Growing Up In Satan's Backyard (Part 2)
So about that book that ignited a global panic over satanic cults in the 1980s...
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I could see my breath in the entrance hall to the manor house. Even worse: the owner—a slight woman in her early 50s, her brown hair styled in a shoulder-length fringe—was wearing a puffy winter jacket and thick leather boots indoors. She had offered to give me and Steve a quick tour of the bottom floor of her sprawling home while the rest of our crew unloaded gear on the driveway.
Built in the early 1900s in a typical Edwardian style, the rooms in this part of the manor were paneled in black walnut and beautiful wainscotting. The hallway that connected the main room to the kitchen had a long, low ceiling and an aged wood floor that groaned with each step we took. I don’t usually get nervous before interviews but as we followed the owner towards the open door that led to the kitchen, I began to feel all the telltale signs: slick hands, a buzzing feeling in my upper chest, the lightheadedness that came from too many held breaths.
We had booked this place without a location scout and now all I could see were problems. The freezer-like temperature indoors. The sheer number of windows we would have to diffuse or cover in order to control the sunlight. Did we have enough gear to do this? Would everyone be warm enough to work here for the next ten hours? We were flying the subject up from Oregon and didn’t have the budget for a reshoot if we messed this up.
The owner stopped at the door to the kitchen. “I was told you don’t need this part of the house. Are you sure?” She shut the thick wooden door before we could answer and proceeded to the next open door in the hallway. “How about the study?”
Her hand slowly crept towards the door handle, but Steve stepped into the room before she could close it, beelining straight to the desk that had been built into the bay window. She followed him into the study and stopped halfway into the room. The furniture—what little there was—was sparse and mismatched: here an armchair with frayed edges, there a worn-out ottoman. From the doorframe, I watched her watching Steve scan through the mass-market paperbacks from the ‘70s and ‘80s lining the shelves above the desk. Their spines had faded into a jumble of muted pastels: baby blues, creamy yellows, soft pinks. Was there a copy of Michelle Remembers in there somewhere? Nothing about the documentary we were making had been normal and it would be another strange coincidence to add to the list.
Steve turned away from the paperbacks and faced the window. He clenched his hand into a fist, holding it above the desk to gauge the light falling into the room.
“We should do something with Sarah in here,” he said. Then to the owner: "This is perfect."
The owner nodded slowly and clasped her hands together. “Would you like to see the balcony?”
Double doors in the front entrance hall lead to a massive, columned terrace overlooking landscaped gardens and pastureland beyond the steep drive. In the distance, clear blue skies and an uninterrupted expanse of open ocean stretching all the way across the North Pacific to Japan.
This was an unusual style property for the southern tip of Vancouver Island, better suited to the English countryside than the heavily forested coastlines of this part of British Columbia. Steve had found it on a film commission site ten days earlier after the cabin-in-the-wood we had originally booked pulled out. He was right of course; this was the perfect location. The right combination of creepy and weird. The kind of place you could picture a satanic ritual taking place in the 1980s when rumours about stolen babies and an intergenerational cult of devil-worshippers started spreading like wildfire in this part of the world.
Out front on the driveway, our director of photography Blake and our second camera operator Kate were reviewing what gear to take to the interview area, while our gaffer/grip swings, Martin and Graham, rushed to finish their setup: blacking out windows, covering others with white fabric to diffuse the light, and constructing a series of huge metal frames to completely block the sun on the southern exposure of the balcony behind the house. It was a huge amount of work for a small four-person team. We had already lost an hour to travel, unloading all the gear, and the tour with the owner. Now the pressure was on.
Our producer Michael would be arriving with Sarah Marshall in less than two hours. She is the host and creator of You’re Wrong About, a wildly successful podcast series that Steve and I had devoured while we were stuck inside our apartment during the first year of the pandemic. We were huge fans, and aside from two short video calls a few months ago—the awkward, glitchy kind, where screens froze and chunks of conversation were lost—this would be the first time we were going to meet in person.
When the owner and her family decided to leave for their hotel, their staff emerged from the outbuildings surrounding the main house—garages, a row of stables, a gardening shed— and assembled among the film gear. Cars began arriving and leaving at the same time. In all the chaos, I mistook our sound recordist Stephen, who I had never met before, for a gardener.
There are times as a director when you need to step back on set and let everyone else do their jobs. This was one of those times. So Steve and I went for a walk around the rest of the property to talk through Sarah’s interview, discovering a staff residence and a guest house in the fields behind the stables. There was even a private chapel partially hidden further up the property, behind a bank of rhododendrons and a massive Garry oak tree with a rope swing. Its windows were boarded up and the door locked. Fascinating and unsettling in equal measure, broken children’s toys had been placed in and around the disintegrating walls of the chapel, which made me think about the way that the past is never truly gone, how it's always jutting up into the present, waiting to be seen and heard whether you want to acknowledge it or not.
This was a large part of why we were talking to Sarah Marshall in the first place. Her podcast is about moral panics and misremembered past. She did a five-part series on the book Michelle Remembers and was flying to Canada to tell us all about it.
You can never tell how a podcaster (or any media creator really) will be when a camera starts rolling. How much of what they do comes from writing and performance? Will they be able to think and speak articulately on the spot without a script or notes? I’ve learned over the hundreds of interviews I’ve done–both in front of the camera for my 2000s reality show and now behind the camera as a film director—that these are two separate talents and not everyone can do both.
I could tell from Sarah’s podcast that she was a great writer and performer, whipcrack smart with a dry sense of humour. On our last zoom calls, she reminded me of Margaret Atwood—a playful but formidable intelligence—and this was the true source of my nerves. My way of dealing with this was to over-prepare for our interview.
Usually, I prepare the night before and the morning of an interview, and then go with the flow when we start rolling. I keep a one-pager of notes on my lap in case I get lost, but I rarely need to look at them. But for Sarah, I had pages and pages and pages of notes: typed and handwritten, with far too much yellow highlighter. This interview was important because Sarah was doing double duty: commenting on the book but also reading passages from it in case we couldn’t find all the archive material of the authors that we needed. I had estimated four or five hours of talking over two days, with another two hours for inserts and beautiful portraiture of Sarah podcasting and researching. It was a big commitment with the hour-long commute to and from the hotel at the start and end of each day—and now that everything was set up, the pressure was on me to deliver.
I reviewed my notes for the last time while Steve and Blake and Kate and our sound recordist made final lighting and camera adjustments so Sarah could sit right down when she arrived and we could start for the day. The buzzing feeling from when we arrived earlier that morning was back in full force and suddenly there Sarah was in the flesh, contorting herself around a lighting stand in a faux cheetah print flannel coat and a white linen dress.
“Hello!” she greeted the entire crew and then specifically to me. “I bought my recording gear and a change of clothes. Is this alright?” She gestured to her dress and smiled. She had that same West Coast voice from all those You’re Wrong About episodes with a slight Californian drawl.
She rested her side bag on the table and pulled out a dog-eared copy of the Michelle Remembers paperback and a yellow journal. The entire cover was missing. She flipped through the paperback for me, revealing that every single page had been marked up in pen and numerous highlighter shades. She had corresponding notes in the journal where she broke down the plot of every page in the book in colour-coded sections.
“This is what I used to make the five-part series,” she explained and I instantly felt the tension in my shoulders dissipate. Seeing her level of preparation made me realize I had gotten too far into my own head. Sarah was the one who knew everything. My job was to guide her through the process and provide prompts if she needed them.
“I might need to keep these on the table so I can refer to them.” She stacked the books on top of one another and took her coat off, immediately stuffing it out of frame under the table. When she sat down, she smiled. “So where do you want to begin?”
A short excerpt from the transcription of our interview with Sarah Marshall on Vancouver Island on Thursday May 12, 2022:
Okay, everyone. How are we feeling? Are we ready to go?
I think we’re good to go. Okay, let’s roll camera.
Scene one, take one. Mark.
Okay….First, are you okay temperature-wise, Sarah?
Yeah. No, this is fine. Yeah.
Awesome. Well, let's start with the book in question. What book are we here to talk about today? What is it about?
All right. I'm going to try and have less of a giant smile on my face. And should I look at you?
Okay, great. All right. We are talking about Michelle Remembers, which some say, including me, is the book that began the satanic panic.
What is your connection to the book?
My connection to Michelle Remembers is that I have been interested in the satanic panic for years. I've researched it for years. I've done podcast episodes about it. I feel like my mind is not free of it. And once I read Michelle Remembers, which is referenced by a lot of people as the starting point for all this, I could not get it out of my head. It's hard to get any of the Satanic Panic out of your head, but this one is just inescapable.
What is Michelle Remembers about?
So the book begins when our title character, Michelle, returns to the therapist that she saw for many years when she was younger, after what the book calls her extremely severe grief following a miscarriage. She comes to him first with a dream about spiders pouring out of her. After she scratches an itch, she tears a hole in her skin and spiders start coming out. So her therapist, Dr. Lawrence Pazder, according to the book, immediately recognizes this dream as quite symbolic. So they begin sessions again. She keeps coming in with a feeling that there's something she needs to tell him, but she can't say it. She doesn't know what it is.
He's completely mystified over what could possibly be bothering her because they've already gone over her entire life. He knows about her childhood. He knows about her difficulties with her parents. He knows that she had an unhappy upbringing in many ways. But his theory is, well, we've already gone over that, so what could be left to be bothering you? He uses a therapeutic technique, which the book does not fully explain, to lower her into her depths. She begins in the voice of a child to tell him increasingly...and with his aid, with his steering of it…increasingly violent and disturbing stories about her being tortured by the satanic cult that her mother gave her to when she was five years old. And that's most of the book…Michelle's remembering.
This is the second story in a series about the Satanic Panic that will jump back and forth between the 1980s and the present day. Thanks for reading and you can check out the first post in the series here:
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