One of the most bizarre and pernicious flashpoints in history began with a woman, her shrink-turned-lover, and a lurid tell-all book.
Terrified parents dug under a preschool in search of secret tunnels. Police officers spent countless hours in training, learning how to identify pagan symbols and signs of the occult. Family-friendly corporations were accused of being in league with the devil.
Authorities investigated hundreds of cases of horrific crimes involving cults, blood sacrifices, and baby eating. Millions of dollars were spent on prosecutions, and defendants were imprisoned for their supposed involvement in satanic cults.
It was all part of what became known as the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s when baseless conspiracy theories about cults committing mass child abuse spread around the country.
During this time, the devil was everywhere.
He was in rock music and cartoons. He was in schools and daycares. He dominated the airwaves as talk shows and news programs obsessively reported on the nefarious activities of his minions. He was working with the rich and powerful, including Oprah, McDonald’s, and Procter & Gamble (with many claiming its logo was a symbol of the devil, forcing the company into a two-decade campaign to defend its name).
That evil bastard was even stealthily invading The Smurfs.
Now, if all this sounds pretty un-smurfing-believable, you’re right to think that. It was a time of mass hysteria founded on nothing more than wild rumors, quack psychiatry, and unhinged, easily debunked accusations that would seem crazy in a horror film, much less in real life.
Unfortunately, it was all very real and very serious to a large swath of the country.
As hard as the details of the Satanic Panic are to believe in retrospect, even harder to believe is that it all originated from one book published in 1980 called Michelle Remembers.
Satan Wants You is the story of that book — its origin, impact, and aftermath — and the people responsible for its birth and virulent propagation.
For hours and hours on end, over a period of 14 months, Michelle Smith lay on the couch of her therapist, Dr. Lawrence (Larry) Pazder, recalling dramatic events of her childhood while he recorded every word.
Using the discredited practice of recovered-memory therapy, in which Michelle “hypnotized” herself to recover lost memories of trauma, she wove an outrageous and horrifying tale of physical and sexual ritual abuse by a satanic cult to which her mother belonged.
She spoke of being locked in a cage and tortured while witnessing animal sacrifice, fetus dismemberment, ritual orgies, feces eating, and the arrival of Satan speaking in poetry and the Virgin Mary speaking in French.
The more she talks, the more repressed memories she can access, with each recollection more jaw-dropping than the last.
Before it’s over, Michelle and Larry are spending all day every day with each other.
Michelle has fully integrated herself into his life, calling incessantly around the clock and showing up to family events. Larry’s family calls her a stalker. She starts requiring physical intimacy from Larry in order to keep “remembering” her childhood abuse.
Though both are married to other people, they eventually divorce their respective spouses and marry each other.
Devout Catholics, the two decide to take their revelations to the priest at the Catholic church they both attend. Their priest calls in a bishop to consult, and they eventually take their wild stories to the Vatican, where they are given an audience with the Pope.
The transcriptions of those wild sessions, along with Larry’s interpretations of events, became the book-turned-crucible Michelle Remembers.
Michelle Remembers was released in October 1980 and became a huge sensation.
Larry and Michelle embark on a massive publicity tour and become famous overnight, staying in fancy hotels, riding around in limos, and going on talk shows and game shows. They then embark on a two-year speaking tour to churches, schools, law enforcement officers, and social workers.
They are both viewed as undisputed experts on Satanic Ritual Abuse.
Pazder becomes the go-to guru for deciphering when a child has been abused. Seminars are taught on understanding cults. Cops, social workers, and therapists get professional credits for attending. Pazder convinces the world this type of abuse is widespread and needs to be thoroughly investigated.
Meanwhile, the accusations come pouring in from all over.
And then all hell breaks loose.
In 1983, one mother accused an employee of the McMartin preschool in California of molesting her child.
This triggered a massive investigation that eventually grew to include seven employees of the preschool and 360 children who said they had been abused.
The police sent a letter to hundreds of families, asking for their help with the investigation. They encouraged the parents to question their child about abuse. Therapists were asked to interview the children.
Children were questioned for hours at a time, often asking leading and suggestive questions.
Some of the outlandish claims from the children included flying witches, a goat-man, bloody animal sacrifices, travel via hot-air balloons, children getting flushed down the toilets into secret rooms, violence that left no physical trace, and a network of underground tunnels beneath the school where the cult rituals were held.
The McMartin case lasted six years, the longest and most expensive trial in the history of California at the time, and it became a national spectacle and a template for other cases.
In the end, all the defendants were exonerated due to a lack of evidence. However, one employee served five years in prison before the charges against him were dismissed. Later, many of the kids would admit to lying in order to tell the investigators what they wanted to hear.
Another couple in Texas served 22 years in prison following convictions in a case that included accusations they served blood to children in their daycare. They were eventually released (in 2013) and declared innocent, with a huge wrongful conviction settlement from the state.
Despite the complete lack of credibility or believability, panic spread like wildfire.
It was the equivalent of modern-day witch hunts, with people prosecuted and convicted on little more than rumors and wild speculation.
Investigators started using Michelle Remembers as a checklist to validate cases of reported abuse. The book and its fantastic claims went viral in a world before the internet and social media.
Opportunistic con artists peddled fear for extreme profits. Therapists urged their patients to force harmful memories of events that never happened. Nearly 200 people were charged with crimes over the course of the satanic panic, and dozens were convicted. Many defendants were eventually freed, sometimes after years.
The panic began to wind down in the early 90s.
The cultural zeitgeist changed. Things got laughable when Saturday Night Live started poking fun at the religious zealots with Dana Carvey’s Church Lady. Insurance companies started investigating therapists, refusing to pay for the questionable treatments. Patients began to learn their memories were false, and some sued for huge settlements.
In spite of the hysteria eventually dying down, the effects of the Satanic Panic forever changed the landscape of America.
And we never really found our way completely out of the woods.
In the case of the West Memphis Three in 1993, teenagers were accused and later convicted of raping and killing three young boys — not because of evidence but because they wore black, listened to heavy metal music, and read Stephen King novels. They were eventually released from prison in 2011.
And if the idea of Hollywood elites and other influential people participating in Satanic rituals, that include drinking the blood of babies, sounds a bit too familiar, that’s because the modern conspiracy movement known as Q-Anon traffics in much of the same harmful fearmongering so prevalent during the Satanic Panic.
As this riveting documentary so aptly points out, those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.SATAN WANTS YOU would be an utterly compelling watch, even if it didn’t matter so much. Click To Tweet
It would be a fascinating time capsule, capturing a bizarre blip in time when the world went temporarily mad and believed the literal baby-eating devil was intimately involved in virtually every aspect of life — from education to entertainment.
But it’s about something much more insidious than the devil’s imagined influence.
It’s about how we, as a society, are so consistently willing to follow the herd off the cliff of madness, remaining defiantly ignorant in the face of facts and rational thought.
We’re so willing to let fear consume us that we turn into a bloodthirsty mob, brandishing pitchforks and burning down villages.
When we’re anxious about the future and suffering in the present, we look for a scapegoat to pin our problems on and absolve ourselves of guilt, channeling all our pain into the persecution of others.
That’s what’s at the core of history’s greatest horrors — from the Salem Witch Trials to the Holocaust to a “more enlightened” society committing hate crimes and humanitarian atrocities.
And that’s why Satan Wants You isn’t just entertaining and enlightening; it’s essential.