SXSW 2023 Review: SATAN WANTS YOU, Examining The Birth Of The '80s Satanic Panic
We don’t often cover documentaries here, but once in a while a film will cross our paths that it makes sense to discuss. Directors’ Steve J. Adams & Sean Horlor’s new film definitely fits that bill. An exploration of the ‘80s Satanic Panic in the US and Canada with the jumping off point of the wildly influential memoir, Michelle Remembers, Satan Wants You is both a chilling reminder of the era in which these stories were mainstream news and a warning that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Michelle Remembers was co-written by Michelle Smith and Dr. Lawrence Pazder. It relays in gruesome detail Smith’s alleged ritual abuse at the hands of a Satanic coven in the early ‘60s. Smith recounts gory tales of animal and fetal sacrifice, bodily mutilation, and black magic rituals, all at the hands of a group of devil worshippers including her mother who supposedly gave her into this torture. The stories were sourced from years of intensive sessions with her therapist, Dr. Pazder, in which Michelle would go into deep trance-like states to pull hidden memories from the deepest recesses of her mind. Allegedly.
This book essentially kicked off the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, in which conservative fundamentalists found Satanic ritual abuse under every rock and in every shadow in America. Growing up in the ‘80s, it was difficult to avoid the fear that devil worshippers were coming to get you. I was very young at the time, and the news terrified me, but what’s more terrifying is all of the adults who believed it, and even managed to get innocent preschool teachers convicted of heinous crimes in the name of protecting the children.
Satan Wants You delves into the panic, exploring the far-reaching consequences of Michelle Remembers and the glaring inconsistencies between Smith’s actual history and the events in the book. Exploring the likely impetus behind her terrifying imagination – a tragic miscarriage from which she never really recovered – and the questionable and ultimately vividly unethical relationship she shared with Dr. Pazder. They became like traveling snake oil salesmen, peddling this unbelievable story to anyone who would listen, and in the ‘80s that meant police, that meant the FBI, and it meant terrified parents across the country.
Utilizing tons of archival footage of not only Smith and Pazder as they peddled their dangerous hokum one national TV, but also a lot of the training material created by law enforcement agencies to combat this alleged plague, Satan Wants You makes it clear how insane the whole panic was. A lot of the footage is just flat out hilarious, detailing signs of satanic abuse, vilifying heavy metal music, and weaponizing fear as a method of control. But as the audience sat there laughing in my screening, the film turns its camera toward the present day and some of the ridiculous QAnon conspiracies like the Pizzagate hoax to illustrate that even though these things are funny in retrospect, we haven’t really evolved that much since then.
A solid mix of archival footage and talking head interviews, Satan Wants You serves as a good primer on the Satanic Panic from the very specific perspective of Michelle Remembers’ instigation of the whole thing. It isn’t a comprehensive look at the movement, that would require a lot more time, but it does address Smith and Pazder’s undeniable influence and questionable methodology that lead to the mass hysteria around the alleged plague of Satan worship. Terrifying, frustrating, hilarious, and occasionally infuriating, Satan Wants You is a gripping and entertaining look at a not-so-entertaining point in history, and a warning to learn from our mistakes. A lesson we’ll likely not take to heart if history is any indicator.