“There’s no question that it would make one hell of a movie.”
That’s the last line of an investigation by journalist Paul Grescoe into a novel that changed western culture forever. It’s a book that sparked the supernatural hysteria that swept North America in the 1980’s, a wave of paranoia now called the “Satanic Panic.”
For ten years its author, Edmonton Psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder, would ride a wave of celebrity and acclaim. He would tour the country telling the story of a quiet patient named Michelle who under hypnosis he coaxed memory after repressed childhood memory of surreal and otherworldly satanic rituals. His telling of those memories formed the basis of the novel that would be cited in countless news broadcasts, newspaper ledes and even courtroom transcripts. North America was under a satanic siege, and it was the unexpected Lawrence Pazder, a doctor from Alberta, who had sounded the alarm.
But Paul Grescoe wasn’t so sure.
So the Canadian journalist went digging; turning over the details of Lawrence and Michelle’s extraordinary story. He visited her white-picket-fenced childhood home, spoke with her family, and slowly began to tally the curious omissions and contradictions inherent in the novel. He dove into a world of missing siblings, religious political intrigue, and half-memories, and he emerged with a story.
And a decade before anyone else would realize it, Paul revealed the whole thing as a fantastical, impossible invention.
Folk Devil tells the untold story of the relationship that sparked the 1980’s satanic panic, between an Edmonton psychiatrist and his Victoria BC patient, and the man who swam against a media fervour in calling it out. It’s a story about skepticism and truth; about how a person can remember something that never happened, and a culture can start seeing things that aren’t really there.
We’re proposing Folk Devil as a 45 minute documentary film, combining interviews, narration, recreation, and archival footage.
In the first of four parts, we tell the story of a book called Michelle Remembers, a smash hit that sparked a cultural phenomenon. Written by Edmonton born psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder based on the hypnosis-induced recovered memories of his patient and future wife, Michelle Smith, what Lawrence heard from Michelle was so terrifying, so scandalous, that he decided to write a book about it. We follow Lawrence’s ascent as an expert on satanic cults, and the parallel paranoia that emerged in tandem. Behind every corner there were satanists plotting to subvert western culture, and no method — no matter how warped or depraved — was beyond them.
But the story, no matter how provocative, raised questions, and journalist Paul Grescoe started asking them. In Part Two we follow Grescoe’s descent into Smith’s childhood community at the dawn of the panic. In covering the book, Grescoe starts to find seeds of doubt, speaking with Michelle’s family, and untangling the relationship between real events and their increasingly fantastical counterparts in the book. Swimming upstream against a media hysteria that sought to validate the book and its author, Paul began poking holes in the story that sparked the panic.
And eventually the panic along with it.
In Part Three Paul unravels the myth, hitting us with the ramifications of the satanic panic as a larger cultural force. Businesses shut down. Innocent people jailed. We speak with people touched by the panic, and explore the unraveling of the phenomenon Pazder sparked into a stew of homophobia and nationalism that was unrecognizable by the end of the decade. There was never any boogeyman lurking under the bed, and in part four we task ourselves and Paul with explaining how media and moral panic spurred a narrative that impacted so many lives; a media obsession unleashed by Pazder.
Which leaves the question at the heart of this whole thing, a question Paul has been turning over in his head ever since; what does he think actually happened to Michelle and what exactly was Pazder doing? This is the subject of our fourth and final section in which we zoom out and give Paul the chance to reflect with thirty years of hindsight. Paul set out to fact check a story that an international media machine was content to assume true because it sounded good and it got people tuning in. Was Lawrence a doctor with questionable methods and hazy ethics who believed a story he wanted to be true, or a snake oil salesman content to unleash a cultural frenzy in service of his career? We leave the audience with the question Paul has been asking for thirty years.
The story that sparked the panic. Debunking the story. Debunking the panic. The big question. These are the four basic acts of our story.
The story of a debunking, Folk Devil concerns the relationship between Paul Grescoe and the co-authors of Michelle Remembers; Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith. Paul Grescoe is a compelling protagonist. His work on Michelle Remembers, still written early in the hysteria, feels as though it’s written with the benefit of hindsight. At a time when no other press publication seemed concerned with the details of a non-fiction text that centers on meeting with literal demons and biblical figures in a basement in Victoria BC, Grescoe took his role as a journalist seriously. He worked the story, spoke with the subjects, and untangled a troubling web of inconsistencies and details that would take other journalists nearly a decade to understand.
We spoke about this story recently, and Paul is a funny, insightful speaker. There’s a growing list of experts in the media, psychiatric, and cultural forces at play that we want to speak to for this story. We want to talk to people touched personally, some even imporisoned, by this fervour. But as a window into this world, not to mention a great protagonist, this story belongs to Paul.
Why this? Why now? —
As we’ve discussed, this is really all about skepticism.
It’s the story of a journalist debunking a moral panic while the rest of the media was booting up to stoke it. It’s about a story that was so good everyone wanted to tell it whether or not it was true, and a person who thought the truth mattered more, or maybe just that it was more interesting.
Which brings us to now.
At its best, News Media is a community of people providing you the information you need to meaningfully participate in society. At its worst, it’s is a machine that makes money by telling people things they want to hear. Together, Paul Grescoe and Lawrence Pazder represent both sides of this machine, and understanding these two sides has never been more important than it is right now.