If you were alive in the 80s, you probably remember all those scary stories about Satan worshippers who were holding clandestine cult meetings, sacrificing animals, and kidnapping and eating children. It was a time where a feeling of mass hysteria was created around the fear of one of pop culture’s most famous bogeymen: the devil. But did you ever wonder exactly where this “Satanic Panic” originated?
Directors Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor have crafted a thorough and fascinating documentary on the subject with “Satan Wants You,” a film that exposes the history of Michelle Smith (who is known as the “patient zero” of the movement), her questionable psychiatrist Larry Pazder, and the panic they created across America. With accomplices in law enforcement, daytime television, and even the Catholic church, the documentary exposes the lies, conspiracies, rumors, and misrepresentations that distorted reality, led to numerous wrongful convictions, and left a legacy of misinformation in its wake that is still being embraced today.
This is an entertaining yet complicated documentary that includes a lot of information, and it’s packed full of so much interesting content that the film could’ve been even better as a series with more time to cover it all. Even with their inclusion of many topics, Adams and Horlor have a keen sense of pacing and storytelling.
The film starts with a general outline of Smith and Pazder’s bestselling book “Michelle Remembers,” a wild recollection about her supposed time being tortured as a child in a Satanic cult. Using audio from recorded recovered-memory therapy sessions from the late 70s and 80s, it’s absolutely terrifying to hear Michelle’s alarming recollections of the horrific abuse she endured at the hands of Satanists. Her traumatic memories are chilling and sound credible — to a point.
The documentary takes a look at Michelle’s personal life, starting with her childhood and the abusive home in which she grew up, and the first time she met Larry. (Michelle repeatedly declined to be interviewed for the film, but her younger sister and best friend provide much insight into her persona). There’s a brief history of Larry’s interest in voodoo culture and cults, and how many of those rituals manifested in Michelle’s supposed recollections. Eventually the patient became enamored with her doctor and, according to Larry’s ex-wife, began “stalking” his family. This led to a love affair, a secret marriage, a shocking book, and an extensive promotional tour that took her tale into the homes of mainstream America.
Horlor and Adams feature archival footage of Michelle and Larry’s numerous appearances on daytime talk shows, spinning their story to the likes of Maury Povich and Oprah Winfrey. As their popularity soared, more people came out of the woodwork for their 15 minutes of fame, claiming that they, too, had been part of a Satanic cult. This led to people beginning to tell the same story over and over (a phenomenon not unlike alien abduction, where the descriptions are all very similar). It became so rampant that cops saw unsubstantiated cases of Satanic ritual abuse grow in the 1980s based solely on the popularity of these stories. These unproven sensational allegations led to highly publicized court cases (like the McMartin preschool trial, which is also covered in the film) and a string of wrongful convictions.
The documentary analyzes how a startling and complete lack of skepticism caused the movement to explode out of control. Regular people and even the media rarely challenged any of these “stories” because they were great for ratings. Parallels to QAnon and Pizzagate are inevitable, especially when you consider this campaign of disinformation is on the rise once again. Even with easily verifiable facts both then and now, the public will scream “fake news.” There’s enough material here for an entire feature length documentary about the tendency of history to repeat itself.
One of the more interesting aspects of the documentary is when and how religious entities began to take notice and get involved. Much of the panic and fear mongering was initiated by churches, which joined the fray because the clear answer to all of this hysteria and terror is “God”–and “God” is a big business. The wilder the stories, the more the churches ate it up. By keeping people scared and living in fear, they were able to achieve the holy trifecta of organized religion: power, influence, and money. By selling folks on the idea that Satanists were living among us, kidnapping, murdering, and eating babies, it created a constant state of alarm for the faithful (and a cycle of propaganda, fear, and control). The documentary is extremely critical of religion, and rightfully so.
Another compelling issue raised is the lack of boundaries between doctors and their patients, something that has been a problem for decades. During the height of the “Satanic Panic,” unqualified therapists began selling similar Satanic story lines to their patients because they wanted to seize the opportunity to make money off wild accusations. Some actually planted the seed of a false story into their patient’s heads, which is exactly what happened to Michelle. It’s shocking how therapy can lead to false memories simply by the power of suggestion that’s created when a therapist asks leading questions.
With so much covered over the course of one film, it’s an achievement when you consider just how many hours of material the directors had at their disposal. They do try to tackle a bit too much, as some of the topics seem to be spread too thin. Horlor and Adams do have an excellent sense of what to select to add to their film, from knowing exactly which audio recordings from the therapy sessions and passages from Michelle and Larry’s book would be the most efficient to include, and how to tie it all together into a stark warning that’s relevant today. They also make it highly entertaining with extremely well done horror-style fictionalized dramatizations.
“Satan Wants You” is a terrific, thought-provoking documentary that’s disturbing, shocking, and eerily relevant.
By: Louisa Moore