It’s a tale that has been repeated throughout history: Satan-worshippers steal children to use and abuse them in elaborate rituals.
The myth cycle was in full swing when filmmakers Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor embarked on their latest documentary, “Satan Wants You,” an exploration of the Canadian roots of the so-called “satanic panic” of the 1980s and ’90s.
The film is set for theatrical release Friday and premiered at South by Southwest earlier this year, but the documentarians began work on the project in 2018, when QAnon conspiracy theories had taken hold among a subset of the population.
“It was: ‘Oh no, here we go again. I can’t believe we’re looking at this in 1980, and it’s happening right now,’” Horlor said during a recent video call. “It’s still happening.”
The parallels were stark. Some QAnon supporters falsely believe former U.S. president Donald Trump was fighting to expose a group of satanic, cannibalistic child molesters embedded in the government and beyond.
But while QAnon theories centre on the United States, the satanic panic got its start farther north.
The film traces the phenomenon’s history back to Victoria, where the book “Michelle Remembers” was published in 1980.
Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist-turned-husband Larry Pazder wrote the memoir after engaging in a new form of therapy they devised, which saw her describing memories as if she was reliving them while he asked her questions. Audio of those sessions is included in the documentary.
Their bestselling book claimed that Smith had, as a child, been given up to a satanic cult and abused for 14 months, before the Virgin Mary came to her, speaking in French, and healed her.
Horlor grew up in Victoria, just down the road from the couple. But they weren’t just neighbourhood fixtures, he said.
“When I was a kid, they were everywhere. They’re on TV, they’re on the radio, they’re in the newspapers. It’s not just 1980 when they published their book. This went on for the length of the satanic panic,” he said.
Other therapists picked up Pazder’s technique, and tales of satanic ritual abuse spread across Canada, the United States and beyond.
The cases were profiled on daytime TV by everyone from Geraldo Rivera to Oprah Winfrey. Some were even prosecuted, with people wrongly imprisoned based on false memories children created in dodgy therapy sessions.
Ultimately, Pazder’s ex-wife found yearbook photos of Smith showing she was free when she said she was in the cult’s clutches. She also spoke to the family’s neighbours who refuted Smith’s account of her childhood, she said in the documentary. Smith’s sister also told the filmmakers that Smith’s tale was made up.
Many of those who were convicted in other cases have since been exonerated — some as recently as this year.
But if the story in “Satan Wants You” is a cautionary tale, it’s one we’ve heard before.
“This echoes all the way back through history,” Adams said, pointing as an example to blood libel, the false accusation that members of the Jewish community killed Christian children and used their blood in rituals.
But it goes back farther than that, he said, all the way to ancient Rome, where Romans accused Christians of sacrificing children and drinking their blood.
“The dominant culture will accuse others — basically anyone who doesn’t fit in the mainstream. It’s sort of this go-to thing that they murder children and drink their blood,” he added.
Today, it plays out not only among some QAnon conspiracy theorists, but is also used to target transgender people and drag queens.
“(People) saying that they’re grooming children. It is the same things being used to ‘other’ people and target them just because they’re not part of the mainstream. It is terrifying,” Adams said.
Hate crimes targeting transgender people have been on the rise in Canada in recent years, according to Statistics Canada and police.
There have also been widespread protests of drag storytimes, in which drag performers read storybooks to children. Protesters often show up to these events carrying signs emblazoned with baseless accusations that drag queens are predatorsand that exposure to their performances threatens children’s innocence.
That’s emblematic of the differences between the satanic panic and today’s moral panics, Adams said.
“People were actually going to trial and they were going to prison,” he said of the 1980s and ’90s. “Now it’s social, where you’re able to gather a group of people who can attack people online. And then those have real-life consequences where people take it upon themselves to go and confront people.”