How did one discredited biography ignite one of America’s most memorable moral panics? That’s the central mystery that the new documentary Satan Wants You seeks to unravel. The film debuted Saturday as part of SXSW’s Documentary Spotlight and tells the story of Michelle Remembers—an account that claimed to share repressed memories from Canadian woman Michelle Smith’s childhood, with help from her psychiatrist Lawrence “Larry” Pazder.
(Disclosure: Allegra Frank, a Daily Beast’s Obsessed editor, is a member of the SXSW documentary jury. She was not involved in coverage of any documentaries or editing of the story.)
Beyond setting off a national wave of paranoia, Satan Wants You examines how Michelle Remembers—and Pazder and Smith’s questionable relationship both before and after its publication—affected the personal lives of many around the pair.
In the 1980 co-written biography, Smith claimed to have endured a 14-month period of detainment and torture by a satanist cult to which her mother also allegedly belonged. She alleged that she’d been caged with snakes and forced to watch cult members kill kittens before her eyes.
Michelle Remembers went gangbusters when it hit shelves, sending Smith on a whirlwind tour that would come to include sit-downs with both Oprah Winfrey and the Pope. The book also launched a nationwide conspiracy theory that wound up falsely imprisoning dozens of people. Satan Wants You purports to explore not only why that happened, but how our limited collective memory has already allowed history to repeat itself.
As viewers learn, Smith first began treatment with Pazder after a miscarriage. The two claimed that Pazder eventually used regression hypnosis (a highly controversial technique) to help Smith supposedly recover repressed memories of ritualistic abuse by a Satanic cult. “I couldn’t get away,” Smith cries out at one point during the doc, in audio from a 1976 session with Pazder. “No one was good. They hurt me and they didn’t take care. I can see them standing there, and I remember I tried to crawl inside the mirror.”
“My mother, her role was to keep me quiet,” Smith says at another point. “She picked me up by the skin and she threw me.” By the end, we learn, Pazder and Smith’s sessions had stretched to up to six hours long apiece—a practice that became common for future patients who claimed to be experiencing similar memories.
For 14 months, Smith claimed, she’d come face to face with the Devil. She said that the Virgin Mary had appeared to her, the doc recounts, and that all of the physical scarring from her injuries had been supernaturally healed. As Smith and Pazder made the media rounds their story seemed to spark credulity wherever they went; almost no one seemed to have follow-up questions.
After the book’s publication, other alleged survivors—both children and other adults who claimed to have recovered memories—came forward with their own harrowing accounts. Satanic ritual abuse became a buzzword among police officers and mental health professionals nationwide. Some of the accused lost their jobs or went to prison, on top of the social ostracization that comes with such awful allegations.
Over time, however, scrutiny toward Pazder and Smith began to grow, both in the national conversation and at home. A law enforcement officer, for instance, recalls in the doc that during one of Pazder and Smith’s presentations, he found himself asking why Pazder seemed to answer every query about Smith’s experience for her. (Good question!)
Both Pazder’s daughter, Theresa, and first wife, Marylyn, also appear in Satan Wants You to share their feelings about the psychiatrist’s questionable relationship with his client—who seemed to obsess over him and who eventually became his wife. Pazder and Smith married; as Marylyn tells viewers, she left Pazder after Michelle Remembers book came out. Marylyn also recounts her decision to begin looking into Smith’s story, sharing in the process a yearbook photo she found from Smith’s school, taken during the time Smith was supposedly abducted.
There’s no shortage of true-crime documentaries in 2023, but Satan Wants You has all the ingredients needed to stand out: exclusive interviews with close sources, newly surfaced archival material, and, most importantly, a story that’s as lurid as it is bizarre. Directors Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams say that this is the “very first time” that certain sources have spoken up—including Marylyn and Theresa and Smith’s sister, Charyl. The film also includes newly surfaced audio from one of Smith and Pazder’s sessions, provided to the production by an anonymous source.
The Devil might often be subtle in his work, but the same cannot be said about Satan Wants You. At times, the doc leans into the natural sensationalism of its material with dramatic orchestral music and hyper-stylized re-enactments. We close on the image of an upside-down crucifix rotating in the air above a desk, as Smith wails through a particularly painful moment in one of her sessions and begins questioning what is real.
At the same time, the doc is also empathetic in its treatment of Smith’s widely contested story. Beyond establishing the many doubts that have been cast against Smith’s claims, even by her own sister, Horlor and Adams also make sure to include a more sympathetic witness—Smith’s friend, Cheetie, who maintains to this day that she believes Smith’s account. Smith’s absence from the doc feels as conspicuous as one might expect. (Pazder died in 2004.)
“She’s a good person,” Cheetie says of her friend. “She had her life ruined. First, by whatever experience she did go through… and then the book. It’s ruined her life; she hates the book, because when people see her, that’s all they see.” Cheetie added that she believes Pazder, not Smith, was ultimately “responsible for the book.” Smith’s sister Charyl, meanwhile, remains baffled by her story and laments that she has yet to apologize to the rest of the family.
Beyond the immediate ramifications of the satanic panic, which sent dozens to prison on later debunked accusations, Satan Wants You explores the parallels between that conspiracy theory and more modern bouts of paranoia, like QAnon and Pizzagate. Many of the parallels, laid out in multiple pieces in the past few years, are somewhat obvious: both involve a moral panic centered around the supposed corruption of American youth by a cabal of secretive, terribly powerful cultists, and both proliferated thanks to a dearth of official information debunking their foundational claims.
And yet, as one journalist who investigated the satanic panic laments, it seems we’ve learned nothing from the past—or at least, whatever knowledge we took away from it has not made us any less susceptible in the present. Among the experts in Satan Wants You is Sarah Marshall, who co-hosts the podcast You’re Wrong About and who made a five-episode series devoted to the satanic panic. She sums up early on why this bizarre tale cannot be forgotten in the past: “This book helped shape the world we now live in,” she says toward the beginning of the doc. “We have to have some understanding of it if we’re going to know how we got here.”
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