Satan Wants You uses the 1980s-90s “Satanic Panic” hysteria to show us how easy it is to believe extremely unlikely things when they’re marketed well.
If you’re planning to watch documentary Satan Wants You at SXSW, chances are you either know a lot about the 1980s-90s cultural hysteria known as “Satanic Panic,” or nothing at all. Either way, you’ll definitely get plenty of conversation starters out of the film, as the events at its core are simply unbelievable. Satan Wants You is a detailed account of how it all begun, according to directors Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams. It’s also a thought-provoking, if a tad sensationalised, analysis of moral ethics, cult conspiracies, religious delusions, shock value-induced fear, and how easy it is to believe that horrific, gruesome, and extremely unlikely things are true when they’re marketed well.
The documentary begins by taking us back to 1980, when it all began. At the centre of it all is bestselling memoir “Michelle Remembers,” written by psychiatrist Larry Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith, and documenting the former’s successful retrieval of the latter’s elegedly repressed memories by means of his controversial recovered-memory therapy.
Marketed as “a journey of horror, sadism, and perversion” telling the true story of “a woman who wrestled with the devil,” the book exposed what would later be known as “Satanic Ritual Abuse.” It told the story of how, when Michelle was 5 years old, her mother gave her to a group of baby-stealing satanists for 14 months, where she elegedly assisted to a bunch of rituals — from the dismembering of fetuses to orgies, animal sacrifice, and other unlikely group activities — that left her with internalised trauma. “Take a good hard look into whose care you place your child,” Michelle Smith tells a TV anchor while talking about her memoir, planting fear and paranoia into millions of viewers.
Podcaster Sarah Marshall describes the book as “patient zero of the satanic panic,” and it really was. In what universe would someone be able to state that people were burning babies to make candles out of them — an accusation that’s not only far-fetched but also nonsensical from a practical point of view — and be immediately believed by millions of people? And yet, not only did no one think of questioning Michelle’s allegations, but more and more people came forward with similar accounts.
Misinformation spread to the entire country, to the point that everyone believed that the satanists were out to get their children. And so, a special FBI department was set up, police officers were given training on how to recognise so-called “satanic abductions,” innocent people were wrongly convicted, and the media capitalised on it all by giving the so-called victims a platform to share their newly recovered memories. Needless to say, none of this was true.
The selling point of Satan Wants You is really the story it tells, as all of this actually took place not too long ago. The documentary takes a little while to get to what you really want to hear, and what really didn’t work for me was the beginning of the film, where recordings of Michelle’s “memories” are dramatised for effect. This sensationalisation of its central topic continues throughout the film, as Michelle Smith and Dr. Larry Patzer are depicted in a way that leaves little compassion for them and some of the same concepts are reiterated throughout the movie: the directors’ stance on the topic is crystal clear and also depicted in less shades than I would have liked. But delving into Michelle’s real trauma wasn’t really Horlor and Adams’ aim with the film, and Satan Wants You definitely succeeds at being informative as well as acting as a warning for the future.
The first half of Satan Wants You introduces us to Michelle Smith and Dr. Larry Patzer with the never-before-heard audio recordings of their therapy sessions, as well as interviews with Larry’s daughter Theresa and wife Marylyn, Michelle’s sister Charyl, and Michelle’s best friend Cheetie, who also happened to be Larry’s literary assistant. This first part can be a little intense if you don’t know anything about the story behind “Michelle Remembers,” but the second part more than makes up for it, as we find out what happened next and hear from a series of people who witnessed it all.
“No one doubts a child,” Wiccan police officer Charles Ennis tells us, explaining that the media “put misinformation out there knowingly,” because it’s this kind of shocking material that makes the news. Sociologist Jeff Victor calls Michelle and Larry “salesmen,” with the fear of Satan as their product, and Cheetie reveals that Michelle used to stalk Larry, and was deeply in love with him.
From scientist and psychologist Elizabeth Loftus we learn how easy it is for a therapist to manipulate their patients, whether willingly or not, by rewarding them for the false memories they conjure. Investigative journalist Debbie Nathan shares her thoughts about the hundreds of cases of satanic ritual abuse that were reported after the book was published, with people “remembering” the most absurd, one hundred percent false details. We even hear from the former high priestess of the Church of Satan, which sued Larry and Michelle for misrepresenting them in their book.
Satan Wants You contains a great deal of material and interviews. It also asks questions that are timely to this day, such as the power of fake news and how easy it is to believe it when misinformation spreads, even more so if the subject matter is shocking and the media draw attention to it. It also offers insight into unethical approaches to psychotherapy and looks at the effects of fear on communities.
“What people believe when there is no real objective evidence is an amazing thing to behold”, FBI Special Agent Ken Lanning tells us, revealing his experience with satanic ritual abuse cases, as one of the original “Mindhunters” at Quantico, in the 1980s. This sentence pretty much sums up the message of Satan Wants You: what the film asks isn’t whether or not Michelle was telling the truth, but why the entire world believed her, and how likely is history to repeat itself soon.
Though the film feels a little too long and over-dramatises some of its themes, it’s a detailed account of a psychologically intriguing event that not everyone will be familiar with and a clever look at mass hysteria, morality, fear-induced misinformation, and how shocking, gruesome stories have the power to distort and damage reality if marketed well.
Satan Wants You premiered at SXSW 2023 on March 11-15, 2023 and is now available to watch on digital and on demand in the US.