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Fantasia 2023: Satan Wants You Review

August 5, 2023 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Satan Wants You Image Credit: Fantasia IFF
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Fantasia 2023: Satan Wants You Review  

Directed by: Steve J. Adams & Sean Horlor
Written by: Steve J. Adams & Sean Horlor

Charles Ennis
Ken Lanning
Sarah Marshall
Blanche Barton
Debbie Nathan
Elizabeth Loftus
Jeffrey S. Victor
Charyl Proby-Austman

Image Credit: Game Theory

Running Time: 89 minutes
Not Rated

It’s hard to properly explain what a strange time it was in the Satanic panic era of the 1980s to somewhat who didn’t live in it – or at least, it used to be. There’s a lot to be said about how the rise of the nonsensical “Satanic ritual abuse” theory can be directly linked to QAnon absurdity about cabals of evil people who harvest adrenochrome from the terrified bodies of children. It’s inconceivable that we would have the latter if we hadn’t had the former, and more than a little terrifying to consider how many people have been hurt by both.

Much like QAnon’s conspiracy theories were birthed from the era of Satanic panic, that 1980s phenomenon had its own origin story in a whole bunch of nonsense, namely Michelle Remembers. The now-thoroughly discredited 1980 book by Michelle Smith and her therapist (and later husband) Dr. Larry Pazder more or less kicked off the moral panic of Satanic ritual abuse that permeated the 1980s and led to very real harm to a number of people. It also had the ripple effect of changing the public consciousness in more ways that we can properly comprehend, none of them a net positive for society.

The story behind Smith and Pazder’s book is chronicled in the new documentary Satan Wants You from directors Steve J. Adams & Sean Horlor. The film, which screened at Fantasia International Film Festival this week and will be coming to Tubi this winter, takes an in-depth look at the two and how their book created a cottage industry out of fear and hatred toward people outside of a very specific societal norm. In doing so, it charts the rise of a phenomenon that is still very much haunting us to this day.

Satan Wants You goes back to Victoria, British Columbia in the 1970s, when the events that led to the creation of Michelle Remembers took place. Adams and Horlor feature interviews with the families of both Pazder and Smith (Pazder passed away in 2004, and Smith declined to be involved) as they document how treatment for a miscarriage-related depression led to hypnosis sessions in which Smith claimed to uncover repressed memories of abuse from a Satanic cult that her mother had been involved in in the 1950s. The book was a blockbuster success and led to a moral panic in which false allegations of Satanic ritual abuse became rampant, including the day care sex abuse hysteria exemplified in the MacMartin preschool trial in the late 1980s.

Amidst the hornet’s nest they kicked up, Pazder and Smith became celebrities of a sort and featured regularly on daytime talk shows, news programs and even the game show To Tell the Truth. Adams and Horlor do a fine job of laying this out at the same time as they chart the professional and then personal relationship between Smith and Pazder, and how both sides of their relationship may have factored into the book and the metaphorical bomb it dropped on society.

With a topic as weighty as this, it could have been tricky to capture it all in the film’s tight runtime. The directors navigate this admirably by balancing the personal interviews with those of law enforcement professionals and others who understood the story on a more macro level. The words from Pazdar’s ex-wife, his daughter and Smith’s sister are supplemented by excerpts of the audio recordings from the hypnosis sessions, horrifyingly punctuated by Michelle’s screams and sobs. They paint a portrait of a woman in love and the man who was supposed to be treating her and, frankly, likely used her for fame and his own agendas.

There were a multitude of trickle-down effects of Satanic panic, too many for this single documentary to get into them all. There is a brief mention of how heavy metal music was vilified as part of it, and headlines displayed of people accused of ritual abuse and worse. The film only hints at the astronomical number of people who were charged with crimes because they looked different, or listened to the wrong album, played Dungeons & Dragons, or adhered to the wrong religion.

But there are multiple documentaries that cover other cases; Satan Wants You wants to look at the source – or as one interviewee calls it, “the patient zero of Satanic panic.” In focusing on the book and its fabricators, Adams and Horlor are able to show how an unethical person and his patient (who is by no means innocent herself) started something that was uncritically propagated by an astounding number of media figures and law enforcement officials, to the point that we are still struggling to deal with it to this day.

The Fantasia International Film Festival takes place in Montreal from July 20th through August 9th.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Satan Wants You is a well-made documentary covering an essential story of the 1980s in how Michelle Remembers launched the hysteria that was Satanic panic. Steve J. Adams & Sean Horlor manage the balance of exploring the macro of era and the micro of the two individuals behind the book that kicked it off. Even if it can’t quite cover every topic that grew out of the madness, it does an excellent job of reminding us how easily we can fall prey to conspiratorial moral panic nonsense and the importance of making sure we fight back against such things even now.