This review includes reference to reports of abuse, including sexual abuse.
Satan Wants You – the new documentary by Steve. J Adams and Sean Horlor – throws the viewer back in to the era of the “Satanic Panic.” The era was characterised by a moral panic, where fear that there were genuinely abusive satanic cabals spread through North America, and then the world. The cultural hysteria filled innumerable episodes of daytime chat-shows, and made Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal the number one target in the war for moral hygiene.
The book Michelle Remembers was undoubtedly ground zero for the phenomenon. The book was written by private psychiatrist Lawrence Pazdr and his patient (and eventual wife!) Michelle Smith (though the film demonstrates how much of the book’s content was down to the transcription of therapy sessions by Michelle’s friend Cheetie). In 1973 Michelle Smith began treatment with Pazder at his private practice in Victoria, British Columbia.
In 1976 she said that she had something to tell him, but could not remember what. Pazder claimed that he then spent the next fourteen months using hypnosis to help Smith “recover” memories of satanic ritual abuse that took place when she was five. The descriptions of her abuse are horrific, and the documentary manages to include audio of her sessions, as well as dramatic reenactment images. These horrors include Michelle being sexually abused, tortured, caged, forced to participate in rituals, being rubbed with the blood and body parts of various animals and aborted foetuses, and being forced to kill animals herself.
However, as lurid as the details were, they were equally ridiculous. Michelle claims this culminated in a 81 day ritual that summoned Satan – as well as Jesus, the virgin Mary and the archangel Michael who intervened for Michelle. She also claimed to have had horns and a tail surgically attached to her, but the virgin Mary healed these (and the many other) scars. It’s easy to see why in the doc Pazder’s ex-wife says “I don’t know why people would believe such a stupid book”.
In 1980 these transcriptions were turned into a book, which sold for a 100,000 dollar advance.
From the moment the book was released the pair hit the media trail hard, with a jet setting publicity tour and an immeasurable amount of TV and radio appearances. Pazder began giving talks at psychiatry conferences about how psychiatrists could spot “satanic ritual abuse.” Psychiatrists’ eyes rolled with dollar signs and many of them used Pazder’s techniques to “uncover” their patients’ “repressed memories.” This also meant tabloid TV had no shortage of guests who would – in garish detail – describe infant sacrifice and “breeders.” The book was also absurdly used as a training manual for social workers and law enforcement, as well as the aforementioned psychiatrists. It’s worth reminding you, at this point, that this is because of a book that claims the virgin Mary healed Smith, conveniently meaning there was no evidence.
Adams and Horlor include an unbelievable police training video on how to “spot occult crimes.” What makes it laughable, is the fact it was real.
Whilst there’s much that elicits laughter in the doc, the dark truth is that the satanic panic really destroyed lives. Innocent people were dubbed satanic paedophiles or wrongfully imprisoned, chief amongst them the victims of the McMartin preschool trial.
I shan’t spoil the ways in which the film demonstrates how dubious Pazder and Smith’s techniques and claims were, not least of which was the inappropriate therapist/patient relationship that ended with each of them leaving their respective spouses! The filmmakers assemble a great gallery of talking heads. These include journalists, podcasters , a member of the Church of Satan (the organisation sued Pazder for naming them as the abusers in the book), a Wiccan cop and a former FBI “mindhunter.” Some of the most striking interviews are with Pazder and Smith’s family. Hearing how the book destroyed their lives and families is heartbreaking. The collection of archival footage and photographs the filmmakers have amassed is stunning.
The filmmakers draw a direct line between this previous moral panic and the Q Anon and Pizzagate conspiracies that have emerged in recent years. These movements have even inspired violence. “Satanic” is the word used to demonise everything from drag queen storytime to Lil Nas X. It’s depressing to hear those who worked to debunk these conspiracies say that this is all happening again.
Satan Wants You is a fascinating portrait of a moral panic. Unfortunately it is still frighteningly relevant.
Satan Wants You was screened as part of the Soho Horror Film Festival in London.