Moral Manias #002: Gender and Orientation in the Satanic Panic

As discussed before, the anxieties and delusions driven into the societal mainstream during the era of Satanic Panic were largely reactionary to the contemporary gains made by feminism and queer rights. Michelle Remembers placed the blame of abuse on her mother for leaving her in the care of others–a parallel for the soon to occur daycare abuse allegations made during the era. In fact, one may look beyond Michelle Remembers to other mass media paperbacks of the time to see this reactionary blowback.

As documented thoroughly by Alison Nastasi in her essay “The Unholy Passion: Sex and Gender Anxiety in Russ Martin’s Satanic Erotic Horror Paperbacks,” publishers began aping on the success of stories like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (as well as so-called “non-fiction” accounts like Michelle Remembers) by releasing their own original stories steeped in the societal fear and fascination of Satanism. The books often focused on female possession victims, painted luridly on the covers in compromising positions. At the forefront of this movement was Russ Martin, an erotica writer who spent 1978-1988 penning novels of “unholy passions” with the Devil. 

Credit to the authors and editors for much of the source material I have cited

Martin’s and similar books were reflective of the growing complexity of gender relations. According to Nastasi, these books “equated fears of feminism with the moral panic that spread through the decade.” Like many erotica novels, they followed a certain script: women are stripped of their agencies and become sex slaves to dark forces. Martin’s books focus on physical and psychological domination of women, women in perpetual victimhood, and eventual outright physical enslavement. Some of the women were queer, yet were stripped of their orientation and identities via these demonic incursions. 

Playboy heralded his work as feminist, since the stories took place from the women’s perspective. 

No comment.

During the Reagan era, many of the former disciples of free-love turned their backs on their previous beliefs and became even more strongly convicted by conservative dogma and Christian morality. However, this new cultural Crusade did not align so well with more secular cultural morality. More women than ever were working outside the home, and–while feminists themselves were divided on the concept–sex positivity was coming forward as a leading movement, including sex positivity for queer cis women. 

The Moral Majority Report and many other religious conservative think-tanks would come out of private Christian universities.

Martin’s books, and books similar to them, were bringing forth a new type of horror to the conservative American household. The devil was truly real, and he was luring American women and children to the dark side. In Nastasi’s words: “Martin’s books brought these fears to light, exposing fantasies about control (or lack thereof) and fear of the changing social tide, encouraging a queasy relationship between the reader and female subjects–one where they are both turned on and punished at the same time.” These stories are a vehicle by which women are told their sexualities are of the devil; in such a worldview, enjoyment and punishment must be one and the same. Martin also makes sure to punish trans women in his narratives, as well; in The Destruction of Susan Browning (one of his more famous works), the trans woman in the story is a seductress, forcing the main character’s husband to leave her and sell his soul to the devil. While Playboy was championing women’s right to contraception and abortion, they were (unsurprisingly) simultaneously publishing these stories.

No type of woman–trans or cis, straight or queer–may win in Martin’s world: they exist only as victims or villainesses. And that was the brush with which women became painted in during the Satanic Panic, both then and now.

In 2009, the world watched in a mix of emotions as Amanda Knox was placed on trial for the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher. Both women studied in Italy, and the Italian courts were dead set on using Amanda’s strange trauma and the date of the murder being All Saint’s Day as evidence that the murder was Satanic ritual abuse. Despite DNA evidence pointing to another person (who was eventually convicted), the trial dragged on, painting Knox and her boyfriend as satanic deviants. There were also plenty of accusations of Amanda being the person who sexually assaulted Meredith, painting the former in the trope of “psychotic bisexual.” She was acquitted, reconvicted, re-acquitted, and fully exonerated by 2015; understandably, she refuses to return to Europe as those who still believe her to be some Satanic deviously queer murderer have a strong presence

From the Netflix documentary regarding the case.

This ties again to the fact that the modern Satanic Panic is largely affecting queer (or perceived to be queer) Americans as opposed to more liberated cishet women alone. In “Why Satanic Panic never really ended” by Aja Romano of Vox Media, they discuss the history of the Satanic Panic and how we are now seeing it tie heavily to queer identity. Even beyond the supposed ending of the phenomenon in the early 90s, the panic persisted on for queer people.

“In 1997, four lesbian women who became known as the San Antonio Four were targeted and wrongfully convicted for child molestation claims. Their trial played out against a resurgence of Satanic Panic tied to homophobia in a conservative state, and their fight for justice lasted nearly two decades. All four women spent 15 years in prison before having their convictions overturned in 2015 and ultimately expunged in 2018.” [Romano, 2021] 

With the recent decisions by the SCOTUS to dismantle privacy laws, it’s no wonder we of the queer community are sitting by in quiet desperation and worry.

Lil Nas X in the video for Montero (Call Me By Your Name), 2021

Recently, the infamous music video for Montero by Lil Nas X, in which the rapper gives a lurid lap dance to Satan, may be seen as edgy fun to one group; however, to those who follow evangelical and QAnon movements, it was proof of queer ties to Satanic cabals that secretly wish to control and chage the bodies of children to “aberrant sexualities and genders.” Even in the arts, where queer people have typically found more freedom throughout history, we are unsafe from these accusations of satanic ritual abuse merely through acts of self-expression.

In an odd tie back to literature, nowhere is the public seeing this more clearly now than the protests against and shuttering of many libraries, particularly smaller libraries in rural areas. The American Library Association has faced more book challenges than in decades, mainly for books that contain elements of social progress, queer existence, or discuss racism. The most-challenged book of 2021 was Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, which was challenged, banned or restricted because of LGBTQ content.

Photo credit: NBC15 Madison, WI

The connection of any sexuality outside of Christian patriarchal norms has been a driving force throughout the Satanic Panic, showing up again now in full force. It chants about groomers and throws rocks at drag queen story hours and burns books that contain any deviation from white cishetero hegemony. 

For queer people and even some cishet women who deviate from patriarchal expectation, the danger is inside the house, trying to corner us into a closet where it can finally strike like Michael Myers to Laurie Strode.

Let’s Final Girl this shit once and for all.

In the next installments we will talk about how the Satanic Panic hit the nerd community, specifically cultures surrounding goths, metalheads, horror fans, and D&D players.

Janisse, K.-L., Corupe, P., & Nastasi, A. (2019). The Unholy Passion: Sex and Gender Anxiety in Russ Martin’s Satanic Erotic Horror Paperbacks. In Satanic panic: Pop-cultural paranoia in the 1980s. essay, FAB Press Ltd. 

Romano, A. (2021, March 31). Why satanic panic never really ended. Vox. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://www.vox.com/culture/22358153/satanic-panic-ritual-abuse-history-conspiracy-theories-explained 

Moral Manias #001: Michelle Remembers

Welcome to my new series of articles “Moral Manias” where I will be discussing how moral manias of the past reflect our present cultural battle with delusionary reactionaries.

DISCLAIMER: There will be discussion of false allegations of child s*xual abuse throughout this article and subsequent moral mania articles. While I absolutely believe that more children than we know about suffer at the hands of monsters–even organized monsters a la the thankfully dead Jeffrey Epstein–I do not believe that it is for Satanic purposes; rather it’s unfortunately just because some people are disgusting.

And with that we proceed. 

On December 4, 2016, twenty-eight year old Edgar Maddison Welch entered Washington, D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong armed with an assault rifle and a conspiracy theory. A Satanic cabal lead by former Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex ring out the (non-existent) basement of the pizza parlor. These fictional children were supposedly used for the purpose of Satanic ritual abuse led by Clinton, her aides Abedin and Podesta, and famous performance and spatial artist Marina Abramovic.

Luckily, Welch only shot the lock off of a freezer door in the dogged pursuit of his truth. As he was led away, despondent, we as a culture had to wonder: how could this happen?

Simply enough: It’s happened before.

Little did we know then how fully it would happen again. But I digress on that point for now.

To truly understand the origins of the North American “Satanic Panic” that swept the United States and (to a lesser degree) Canada, during the 1980s and early 1990s, we must start with a concept and a book.

The concept? Recovered memory therapy. The book? Michelle Remembers.

But what is recovered memory therapy?

“Recovered Memory Therapy is a loosely defined cluster of clinical methodologies where a therapist would help adult survivors recall repressed, traumatic memories of childhood abuse, allowing a path to personality reintegration….its historical notoriety renders it today broadly considered both unscrupulous and unprofessional by the mainstream medical profession (Heller-Nicholas, 2015).”

Published in 1980, Michelle Remembers is considered the origin of the Satanic Panic and the moral crackdowns on supposed cases of Satanic ritual abuse. It’s also considered one of the most influential media hoaxes of the 20th century. Written by Dr. Lawrence Panzer and his eventual wife Michelle Smith, Michelle Remembers chronicles the supposed Satanic ritual abuse of Michelle as a young child in 1950s Victoria, Canada. 

In 1976, Smith came to Dr. Pazder to undergo treatment for depression after a miscarriage. After describing feelings of lost time, Pazder insisted Smith undergo hypnosis. While a more responsible therapist likely would have concluded C-PTSD or postpartum depression from the findings, Pazder…wasn’t responsible. Michelle Remembers is based upon the 600 hours of recorded sessions that Smith underwent with Pazder.

Smith’s parents’ marriage was a toxic one, filled with alcoholism and violence. According to the book, during one of her father’s many absences, Michelle’s mother became involved with a mysterious man named Malachi and his other Satanic associates. Smith’s mother allegedly gave her daughter over to the Satanic cult, only for young Michelle to witness murder, cannibalism, and other dark acts. She is abused throughout the book in a multitude of ways. 

Apparently, at one point, she has a tail and two horns surgically attached to her body, stretching the already thin credulity to the breaking point.

Michelle warned of the advent of a new Holocaust to come in 1982, in which Satan would once again be summoned to Earth to enact horror upon horror on the population. This comparison is especially awful, given that Michelle Remembers is so obviously a hoax.

Despite being so fantastic as to beggar belief, the book became a phenomenal success, making its authors celebrities. Smith and Pazder became enamored both with success and each other, leaving their respective partners at the time to wed one another. They toured the country together, making ridiculous amounts of money, and even appeared on Oprah, where the famous host unquestioningly took them at their word. Pazder and Smith always pointed back at the recorded tapes as proof of authenticity, despite the capabilities of technology even then to manipulate audio or just have acted their way through the hypnosis process.

As the story of Michelle Remembers continued, it nearly made it to theaters as a feature film. The Pazders were civilly sued by Anton LeVey, the Church of Satan, and Michelle’s father to prevent this from happening. LeVey and the church, for all their abuses under the notorious LeVey, were horrified by the accusations of the books, proclaiming they would have nothing to do with such crimes against humanity. This beggars the question: if the book heralded such horrific damage in the cultural landscape as it did, how much worse would the film have wrought?

It can be theorized that both the Satanic Panic and the recent resurgence of it come from an inherent hatred of women and queer people of all genders. While men are certainly involved in the stories of ritual abuse, both in Michelle Remembers, the Comet Ping Pong case, and others that would follow, women and queer people are primarily to blame. Michelle’s mother hands her over to the cult. Hillary Clinton supposedly leads the cabal, with Abramovic and Abedin at her right hand, an army of LGBTQ+ supporters following their whims. While men insistently give validation to these stories based on their pre-supposed authority as men, it is the image of women and the queer community who continually suffer over it.

In the book, the cause of Michelle’s suffering isn’t blamed upon the male priest Malachi, but rather her mother and the cloaked priestesses that surround her. By their rejection of the traditional feminine–eschewing motherhood for monstrosity–they place the idea of the monstrous feminine at the forefront of Satanic Panic discourse. Blaming the betrayals of her mother and mother figures in her life, Smith-Pazder repudiates the idea of female liberation and replaces it with the conservative ideal-hood of women–women as subservient, loving mothers. This is hammered home by her claim that Jesus Christ himself sent a vision of the Holy Mother to guide Michelle away from the horrors of Satanic ritual abuse. Much like the figure of Christ Himself, Pazder is put forward at the end as Savior, father, and husband figure in the end Smith-Pazder’s narrative. 

It would also be remiss to avoid discussing the inherent racism and anti-Semitism of Michelle Remembers. Villainous Satanic priests are often described having either Semitic or West African features or ancestry, and many symbols from both ethnic groups are littered throughout the text in scenes of graphic, sensationalized abuse. Pazder relied heavily on independent research into West African religious cultures to emphasize the “cult-like nature of the people.” Good in the book is described as “blonde, blue-eyed, and tan” giving Jesus more of a Malibu Ken appearance than that of the Aramaic speaking figure of Biblical times. While this is already unfortunate enough in outdated fiction like the works of Lovecraft, Michelle Remembers was billed as true and became a cornerstone for the Satanic Panic movement.

Soon enough, the Pazders’ claims began to unravel. Two sisters, not mentioned in the book at all–in fact, whose existences were repudiated by the book–came forward to deny the salacious claims made towards their mother. Starting the 1990–the same year as the infamous McMartin Preschool Trial–the claims began to come undone in earnest. Not one corroborator to Michelle’s story was able to be found. But it was Pazder’s own words that became their undoing.

“It is a real experience. If you talk to Michelle today, she will say ‘That’s what I remember.” We still leave the question open. For her, it was very real. Every case I hear I have skepticism. You have to complete a long course of therapy before you can come to conclusions. We are eager to prove or disprove what happened, but in the end it doesn’t matter.”

Despite his loose relationship with fact and fiction, one cannot help that the distinction mattered a great deal to those whose lives were ruined by the results of the Satanic Panic. The Pazders’ involvement didn’t just kick off a cultural phenomenon: it would result in loss of jobs and families, as well as end in the most dramatic, expensive trial in United States history.

As we continue on, we’ll go to the past, zoom back to the present, and theorize on the future.

Feel free to comment and share, but just know that I AM moderating comments!

CITATION: “REMEMBERING MICHELLE REMEMBERS By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas” Janisse, Kier-La, and Paul Corupe, eds. Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. FAB Press, 2016.