Michelle Smith and Dr. Lawrence Pazder on To Tell The Truth in 1980 | Hot Docs

Satan Wants You Review: Satanic Panic Doc Casts a Spell

Hot Docs 2023

/
5 mins read

Satan Wants You
(Canada, 89 min.)
Dir. Steve J. Adams, Sean Horlor
Programme: Nightvision (Canadian premiere)

 

In today’s world, misinformation and disinformation are everywhere you look. While more rampant and fast-spreading now thanks to social media, it certainly isn’t anything new. Beginning more than 40 years ago, the Satanic Panic had society in a frenzy. With endless media coverage and talk show segments, many people became convinced that Satanic cults were sacrificing babies and torturing children. While none of these accounts were substantiated by investigators, they were widely believed to be fact by quite a number of individuals.

Satan Wants You, the new documentary from Canadian filmmaking duo Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor, unravels the origin and escalation of this bizarre time in modern history. It is the story of Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist-turned-husband, Lawrence Pazder, who co-authored 1980’s Michelle Remembers, the bestselling book that helped to usher in the Satanic Panic era.

The Satanic Panic of the ‘80s and ‘90s is a topic that’s arguably been explored ad nauseam through podcasts, books, and docuseries. Still, there are plenty of obsessives who are always seeking out more details surrounding this time period. They’ll be thrilled to know that Adams and Horlor manage to tread new ground through archival tape recordings, in-depth interviews, and old television footage.

A lot of what is revealed during the documentary is bone-chilling, especially the audio recordings of the therapy sessions between Smith and Pazder. In them, Smith (“patient zero of the Satanic Panic” according to the You’re Wrong About podcast co-host Sarah Marshall, who speaks in the film) shares disturbing childhood memories of “Satanic ritual abuse” at the hands of devil worshippers. Without much visual distraction in these scenes, the disembodied voices of Smith and Pazder effectively work to emphasize the unsettling nature of Smith’s claims, while also shedding light on the inappropriate and deepening relationship between her and Pazder.

As Smith did not want to be interviewed for the film and Pazder died almost 20 years ago, Adams and Horlor rely on accounts from family members, friends, and even a Wiccan detective who was involved in the case. The subjects are all insightful and generous, giving the audience very personal glimpses into the harm caused by the explosive release of Michelle Remembers and all that followed. Perhaps most compelling is the commentary from Smith’s sister and Pazder’s daughter, who do an excellent job highlighting the difficult toll that a scandal of this magnitude takes on a family.

From just over midway through, Satan Wants You builds to a whirlwind of television footage featuring newscasts, talk shows, and a game show (Smith appeared on To Tell the Truth, if you can believe it). Each clip is wilder than the last, providing context and showcasing how far the Satanic Panic permeated the culture. They provide a time capsule and are, quite frankly, morbidly fascinating to watch. And of course, it wouldn’t be a documentary about Satan without an appearance from Anton LaVey, the eccentric founder of Satanism.

Satan Wants You is a documentary that doesn’t waste any of its 89 minutes. It’s a well-made film that will hook you immediately. While it doesn’t necessarily fit into the true crime genre, it has a similarly glossy, fast-paced appeal. With overarching themes of the power of suggestion, sensationalism, and mass deception, Adams and Horlor don’t shy away from drawing parallels to current day conspiracies. Turns out Nietzsche was right: time really is a flat circle.

Satan Wants You screens at Hot Docs 2023.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

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