Satan Wants You


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Satan Wants You
"A film which is forensic in its approach yet also finds room for fascinating explorations of character."

Three decades after it subsided, or at least lost its grip on mainstream society, the late 20th Century Satanic Panic is most often referenced as a joke. It is, after all, difficult to take seriously the notion of people actually believing in lavishly costumed yet scrupulously secretive death cults conspiring to make primary school children drink urine in class, lead teenagers astray with secret messages recorded backwards on heavy metal albums and sacrifice babies at a pace more than half the total US birth rate – yet, for a while, millions of people did. People were locked up as a result, some of them spending years behind bars. Others experienced various forms of persecution, including violence. A thing like that doesn’t happen without multiple triggers and multiple people who really do know better fanning the flames in order to make a quick buck, but in this case most of it can be traced back to a single book: Michelle Remembers.

It’s not a book which you should feel the need to rush out and buy. If you believe it, or believe that co-author Michelle Smith believed it, it’s highly distressing. If you don’t, it’s turgid. When it was first published in November 1980, however, it scarcely needed to be read to have an impact. It was talked about everywhere: in newspapers, in magazines, at assorted public events, and on endless daytime chat shows. It purports to tell the story of how Michelle, as a five year old child, was held hostage and tortured by a Satanic cult of which her own mother was a member, something which, crucially, she did not remember until she was an adult and went through four years of intensive therapy with her psychiatrist and co-author Lawrence Pazder. Through all the clamour that followed, most thinking people remained sympathetic to Michelle, imagining her as a victim of instilled beliefs who had been exploited for the sake of money or fame. This documentary, however, presents a rather different picture.

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It’s impressively thorough. There’s archive material, including video and audio interviews with Michelle and Lawrence, clips of some of the TV programmes they inspired, and excerpts from the original tapes of their sessions. There are also fresh interviews with family members of both of them, plus a loyal friend of Michelle’s who did some of the taping and still believes that her story is in large part true. A journalist who strove to expose the truth behind Satanic Panic court cases also contributes, as does a representative of the Church of Satan (which would ultimately sue over the use of its name in the book) and Kenneth Lanning, who became the FBI’s expert on allegedly Satanic offences over the course of the Panic. Horror movie techniques used in fuzzy reconstructions of some of Michelle’s supposed memories, less to suggest that they should be perceived as terrifying than to explain, at an emotional level, how the public reacted to them as it did.

The film follows two interrelated tracks, one of them explaining the history of the book and of the events which preceded from it, the other drilling down into the story it presents. Michelle is referred to as “the patient zero of the Satanic Panic,” which seems all the more apt given the complex origins of that term. Though she declined to take part in the film, her presence is keenly felt throughout, and a good deal of pertinent information emerges about her which has not been available in the public domain heretofore. Alongside this, directors Steve J Adams and Sean Horlor explore the Vatican’s involvement in the case, which stemmed from Michelle claiming to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary – something so commonplace and easily disproven in cases like this that today it tends to be considered a red flag. In light of Lawrence’s deep religious faith, it casts an interesting light on the case.

There is much more besides in a film which is forensic in its approach yet also finds room for fascinating explorations of character. There is a look at the recovered memory phenomenon and its close association with people reading the book, including reflection on the McMartin Preschool case in which young children’s ‘memories’ of supposed Satanic abuse grew more vivid after Michelle herself spent time with them. It might have been nice to see the film address the impact this has had on abuse victims who come forward in later life for all sorts of reasons but now face a greater burden of disbelief, yet with so much in the film, it would be unreasonable to fault it for not finding room for everything. A montage of newspaper clippings addresses the spread of the Panic across the US and around the world. It should be sufficient to send interested viewers off to do further reading. It certainly succeeds in highlighting the scale of human suffering which took place before the whole thing began to die down.

The conclusion of the personal stories revealed here is deeply unsettling and is likely to leave some viewers open-mouthed, reflecting on a different sort of horror. Meanwhile, the historical strand circles back around to Pizzagate and Q-Anon, which seem like manifestations of something similar today. Can we never learn from these mistakes? Satan Wants You asks the question but doesn’t claim to have an answer – that would require a whole extra film. It might, however, be making a contribution of its own, because it is compelling viewing and nobody who watches it is going to witness such a thing developing again without experiencing serious scepticism.

Screening at Fantasia 2023, where it will feel personal to many people who remember how it fed into condemnation of horror cinema, this isn’t just a film for those with a specific interest in the Satanic Panic, psychiatry or the book itself. It will fascinate anyone with an interest in social or cultural change and the interaction of media, money and emotional manipulation. It’s an incredible story told with great skill, and it deserves a wide audience.

Reviewed on: 22 Jul 2023
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The story of how the Satanic Panic of the 1980s was ignited by Michelle Remembers, a lurid memoir by psychiatrist Larry Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith.

Director: Sean Horlor, Steve J Adams

Writer: Sean Horlor, Steve J Adams

Starring: Sarah Marshall, Debbie Nathan, Elizabeth Loftus, Ken Lanning, Blanche Barton, Charles Ennis, Jeffrey S Victor

Year: 2023

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: Canada

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