Satan Wants You, a new film by filmmakers Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor (Someone Like Me), originally premiered at this year’s SXSW but is making its Canadian debut this week at the Hot Docs Film Festival. The Canadian-made film examines the impact of the lurid memoir Michelle Remembers, a best-seller that many point to as a major source of the Satanic Panic phenomena that gripped North America in the 1980s.
For those who may be too young to know or remember it, the Panic essentially consisted of a widespread belief that Satanic cults were kidnapping children en masse, abusing them, and performing ritualistic ceremonies with babies, animals and more. Many in middle America (and Canada) believed that everything from heavy metal music to Dungeons and Dragons was being used to recruit young people to devil worship. Daytime talk shows from the likes of Sally Jessy Raphael, Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera inundated viewers with fears that these cults were in lurking around every corner, in every neighbourhood, just waiting to snatch up little ones to commit Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA).
Michelle Remembers was written by Dr. Lawrence Pazder alongside his psychiatric patient Michelle Smith. In the late -’70s, Smith began recounting horrific stories to her doctor of her mother giving her up as a young girl to a Satanic cult and allowing them to torture and abuse her. She had apparently repressed the memories so deeply that she completely forgot about them until Dr. Pazder utilized recovered-memory therapy to help her unlock her past trauma. Utilizing recordings of their sessions, the two wrote the book and proceeded to go on a whirlwind publicity tour, hoping to expose SRA and its insidious existence.
The film uses a variety of media as part of its storytelling, including archival footage of TV interviews, home videos and photographs along with talking head interviews and dramatic reenactments. Audiences get to hear some of the original therapy session recordings too, which are quite distressing as Smith wails in agony about various abuses she allegedly suffered as a child. Satan Wants You is at its most fascinating when revelations are made about where some of the specific claims may have come from.
For example Dr. Pazder, a seriously practicing Catholic, is very specific in his description of rituals but it is revealed that he’d spent time in West Africa earlier in his career and had videotaped rituals he had seen there. Instead of researching their meaning and origins in local culture, he made enormous leaps of judgment and determined them to be rituals of evil. He went on to implant similar stories into Smith’s head. The local Bishop in British Columbia where Smith lived, actually managed to take the story of her alleged abuse all the way up to the top at the Vatican, and Smith and Dr. Pazder received an audience with the Pope. The local diocese in Canada went on to fund the book with a questionable $10,000 investment.
The film explores more than just the lies that Smith and Pazder were spreading, but the resulting copycat chain of admissions from others alleging that they too were victims of SRA. This involved everything from women claiming they were forced to give birth in order to sacrifice their babies for blood rituals, to people coming forward with stories of kidnapping and abuse as children. Talk shows and news programs ate the content up – enjoying the consistently high ratings – and spread the ideas wide without verification or pushback. When experts tried to refute accusations, they were often labeled as cult members themselves.
It is a fascinating time capsule of what was, in effect, a modern-day Salem Witch Trial. It’s also easy to draw parallels to the recent spread of QAnon conspiracies, where allegations of a child abuse ring in the basement of a Washington pizza parlour has become one of the baseless accusations most referenced among believers. We see the same tactics being used now as by religious zealots in the 1980s, and observe a similar lack of critical thinking among the populace as falsehoods are allowed to reign supreme.
The documentary will keep you on the edge of your seat, and leave you floored by the incredible and outrageous accusations presented from all corners of the SRA ensemble. It will enthral fans of the true crime genre, who will likely be familiar with some of the cases presented in the film. The fact that most of the Satanic Panic can be traced to a single source is fascinating and an important lesson and warning for everyone at this particular moment in time.