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Satanic panic: Documentary takes a new look at Michelle Remembers book

Satan Wants You, which premières Friday at The Vic Theatre, points to Michelle Remembers as Ground Zero of the Satanic panic that gripped North America in the 1980s

Those living outside Victoria in the 1980s might not fully appreciate the satanic panic triggered by the book Michelle Remembers, a bestseller that left many believing the Garden City was, in fact, the satanic capital of the world.

From ABC News and People magazine to The National Enquirer and Oprah Winfrey, everyone wanted to know more about the demonic forces said to be plaguing Victoria.

Based on “recovered-memory” therapy sessions between Victoria psychiatrist Larry Pazder and longtime patient Michelle Smith, the book presented a purported account of ritualistic abuse around Victoria dating to the 1950s.

The book, which suggested a Victoria cult, whose members sacrificed babies, was in league with Satan, was endorsed by the Catholic Church, which donated $10,000 to the book project.

The book was eventually translated into more than 20 languages even though its claims were soundly debunked by experts. “It began to pick up a whole life of its own,” said Vancouver filmmaker Steve J. Adams, who has co-directed with partner Sean Horlor a new documentary on the subject called Satan Wants You.

“Even though the story was debunked, the book got a foothold in the States and caught fire. It was multi-level panic. Once it hit psychiatry, the daytime talk shows picked it up, then it went to the news and before you knew it, everywhere you turned there were Satanists in the community.”

Satan Wants You, which premières Friday at The Vic Theatre, points to Michelle Remembers as Ground Zero of the satanic panic that went on to grip North America through the 1980s and into the 1990s. “There were reports of 12,000 cases of satanic ritual abuse, just in the U.S. alone,” Adams said. “And not one of them was proven.”

The two were doing a documentary project for the CBC on Canadian books several years ago when they decided to look into Michelle Remembers.

The doctor-patient relationship between Pazder and Smith eventually blossomed into a romantic one. They left their respective partners and were married. Pazder died in 2004.

Smith, who reportedly still lives in Victoria, was contacted by the filmmakers but declined via email to be interviewed for the documentary.

Smith’s sister Charyl, Pazder’s ex-wife Marylyn, and her daughter with Pazder, Theresa, all appear in the film, however.

“You watch the movie and you can see all these people talking about it, and there’s a lot of absurdity to it,” Horlor said. “But it was deadly serious. People’s lives were ruined because of it. And it was all over absolutely nothing.”

During editing of the film, a package arrived in the mail that would change the course of Satan Wants You. A 90-minute cassette tape, it featured audio from a 1976 therapy session between Pazder and Smith, during which Smith is hypnotized. On the tape, Smith screams as if she is possessed by the devil.

It’s the only audio of their sessions known to exist.

The filmmakers had previously contacted a number of people whom Pazder had hired to transcribe tapes of the sessions. Horlor said 600 hours of therapy with Smith was recorded, much of which is included verbatim in Michelle Remembers.

The tape arrived in an unmarked envelope, with no return address. “It is one of those jaw-dropping moments you have as a filmmaker,” Adams said. “It was the Holy Grail of the Satanic panic — this piece of evidence that few people had ever heard before.”

Horlor said that during their last on-camera interview together, in 1991, Pazder and Smith maintained their story was accurate.

It’s suggested in the film that Pazder indicated to his daughter shortly before his death that he was somewhat unsure looking back on it.

Horlor, 42, was born in Edmonton but moved to Victoria with his family in the early 1980s. His family lived in Cordova Bay, 10 minutes from the large house where Pazder and Smith lived.

Rumours about babies being stolen from hospitals in Victoria were circulating at the time. People thought Satanists were killing babies and drinking their blood, Horlor said.

Teenagers in the city were routinely terrified, he recalled. “Victoria is such a pretty city, with the ‘newlywed or nearly dead’ reputation, as people used to say. But I remember thinking anyone wearing all black was going to abduct you, because they were Satanists.

“We were told about stores downtown in Victoria that had altars in the back, and they were murdering animals and killing babies.”

Satan Wants You will have its Victoria première at The Vic Theatre (808 Douglas St.) on Friday, Aug. 11. Co-directors Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams will attend and participate in a Q&A session following the screening.