Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor’s terrific new documentary, Satan Wants You, focuses primarily on Michelle Remembers (1980), a nominally “nonfiction” book co-written by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist-turned-husband, Lawrence Pazder. This book presents itself as nonfiction, distilling transcripts of actual therapy sessions between Pazder and Smith, during which the latter unearths allegedly “repressed childhood memories” of her mother forcing her to take part in nightmarish satanic rituals. These rituals are replete with all manner of cinematic horrors: child sacrifice, forced consumption of human flesh and waste, physical torture, animal killings, etc.
Such sensationalized episodes persist throughout Michelle Remembers, which is a disturbing case study of psychological coercion and propagandistic narrativizing designed to instill shock, fear, and religious conversion. Its publication resulted in an abundance of Christian propaganda tapes and TV specials (many excerpted in Satan Wants You), including Geraldo Rivera’s truly surreal three-hour special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. (Sociologist Jeffrey Victor, who appears as a talking head in Satan Wants You, comprehensively analyzes this bizarre cultural climate in his rigorous 1993 book, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend.)
All of this context makes its way into Satan Wants You, which exhibits impressive robustness and scope, especially considering its lean running time. Featuring interviews with Smith and Pazder’s relatives, law enforcement officials, a Church of Satan member, journalists, and scholars, the film engages with the pain exacted on the people closest to Smith and Pazder while also offering a sophisticated and detailed overview of the broader social panic that Michelle Remembers helped incite.
Satan Wants You wisely elides ridiculing the era it depicts, instead level-headedly examining the factors that gave birth to Smith and Pazder’s book and its ensuing cultural hysteria. The film addresses Smith’s traumatic childhood experiences of living with a violent, alcoholic father, as well as Pazder’s deep devotion to his Catholic faith, but maybe most importantly it interrogates the nature of Smith and Pazder’s inappropriately intimate, audio-recorded therapy sessions. These appointments often lasted up to six hours and sometimes ended with doctor and patient lying on a rubber mat and holding each other close.
Adams and Horlor’s documentary shows the origin of the Satanic Panic’s locus point and apprehends the constellation of factors behind excessive, unfounded cultural anxieties. Michelle Remembers was discussed on a range of talk show programs, from Oprah to Larry King Live, and was presented as a case study at law enforcement conferences. Its widespread, unquestioning coverage helped usher in a pervasive terror of covert Satanic cults allegedly lurking in daycare centers, playgrounds, and suburban homes. Satan Wants You addresses the Satanic Panic narrative’s devastating impact, which included the totally unfounded McMartin preschool and Wee Care Nursery School abuse trials (both resulted in the arrests and ostracization of innocent people facing monstrous false allegations).
Satan Wants You’s chief achievement is that it understands its subject’s substantial sociopolitical implications and articulates them with economy and power. Adams and Horlor’s deft handling of micro- and macro-structuring undergirds what is ultimately one of the smartest recent documentaries on Satanism. Their final product conveys an intriguing curiosity: if the ‘80s were the era of Satanic Panic, the late 2010s and early 2020s have been the era of something that strangely resembles Satanic Panic nostalgia.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 2.