Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams dig into the epidemic of Satanism that held the ‘80s hostage.
As a child of the ‘80s, I grew up at the height of the Satanic Panic, and it’s always fascinated me. I lived in a small rural town in Southern Pennsylvania, which was probably the worst for the kinds of whispers and paranoia that fueled these irrational fears. We were essentially free range children, who didn’t have to be back until dark or dinner, whichever came first. The only thing we were warned of by our parents was to be wary of people who were wearing all black, thanks to all the kidnappings on the news. We were also warned to stay away from any hot spots for Satanic activity, which, in my town, was the woods behind the Ames Department store where all the Metalhead teenagers would party. It was like the latest season of Stranger Things, and there were real consequences for those who were thought to be in league with the devil, as hilarious as that may sound today.
So when I heard about the Canadian documentary covering this phenomenon, Satan Wants You by Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams, which screened recently at SXSW, I had to check it out.
Satan Wants You primarily focuses on the story of “patient zero” for the hysteria, Michelle Smith. After going through some lengthy sessions utilizing a rather controversial form of memory recovery with her psychiatrist, Larry Pazder, the two authored the (discredited) tome that ignited the panic: 1980’s Michelle Remembers. The book, which was funded in part by the Catholic Church, was a lurid recounting of Michelle’s childhood abduction by baby-stealing Satanists, who subjected her to cannibalism, sexual abuse, and sacrifice. The news media kept the book in the forefront of national Satanic hysteria, and psychiatrists began using Pazder’s techniques to keep their clients coming back to unlock their own trauma.
The filmmakers flawlessly deconstruct the narrative on how the events transpired through interviews with most of the principal players, though Pazder has since passed away and Smith refused to participate. The film juggles three narratives here: the relationship between Pazder and Smith, the real consequences of the fear the book created and the fallout, and how that cycle of fear is ongoing today with the trans community as a scapegoat. They also dig into how the Catholic Church was hit with hundreds of counts of child molestation charges years later, and how they projected those claims onto a Satanic church. These talking heads are interspersed among dramatic reenactments of Michelle Remembers that really hammer home the true crime angle.
Satan Wants You is a scathing documentary that sheds some much needed light on a cycle of fear and projection that is already running its course in our country yet again. Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams paint a damning portrait of a conspiracy that destroyed lives and filled the pockets of the Catholic Church. One thing I didn’t expect however was the role of the mental health professional community, which jumped on board and exploited those who came to them for help. There is just so much here to digest that’s as shocking as it is horrifying, especially for those who grew up indoctrinated into this cycle of fear. Satan Wants You is a piercing exposé that is razor sharp and relevant as ever and showshow fear mongering is used as propaganda and a form of control.