Satanic Panic—in which a shocking number of people got swept up in the idea that evil cults lurked across America—peaked nearly four decades ago, but we can still feel its reverberations. New doc Satan Wants You digs into the origins of this phenomenon, and comes away with a fascinating, chilling story.
Even if you’re too young to vividly remember the ‘80s, you’re probably aware of some aspects of Satanic Panic. The most recent season of Stranger Things touched on it, as we saw Hawkins residents go on a witch hunt targeting the local Dungeons & Dragons club. In real life, the saga of the West Memphis Three became a cause célèbre and spawned several high-profile documentaries. Looking back, it seems impossible that something so laughable—Satanists prowling the streets, targeting children in hideous ways!—would not only be an accepted fact, it would be enough to convict innocent people of terrible crimes. But it happened repeatedly, and Satan Wants You traces a key part of its foundation to one best-selling book, offering context around its creation and following the distressing aftereffects of its popularity.
Written by Michelle Smith and her therapist, Dr. Lawrence Pazder, Michelle Remembers describes in excruciating detail the horrors Smith believed she suffered as a child after her mother handed her over to a Satanic cult. Smith had been living an unremarkable life until intense sessions with Dr. Pazder unearthed these deeply hidden “recovered memories” of being tortured, an experience so specific it got its own terminology: “Satanic ritual abuse.” With Smith’s recollections framed as factual accounts of things that really happened to her, the salacious book soon became a hit; Smith and Pazder became familiar guests on book tours and TV talk shows, as well sought-after training resources for other therapists and law enforcement officials. As Satan Wants You reveals, however, there was a lot more to the story than the public was privy to—even beyond the fact that it’s now accepted Smith’s abuse tales were a fabrication—and it has the receipts to prove it.
Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams’ doc, which is excellently edited, includes clips from daytime talk shows—which dominated pop culture in the ‘80s, and routinely seized on sensational topics—that feature both Smith and Panzer as well as others who became wrapped up in Satanic Panic, along with newspaper clippings and other sources that paint an illuminating picture of just what the sociological climate was like at the time. The film gives examples of other infamous cases of “Satanic ritual abuse,” including the McMartin preschool trial, which involved coerced confessions from children rather than purported recovered childhood memories from adult patients, and managed to ruin multiple lives before all charges were eventually dropped.
We also get perspectives from a skeptical FBI veteran who worked on “occult” cases in the ‘80s, investigative reporters, a Church of Satan representative, and others. Most compelling are the interviews with members of both families, including Smith’s sister and Pazder’s ex-wife and daughter, who give insight into the duo’s complex relationship as well as offer first-hand accounts of what it was like being around them when those false memories were being dredged up and the book was being written. There’s a certain amount of discussion over who was more to blame for Michelle Remembers (both Smith and Panzer are shown to have their own selfish motivations; the Catholic Church is also complicit), and while the book isn’t outright accused of being the sole cause of Satanic Panic, it becomes clear that the book lent considerable legitimacy to the phenomenon. Smith’s gruesome tales propelled this big best-seller, so they must have really happened, the thinking went at the time. And if it happened to her, who’s to say it didn’t happen to other people... right?
Most disturbing are actual recordings from Smith’s therapy sessions, obtained by the filmmakers from an anonymous source. Taken with what we’ve learned about Smith and Panzer over the course of the film, the audio is haunting in ways that have nothing to do with Satanism; it offers a peek into the mental state of “Satanic Panic patient zero,” as the film calls Smith, and her encouraging doctor. And lest you think Satanic Panic is a thing left safely in the past, Satan Wants You also takes a beat to tie the movement into more current examples—including QAnon—of people buying into ridiculous, paranoid ideas that swiftly become dangerous and even weaponized.
Satan Wants You just had its world premiere at the SXSW TV & Film Festival; it does not yet have a release date.
Update: This post was updated to reflect that the official name of the festival is now the “SXSW Film & TV Festival.”
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