Panic Fest: Satan Wants You is a Satanic Panic documentary to remember

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Satan Wants You. // Courtesy Cargo Film Releasing / Fremantle

This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023Read more from our film team here.

Misinformation. Hysteria. Violence. Frantic Parents. Legal action. 

Am I describing another day on Elon Musk’s Twitter, or summarizing Satan Wants You, the new documentary examining the inception of the North American Satanic Panic?

Both. Sometimes the answer is both.

Focused primarily on Michelle Remembers, the long-since debunked memoir of abuse co-authored by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist and future husband(!) Dr. Lawrence Pazder, Satan Wants You offers a comprehensive, linear look at the journey from repressed memory to the international bestselling book that fanned the flames of the Satanic Panic and the many lives that were irrevocably altered as a result. Told through archival footage, talking head interviews, and minimal re-enactments, Satan Wants You is engaging from the first second to the last.

Published in 1980, Michelle Remembers chronicles the alleged abuse Smith suffered in 1954 and 1955, memories of which only awakened once she began treatment under Pazder for depression related to a miscarriage. Through recovered memory therapy and hypnosis, Smith recounted grim details of abuse and human sacrifice. Smith and Pazder took the story to the local Catholic church (and even the Vatican) before publishing the book.

Almost immediately upon release, the book was surrounded by controversy. The first edition alleged that Michelle’s abusers were members of the Church Of Satan, which wasn’t founded until the mid-1960s. Founder Anton LaVey brought legal action against Smith and Pazder for that detail. One ritual Michelle describes allegedly took place over 81 days in a massive round room, yet she was attending school during the entire duration. 

Even though each detail of Michelle Remembers was easily refuted, the story swept North America like wildfire. Aided by the fledgling daytime talk show market, Smith shared her story with parents and grandparents across the nation. Allegations of satanic ritual abuse popped up in communities across the United States and Canada. 

Satan Wants You looks at the long-lasting impact felt by everyone affected. Smith’s younger sister Charyl is interviewed throughout, as are Pazder’s ex-wife and child. The film also addresses the infamous McMartin Preschool case of the 1980s, and its subsequent TV movie adaptation, Indictment, starring James Woods.

The film feels especially timely in 2023, as in some ways, we have never moved on from this cultural moment and the concept of “alternative facts” it helped promote. Even after nearly all claims of “ritual abuse” were debunked, our society still finds it easier to blame “othered” groups for any bad that befalls our loved ones. Republicans across America pass bills to dictate what bathrooms a transgender person may use and what sports they can play, under the guise of “protecting the children,” even though statistics have shown time and time again that abuse is far more likely to be perpetrated by a family member than a stranger. Movies like The Pizzagate Conspiracy and Satanic Panic, while clearly tongue-in-cheek, also effectively capitalize on similar collective paranoia.

The thoughtful way Satan Wants You handles its source material, and the staggering depth of the talking head interviews (though invited to join the film, Smith herself is noticeably absent), tip it away from cheap voyeurism. This is a thoughtful, genuinely engaging documentary worth watching and rewatching.

Categories: Movies