In the 1980s, Satan was everywhere. Heavy metal, horror movies, D&D, and right next door. The Satanic Panic was a cultural wave of terror that ripped across North America and infected just about everything. The fear - not even fear - the KNOWLEDGE that Satanic cults were rooted in our own communities and were working their Devil magic was embedded into the reality of every quiet berg, every worried mother, every family man. Devil worshippers were among us in ways we never even suspected and everyone was in danger - especially the children.

It’s a well-known phenomena, one that spread through fear, paranoia and a complete lack of factual evidence. Perhaps less well-known is how it got started. What launched the Satanic Panic? Where did these wild stories come from? How were they able to permeate the zeitgeist and take root in the minds of so many people? The new documentary Satan Wants You answers those very questions. From filmmakers Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams, this film examines the case at the center of this crazy-pants fear tornado: The book Michelle Remembers.

Published in 1980, Michelle Remembers chronicles the memories supposedly recovered by Michelle Smith, with the help of her psychiatrist, Dr. Larry Pazder (who co-authored the book together). The book goes into graphic detail about Michelle’s experiences being abducted and tortured by a Satanic cult as a child. She claimed her mind repressed the memories, only to be recovered later under intensive therapy with Dr. Pazder. The book was an immediate best seller, launching a media wave that quickly turned into a cultural phenomenon. Satan was at the top of everyone’s interest list.

The documentary details the impact that this book had and the cultural moment created. It begins by examining the book itself, including audio from the original tapes from a number of the sessions during which Michelle supposedly remembered these events. We also hear alternative perspectives from Michelle’s sister, Pazder’s daughter and ex-wife, as well as several religious  representatives, law enforcement officials and investigative journalists. 

There are a lot of different facets that come into play over the course of the film. From Michelle’s own history of familial abuse to Pazder’s Catholicism, to the strange and unprofessional nature of their ever-evolving relationships. A lot of different pieces came together to create this story and release it upon the world in just the right way. And I don’t mean to say that it was necessarily released with malicious intent - the various voices involved in the documentary help to paint a very complex story, and it’s difficult to pinpoint the specific intentions of the players. 

But regardless of the intent, this book had a very specific impact. Adams and Horlor did a fantastic job of illustrating just how far this story went. Michelle’s tale created a tsunami. It was everywhere. And soon after, similar tales began to spring up. Before then, there were next to zero claims of childhood abuse at the hands of a mysterious Satanic cult and afterwards, every psychiatrist seemed to have multiple patients uncovering new horrific memories every week. Daytime talk shows were flooded by doctors and patients alike, sharing their stories. Michelle and Pazdor were called in to consult on some of these cases, effectively directing new people on how to properly “rediscover” their own Satanic memories. Innocent people found themselves being accused of horrific deeds based on little to no actual evidence. Some even served jail time. The Satanic Panic wasn’t just a moment of the Cultural Crazies; it had repercussions and consequences and it ruined lives. 

Satan Wants You doesn’t make a definitive statement on the motivations of Michelle and Pazder, but it does give you plenty of insight into them as people and allows you to start piecing the story together. Was the book a get rich quick scheme? Did Michelle actually believe the stories that she was telling? Did their unconventional patient/doctor relationship affect how this story unfolded? There are no clear cut answers, but it does seem that the truth lies somewhere in the gray area. Human beings are complex creatures with complex wants and needs. Nothing is ever simple. But what remains true is that Michelle set into motion one of the strangest cultural periods of the twentieth century. 

The film is a fascinating look at history, but it also doesn’t shy away from examining how we are seeing that history reflected in the events of the modern world. QAnon, Pizza Gate and the strange other rumblings from the darkest corners of the internet are having their own mainstream moments. We’re seeing history repeating itself in a very specific way and it leaves viewers to wonder if human beings are capable of learning anything from our past at all. 

Documentary Score: 5/5