SATAN WANTS YOU Offers a Cure for Moral Panic

The “Satanic Panic” is a cultural phenomenon that never really got past my peripheral vision, having largely been over before my time. But if you were alive and conscious in the 1980s, chances are you were familiar with the stories of satanic cults allegedly abducting, torturing, and sacrificing children in sick and twisted rituals all over North America. Many were arrested, interrogated and even imprisoned over such allegations. But by the early 1990s, these stories had been thoroughly debunked.

Documentarian team Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor focus their latest work, Satan Wants You, on the ground zero of these conspiracy theories, the best-selling 1980 book Michelle Remembers. Chronicling sessions between Victoria, BC native Michelle Smith and her therapist Lawrence Pazder, the book claims that as a young child, Smith endured horrible abuse at the hands of a satanic cult of which her mother was a member. These memories were allegedly repressed and only recovered through long hours of controversial “memory recovery” therapy.

With this story out in the public sphere, Smith and Pazder became darlings of the media and the then-new daytime TV circuit, recounting their stories to audiences who hung on their every word. Their relationship had also moved beyond just doctor and patient as Pazder had also left his wife and four children to marry Michelle.

But neither could have predicted the bomb their book would set up. Suddenly there were hundreds of satanic cults kidnapping thousands of children all over the continent, all of this only revealed through increasingly dubious “recovered-memory” therapy. Suddenly, children were accusing their daycare providers and preschool teachers of horrible acts. Some like Margaret Kelly Michaels spent five years in prison before being exonerated on appeal. It was only in the 1990s that a lack of hard evidence and wary health insurance providers finally put a stop to the onslaught and the Satanic Panic gradually receded in the public consciousness.

Satan Wants You gives a long-overdue autopsy to a book and authors that both fascinated and radicalized nations. Surviving friends and family of Lawrence and Michelle get a chance to divulge their side of the story while talking heads like FBI agent Ken Lanning and practicing Satanist Blanche Barton provide welcome context to the law enforcement and satanist response.

The film also makes ample use of genuine session recordings between Smith and Pazder, allegedly provided to the filmmakers from an anonymous source. They reveal a woman who had likely gone through some traumatic experience, but with much of the blanks filled in by a sympathetic yet-unethical therapist who turns to his Catholic faith for answers to complicated questions. 

As much light as the film manages to shed on this long-dormant subject matter, it still leaves mysteries in its wake as no one is entirely sure what caused Smith and Pazder to make up such stories. Perhaps it was untreated trauma mixed with Catholic dogma caught in an endless feedback loop that spiraled out of control. It’s a story with uncomfortable parallels to more modern conspiracy theories like Qanon where supposedly every person in power is secretly a ravenous pedophile or the more left-wing notion that racists and fascists are hiding under every rock.

Filmmakers Adams and Horlor deserve much credit for their slick and admittedly unnerving presentation of the whole affair. The horror in this case stemming not so much from alleged satanic abuses, but the public’s ravenous appetite for stories with no empirical legs to stand on. An undercurrent of dread is capably rendered by expert cinematography and sound design, enveloping us into Smith and Pazder’s increasingly insane rabbit hole. 

Satan Wants You fits neatly into the horror film tradition and proves that the most horrific occurrences can be damaging lies that a susceptible public is all-too-willing to believe. Highly recommended.




Satan Wants You opens theatrically across Canada on August 11

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