Life partners Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams have made a name for themselves as a formidable filmmaking duo. They have no less than 20 short films to their credit, and their first feature length documentary, Someone Like Me (2019) received critical acclaim and was lauded on the festival circuit.
Satan Wants You, the second feature-length documentary offering from the Canadian filmmakers, takes us back a few decades to go behind the fervor of the Satanic Panic. It does so largely by taking a look at the book that arguably started it all, the now widely debunked memoir, Michelle Remembers, as well as the aftermath and its deep impact on American society in particular.
How Michelle Remembers Made the Entire World Terrified of Satan
Today, the Satanic Panic that gripped America (and the world) in the ’80s and ’90s is the butt of a perennial joke. But it was no laughing matter back then — the horrors of so-called Satanic ritual abuse permeated the minds of not just the ultra-religious, but also secular mainstream news outlets and even the upper echelons of law enforcement. As far as the wider population was concerned, the ritual torture and sacrifice of animals and children by widespread, hidden Satanic cults across the country was an undisputed fact.
One of the catalysts of Satanic Panic was Michelle Remembers. The book was the result of tapes compiled from multi-hour sessions between Michelle Smith and her therapist, Larry Pazder. The recordings from the tapes are admittedly creepy, and Adams and Horlor cut real photos and archival footage together in between frantic spurts of recorded fits and screams to create effective jump scares and an overall atmosphere of dread.
Through various psychotherapy techniques popular at the time, and some that were made more mainstream after the release of the book, including induced hypnosis, Michelle was supposedly able to unearth memories of ritual abuse by a Satanic cult, which included her mother, when she was just a preteen, memories apparently previously buried after years of repression.
The Film Does the Best it Can to Stay Neutral
The film heavily focuses on how the story of Michelle Remembers came to be, and we’re given a fascinating look into the mindset of its two subjects. We find out how psychiatrist Larry Pazder was influenced by what he saw during his voyages to other countries, and how he came to terms with shocking cultural practices he didn’t understand by applying his deeply religious faith to them.
We see and hear, in painstaking detail from those closest to the pair, including Larry’s first wife as well as his daughter, how Pazder took his relationship with Michelle far beyond appropriate professional boundaries into territory that would likely get any practicing mental health professional stripped of their license and status.
Spoiler alert for a half-century year old work of spooky “non-fiction”: Michelle is apparently only alive today because she was rescued by none other than Mother Mary herself (who speaks French, in case you were wondering). And of course, Jesus’ mother, being the standup gal she is, healed Michelle of her wounds, removing any sort of physical proof to confirm the story.
Satan Wants You does the best job it possibly can in presenting its interviews in an unbiased fashion. We hear a senior FBI official state with a bold face that he’s sure that some cases of Satanic ritual abuse must exist somewhere in the country, even though no evidence of such a thing has never actually been unearthed. We hear one of Michelle’s closest friends empathize with the troubled patient, saying she’s sure something must have happened to Michelle as a child. Otherwise, she argues, how could the memories have been so vivid?
Satan Wants You Is an Important Reminder From the Not So Distant Past
Most of the testimony, though, comes in the form of dissent, and it’s difficult to argue against the assertion that most of Michelle Remembers was likely fabricated. The true horror of the film comes from how easy it appears to be to convince vast swathes of the population that something ridiculous is happening right under their noses with absolutely no evidence to speak of.
There is also an emotional through line with surprising resonance that pops up throughout the film between the childhood friend who truly believes Michelle went through something, and the sister who just wants to understand how Michelle could have said these things about their mother.
Frustratingly, Michelle did not make herself available to be interviewed for the film, and Larry Pazder has been dead for over a decade. It would have been nice to get some kind of closure or response from the two people at the center of it all, but we can hardly blame the filmmakers for their absence.
Some may argue that the subject matter the film deals with is well well-trodden ground, especially over the past few years. The obsession with conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and QAnon during the previous two election cycles have brought the fear of Satan and his minions back into the collective conscious in a way that rivals the days when Michelle and Larry invaded TV screens across the country.
Satan Wants You is unlikely to bring anyone back if they’ve already fallen over the edge into the conspiracy abyss. But for those eager to analyze one of the more bizarre occurrences of an early viral phenomenon that hypnotized a nation, it’s a fascinating look at how an overactive imagination can be so incredibly damaging.
Satan Wants You screened at the Fantasia Film Festival, where it won the DGC Audience Award for Best Canadian Film. Watch this space for more information about its wider release.