The new documentary Satan Wants You looks back to the satanic panic of the 1980s and 1990s but it’s the film’s central subject, Michelle Smith, and its presentation of her that proves to be the most interesting.
Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor’s documentary digs deep into British Columbia resident Smith and Dr. Larry Pazder, the subject and author of the book Michelle Remembers. A best seller that became a cultural phenomenon their story sparked the fire that would launch the satanic panic – the North American wave of claims of ritual satanic abuse and cults that seemed to be everywhere. Under psychiatrist Dr. Pazder’s care, Smith recalled deeply graphic and disturbing accounts of childhood sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of a satanic cult. The recording of her sessions were then transcribed into Michelle Remembers with Dr. Pazder’s added commentary. When the Canadian pair hit the growing daytime TV talkshow circuit, news of satanic rituals and secret Satan-worshipping cults seemed to be everywhere, inciting a “panic” that these cults were at every turn.
Watching Satan Wants You in an era of rampant Qanon conspiracy theories makes the film all the more timely. Viewed with a lens of the past, it’s easy to dismiss the reaction as ridiculous, spoon-fed to a gullible audience. But one only needs to turn to Twitter (or X or whatever it’s called today), to see the same type of claims causing the latest version of the “satanic panic.”
Smith is a fascinating subject. Shortly after suffering a devastating miscarriage, she turned to Dr. Pazder for solace, unleashing a torrent of “memories” that are deeply disturbing – not just because of the graphic content she recalls, but because she’s so clearly under mental stress in need of real help. Dr. Pazder takes advantage of a sick woman, encouraging her twisted fantasies filled with sacrificed babies and religious symbolism for his own financial gain. Through their sessions, Dr. Pazder becomes the keeper of Smith’s story, answering on her behalf There are so many red flags about his practice it is no wonder the doctor-patient relationship was blurred to the point where both of their marriages ended.
Adams and Horlor have a wealth of archival footage at their fingertips thanks to the many TV appearances the duo made to promote the book. They use this material to great effect, paired with interviews with a sociologist, Pazder’s ex-wife and daughter, psychiatrists, and more offering a robust examination of not just Smith and Pazder, but the satanic panic phenomenon that went all the way to the Vatican. Smith, who is still alive, does not appear in the documentary although her sister does to share insight into her mental state.
Satan Wants You succeeds on many levels. It is a time capsule of a cultural moment, a shocking look at psychiatric manipulation, and the story of a woman in emotional distress. Clever and inventive, it’s a worthwhile watch.
Satan Wants You will be released on August 11