Satan Wants You, a documentary exploring the particular cultural fascination with and obsessive apprehension of Satanic cults that enraptured North Americans in the ‘80s, is itself deeply fascinated by its subject, specifically, by Michelle Smith. Though the documentary positions itself as an exploration of the effects of a singular memoir — Michelle Remembers, which Smith co-wrote in 1980 with her psychiatrist Larry Pazder, and which the doc credits as having singlehandedly spearheaded the decade’s Satanic Panic — the film actually seems very passionately taken in by the myth of Smith that it strives to flesh out, ultimately serving as the unreliable storyteller that it says Smith was.
The documentary, written and directed by Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor, has a straightforward thesis: in exploring Smith’s memoir, and the circumstances surrounding its production, it aims to locate a distinct and singular cause for the Satanic Panic. Michelle Remembers emerged on the scene as a captivating and beguiling book, which told the tale of a young Smith being handed over to a Satanic cult by her mother, and thereupon becoming a victim and witness to the cult’s depraved and violent acts. Smith recovered memories of the cult through therapy work with Pazder, who then, with Smith, worked to turn her story into a book, which presented her memories as fact. The book, according to the documentary, launched a period in history that saw the public frenziedly reporting Satan worship and related child abuse, finding it in every aspect of society, particularly among teachers working with young children. The Panic, historically, ruined many people’s lives.
The film goes on to chart the manner in which Smith and Pazder rose to fame and, seen as experts in the field, toured North America lecturing widely about what cult-related abuse looked like. Historically, the memoir is discredited for its singular reliance on the untenable and defunct practice of recovered memory therapy, along with the fact that there is no evidence to support Smith’s claims. The film, though it makes note of the memoir’s status as discredited, doesn’t linger for too long on this fact, steadfastly concerned as it is with unearthing primary cause, first of the Satanic Panic, and then of the reasons behind why Smith would fabricate a story for Pazder. It is this concern with singular and primary cause that leads it to its deeply unsettling depiction of Smith.
Through interviews with Pazder’s daughter, ex-wife, and Smith’s sister, Smith’s friend, along with journalists who worked during the period, Satan Wants You paints a picture of Smith as a conniving, deeply disturbed woman with an agenda, a near femme fatale, while Pazder coalesces as an almost placid figure, who — though certainly given some responsibility for the book, and by extension (in the film’s logic) for starting the Panic — is left with an aura of innocence about him. Crucially, Smith refused to participate in the making of the film.
There are two covers of Michelle Remembers that the film loves to turn to, again and again; both feature Smith’s face. The first depicts a woman’s face, meant to be an adult Michelle, with a little window on her forehead that opens onto a child’s face, meant to be Smith at five years old, the age when her supposed ritual abuse began. The second cover is of the book’s first edition, it features both Pazder and Smith — the two are standing in front of each other, but Pazder’s back is to us, while Smith stands before him, making eye contact with us, almost smirking. The documentary’s lens returns to the infant Smith and to the adult Smith on the first edition’s cover again and again throughout the film, as if expecting some kind of confession from these photographs, their guilt in the film’s eyes palpable. The film’s expectant lingering on the second cover is especially jarring and telling for how strategically designed it is. In the film, we learn from Pazder’s wife that he always wanted a patient who could make him famous, renowned. We learn that it was Pazder who hatched the idea for a memoir relaying Smith’s story. But the cover for the first edition reveals only Smith; Pazder is faceless, his back could be anybody’s. Though Pazder did gain acclaim and respect as a psychiatrist, it seems that Smith, in this documentary, receives blame.
The fact that the film chooses to return again and again to Smith’s unspeaking, smirking face is telling because it postures her as the creative force of the book, which this film insists is the singular cause of the Satanic Panic, which destroyed the lives of so many. As the film’s lens zooms meaningfully, morosely onto Smith’s face on these covers, we hear the voices of Pazder’s daughter and ex-wife detail the overbearing presence Smith had in their life, prior to the book. Pazder would go on to leave his first wife and marry Smith; accordingly, Smith is framed as a woman who wanted this from the very beginning, a woman who fabricated a tale of abuse so as to beguile and entrap Pazder; Smith becomes the homewrecker.
While the film does gesture toward the fact that Pazder was an enterprising man, a deeply religious doctor who made missionary trips to African countries (in home videos and stories of the time, Pazder emerges as a virulently racist person), and who wanted very much to be famous, the film manages to frame him with an innocent aura. Time and again, Pazder’s daughter is featured speaking of her heartbreak at the fact of Pazder and Smith’s connection, with her statement that she saw Smith as a stalker allowed to hang heavy over idyllic home videos depicting a young Pazder playing with his children. Before Smith, Pazder is said to have been the perfect father, after Smith, the “twinkle” in his eyes vanishes.
As the film frames Smith as the conniving figure who lures Pazder away from his perfect, loving family during therapy, through her mystical stories, it fails to consider the power imbalance between Pazder and Smith, insofar as he was the professional and she his patient. Time and again, the film fails to consider in any meaningful way that Pazder could have been manipulating Smith. So often, the film uses the passive voice when discussing Pazder, depicting him as the person Michelle Smith happened to, instead of considering the possibility that they both might have been equally culpable, with Pazder, being the professional and much older than Smith, holding the dominant hand. Never once is Pazder considered as choosing to leave his family, rather, it is said of him that Smith took him away, and that he missed them once he married Smith.
An FBI agent interviewed by the filmmakers makes a very interesting statement: he says that during conferences, Smith would be eerily silent, while Pazder would speak for her. The FBI agent recalls asking Pazder why he would speak for Smith. Pazder replies by saying that, having divulged her story through therapy, Smith doesn’t have access to her memories anymore, that he is the keeper of her memories. This is such a profound statement, but the film doesn’t make much of it because it doesn’t keep with its framing of Smith as the instigator, as the person who corrupted Pazder.
Satan Wants You scans as deeply naive. It seems to rejoice in pinpointing the beginning of a cultural fascination with Satan with the publication of this book, and in lewdly conjecturing about Smith’s mysterious reasons for crafting her tale, even as it goes on to note the discovery in the ‘90s of the fact that therapists were feeding patients false memories. It’s curious that though the film understands that the ‘90s brought on the realization that therapists might be to blame for patients’ wild claims about cult abuse, it doesn’t seem to extend enough grace to Smith to be able to conjecture that the entirety of Michelle Remembers might be Pazder’s doing. There is a moment during which one of the talking heads states that Smith could have recounted tales of Christian iconography being defiled because she knew Pazder was deeply religious, but even then, the film is so hungry for a further motive that it sees Smith as being inspired to create the story at all because of her love for Pazder. Never is Smith allowed to be seen as a vulnerable patient before an enterprising therapist.
The effect of this myopic, almost ahistorical excitement on the part of the film is that it leans into the sensationalist bent of the culture it’s criticizing, blowing the importance of the book, Smith’s power, and its effects out of proportion. This is a bloated documentary, with a near morbid fascination with the book, which it treads and retreads to an almost redundant degree, ultimately placing blame for an entire cultural phenomena on the woman at its core.
Near the end of the film, it is revealed that Pazder’s ex-wife has spent her later life charting Smith’s lived reality, and determining whether it corroborates her tale as depicted in Michelle Remembers. This is a mighty revelation, but the film almost hastily follows this thread, before it turns back again to the corruptive power of Michelle Remembers, back to playing-up its theory that Smith potentially made everything up because she was in love with Pazder. An attempt to track the timeline of Smith’s life in the real world and how it correlates to the timeline of her abuse as presented in the book — this would have been an interesting angle for the documentary, it would have made this film unique.
Because the film positions Smith as a manipulative femme fatale, it also depicts her as the woman who, incidentally, introduced the public to the idea of Satan worship, of cults — she alone becomes the person responsible for igniting the Satanic Panic. Because this film is so fascinated by Smith, it fails to consider the Western world’s cultural fascination with the devil, its ample history of othering entire groups and accusing them of witchcraft or Satan worship, its obsession with blaming others for societal destruction so as to assuage its anxieties. I have written extensively on Christianity’s habit of othering, and there is an abundance of historical writing/research on the Salem Witch Trials, the Affair of the Poisons, McCarthyism, etc. The film could have even looked back a mere 20 years to the Manson family murders and the panic of the ‘60s. The documentary fails to recall that Rosemary’s Baby was produced in 1968.
Western cultural history is replete with a fear of the devil, witches, communism — these are all fears that are more about a fear of the un-Christian, un-patriarchal, than anything else, all erupting at points in history when Christianity’s and white men’s power over people was threatened. A cursory Google search of Michelle Remembers reveals that many professionals believe that the book’s contents are heavily inspired by popular culture, that the events Smith and Pazder describe contain elements saturating Smith’s generation’s mainstream culture. In other words, a cultural, paranoid fascination with the devil was always there, in response to various aspects mainstream culture was terrified of. The only thing new Satan Wants You seems to offer is an introduction to a voiceless image of a woman, along with a blinkered understanding of history.
Instead of interrogating what it was about Smith and Pazder’s book that made the public latch onto it so fervently, or what was happening socio-politically to incite such a fear in the hearts of North Americans, why they were so afraid for their kids’ safety at that point in time; in failing to consider what it meant — sociologically, culturally — that society blamed the people it did blame for corrupting the youth, in failing to link the Satanic Panic to its chronological context and its contemporary context, this film offers nothing new. Instead of pursuing any meaningful avenue, Satan Wants You chooses to heap blame on a singular woman as the architect for a cultural moment, and in so doing it offers nothing more meaningful than the hysteria it aims to document.