SXSW Film Review: Satan Wants You

The Satanic panic as a guidebook to the dangers of crazy conspiracies

Michelle Smith, the author of Michelle Remembers, during a television appearance on To Tell The Truth in 1980 (credit: Fremantle)

In 1980, Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder co-published Michelle Remembers with patient Michelle Smith. This book purported to reveal Smith’s repressed memories of Satanic ritual abuse and moments from her childhood where she was tortured and abused by a secret cabal of Satanists.

Using Pazder and Smith as the starting point for Satanic panic, SXSW documentary Satan Wants You explores the impact that Michelle Remembers had on society, leading to psychiatrists and law enforcement officers around the world chasing devil worshipers and child abusers in the shadows – and destroying lives in the process.

Distance seems to have softened the impact of the period of Satanic panic. Our bygone obsession with Satanic ritual abuse has become a joke – a fitting anecdote to summarize ‘80s America and a prosperous idea factory for horror movies and procedural television. That is why it is so important that directors Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams take a pragmatic approach to the material. The film offers precious little editorializing; Horlor and Adams focus on how the Satanic panic opened the door for systemic exploitation in law enforcement and religious communities.

Because of this, Satan Wants You is a surprisingly conventional documentary. Much of the runtime is occupied by archival recordings and third-party talking heads. There is certainly plenty of room for play in the subject matter – especially as documentaries have pushed the boundaries between narrative and non-fiction – but any subjectivity on the part of the filmmakers would downplay the real-world impact that Satanic panic had on our culture. If unserious people have a serious stranglehold on the country, you do not treat their agenda as a joke. Satan Wants You knows we’re smart enough to understand the connections we should make between the 1980s and today.

Still, Satan Wants You can sometimes feel curiously too broad and too narrow in scope. The focus on Pazder and Smith is the framework through which the directors make sense of Satanic panic, but thousands of cases are only lightly touched on. There are also many discussions in the film – most notably around the impact that insurance cases had on the end of Satanic ritual abuse claims – that might justify entire documentaries of their own. The period the movie wants to cover is just too long and too rich with details for Satan Wants You to put every card on the table.

But leaving your audience wanting more is not exactly the worst kind of cinematic frustration. For those unfamiliar with Satanic panic, Satan Wants You is a powerful entrance point, only that will surely send audiences down a rabbit hole of daytime television YouTube clips and news reports for hours on end. Sometimes, it’s just nice to remember that we have always been this dumb.

Satan Wants You

Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere

Mon 13, 12:30pm, 1pm, Violet Crown
Wed 15, 9pm, AFS Cinema
Thu 16, 9:30pm, ZACH Theatre

Catch up with all of The Austin Chronicle's SXSW 2023 coverage.

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SXSW Film 2023, SXSW 2023, Satan Wants You, Sean Horlor, Steve J. Adams

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