childhood Satanic abuse and murder were recorded by her psychiatrist – and, significantly, future husband – Lawrence Pazder. Everything you know about SRA is here – the brood mares, the psychological and physical torture, the rituals and the references to the Church of Satan that had to be removed from later editions following a defamation lawsuit by Anton LaVey. Later works have expanded on all this, but effectively this is the template for everything that was to come, the claims that are now so widespread that even people with no interest in the Satanic Panic assume them to be true. Yet Smith and Pazder’s book also claims that after an appearance by Satan himself, Smith was directly saved by the Virgin Mary and Saint Michael the Archangel. I don’t mean that she called on them for help – according to the book, all three of these angels and demons actually manifested. This is the sort of claim that you might think would make people at least pause before accepting the book as being entirely true but in the early 1980s, it seemed that everyone believed it without question, never once stopping to consider that – at best – it was more likely to be Christian propaganda than the unvarnished truth. Admittedly, a lot of Americans still believe in every word of the Bible, even the bits that contradict the other bits, and if you’ve accepted the idea of Satan as a living, breathing entity rather than as an allegory, then all this might make perfect sense. After all, it reinforces the truth of the Bible, right down to being physically rescued by saints. More to the point, in an America that was seeing a fundamentalist revival, this Christianity certainty stood in the face of gay rights, abortion, evolution, heavy metal and alternative religions. Michelle Remembers was, ultimately, a tale of good (Christianity) vs evil (everything else), with good finally winning. In a resurgent right-wing and religious nation, who was going to question that – and if they did, who was going to listen to them? More cynically, SRA was a TV ratings and publishing winner if you presented it as all true; less so if you were debunking it. A lot of people made a lot of money by encouraging the Satanic Panic, even if they quietly thought that it was all ludicrous.

The story of Michelle Remembers, from its origins to the final downfall of the novel (let’s call it what it is, eh?), is told in the fascinating, brilliant and crushingly depressing documentary Satan Wants You, a film that is working its way across the festival circuit as I write and will presumably end up on s streaming platform or – fingers crossed – a physical disc. filmmakers Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams take a deep dive into the whole weird story and remain as even-handed as they can be about a book that has long since been discredited. For those viewers who perhaps are unfamiliar with the story – those who see the Satanic Panic as nothing more than a bit of a joke, something to be oddly nostalgic about – they allow the story to build slowly, even toying with the idea that it might all be true, before lowly unwinding the real horror of how Christian belief, mental instability and opportunism led to a form of mass hysteria that destroyed lived and shattered families. Ironically, two of the families shattered by the book were Pazder’s and Smith’s, as both left their partners and children for each other, and in a moment of great satisfaction, it was this that finally brought the whole lie crashing down. Pazder’s ex-wife was not a woman to mess with and she was able to show that a lot of the events in the book simply couldn’t have taken place. The problem with writing a book that names specific times and places is that people can go back and prove that when you were, say, supposedly kidnapped and held hostage by Satanic psychopaths, you were in fact attending school with a perfect record. A tricky one to explain.

Smith’s sister is also interviewed and is an odd one – while she seems to have finally confronted Smith about the lies of the book, she was – by her own admission – also happy to appear at press launches with her and congratulate her on TV appearances. Did she not read the damn thing, or simply not understand it to be supposedly real? I wanted more explanation from her about why she didn’t blow the whistle earlier. The film also interviews the sceptics – Blanche Barton from the Church of Satan, an FBI profiler who saw massive holes in the rapidly growing SRA industry – lots of psychiatrists became instant experts in both recovering memory and giving lectures to credulous police forces – and a Wiccan police officer, who presumably had a bit of a difficult life at this time when paganism and witchcraft and child-sacrificing Satanism were all seen as the same thing. All these interviewees and the carefully chosen archive clips tell a story of a growing madness that this book gave birth to, one that saw people arrested and imprisoned thanks to psychiatrists leading kids into making outlandish claims and no one bothering to even look for physical evidence that would prove or disprove what they were saying.

What makes Satan Want You so essential as a documentary is the way it shows – only to a small amount, because you can’t even cover it all – the true horror of SRA hysteria. The lives wrecked, the years spent in prison due to claims that should have been easily disproven but which were swept along on a wave of madness comparable to the Salem witch trials. It also nicely shows how SRA quickly became an industry, one in which psychiatrists and therapists manipulated vulnerable people for profit and fame and where anyone who dared question them was deemed a Satanist an abuser themselves (the SRA ‘survivor’ community – and yes, there is such a thing – believe that anyone who believes in the idea of False Memory Syndrome is part of the global Satanic cult). In this wave of collective madness, is it any wonder that people stayed silent rather than standing up to point out that the whole thing was a literal witch hunt?

The filmmakers fail to find Michelle Smith (or more accurately to persuade her to participate) – and perhaps that’s for the best. Listening to the tapes of her dubious therapy sessions with Pazder and she seems like a genuine victim – not of Satanic abuse but of manipulation and an inability to tell what is real and what isn’t that was played upon by a dodgy therapist and his backers in the Catholic church, an organisation that ultimately proved to be a much bigger home for and protector of paedophile abusers than any ‘Satanic’ group could ever be. The fact that SRA-obsessives continue to ignore (or, worse still, excuse) child abuse by the Church while seeking out non-existent Satanic cults in pizza restaurants perhaps tells us more about what these people are seeking to really protect – and that is the religious establishment rather than children, who I rather suspect they don’t really care about at all, other than as an emotive tool with which to attack others while hiding their own corruption and abusive activity.

The big question in a story like this will always be: how much of their story did Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder actually believe? I have little doubt that Pazder knew the lie that he was helping to spread and did so out of a misguided religious fanaticism, but in her case, I really have no idea. I have no doubt at all that the woman I knew all that time ago absolutely believed what she was telling me and was able to explain all the contradictions and discrepancies – at least to herself. The world at large might have moved past the Satanic Panic but many of those who believed wholeheartedly have not changed their views. This feels, ultimately, like the real tragedy of this whole thing – the biggest victims seem to be those who have been convinced that their childhoods were times of unthinkable horror, often at the hands of their own families. To live your life victimised by newly-created memories of horror and abuse, with every happy moment that ever experienced now seen as false, would be awful even if those new memories were genuine.


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One comment

  1. Extremely detailed post on something that I was aware of but not informed about. I’ll be looking out for the documentary should it ever get a general release. Thank you.

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