“If you didn’t believe it, you were suspect. I mean, at best, of not being caring about children, and at worst, that you are a Satanist.”
–Debbie Nathan, investigative journalist.
With the shadows of the Satanic Panic falling again in the form of QAnon and online conspiracism, a documentary looks back to the 1980s and, in particular, the role played by that most improbable of bestsellers, Michelle Remembers. While the book’s claims have been debunked, the truth behind it may be even more deceptively sinister than we realize.
This October Offering isn’t a horror movie. It’s a documentary film about an actual horror.
Cast and Crew
Written and Directed by Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor
The documentary investigates the role played by Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith’s disturbing 1980 bestseller in igniting and fueling the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.
Satan Wants You does a decent job of documenting the facts around Michelle’s life and the reasons why her story could not be true. Those facts, however, are now widely available. What was new to me was evidence– uncertain, but credible– that Pazder, Michelle’s therapist and later husband, may have been seeking a get-rich bestseller in the vein of Sybil. When Smith began more-or-less stalking him, calling repeatedly and turning up at social events (much to his then-wife’s chagrin), he may have deliberately responded to her because he saw that money-making potential. Several questions remain unanswered:
-How much of the story did Pazder invent himself? He did most of the speaking during interviews, because, he claimed, post-therapy, Michelle had re-forgotten the details that appear in the book.
-How much did he ever believe any of it? He later stated that her memories may have been metaphoric rather literal– but only after the lucrative bookings dried up.
When, exactly, did they start their sexual/personal relationship? Pazder left his wife, and he and Michelle married at some point.
We also see footage of Pazder in west Africa, where he observed and filmed rituals that clearly influenced the account of rites described in Michelle Remembers. While he saw these things, it seems clear he either did not understand their cultural significance or chose to misrepresent it.
I also give kudos to the role played by Smith’s sisters. They did what reporters should have, looking at available records. During the time Michelle was supposedly being held captive in some unidentified location for an 81-month ritual, she had near-perfect attendance at their school and had her yearbook photograph taken.
The emphasis on Michelle Remembers means that many of the related elements addressed receive short shrift. For example, we get a clip of Laurel Rose Willson / Lauren Stratford / Laura Grabowski, but no indication of the depth and breadth of her con-artistry (under multiple names). We see none of the (well-documented) reasons why we should not believe what she is saying, other than she doesn’t sound especially credible.1
Originality: 3/6 The documentary mostly revisits material already widely-available. Unfortunately, as journalist Debbie Nathan notes, debunking does not make belief, no matter how bizarre and unfounded, disappear. In the minds and hearts of many people, the Satanic Panic never disappeared. Indeed, as the documentary fails to notice, a couple of Smith and Pazder’s claims revisit The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the 1903 anti-Semitic hoax that continues to be referenced, directly and indirectly, by the conspiracy-minded but rationally-challenged.
Performance and Presentation: 5/6 Despite the shifts in time and place, the documentary presents its case in a fairly clear manner. Two police detectives, Charles Ennis of the Vancouver Police Department and Ken Lanning of the FBI (the latter of whom was initially open to the possibility that such cults existed) do a solid job of debunking the claims made by using logic and evidence.
Emotional Response: 5/6 You want to laugh– but the reality is, you will be angry. No one mentioned in the bookwent to jail or were even tried, but they were branded villains, and other people were falsely tried or imprisoned as a result of the cultural delusions and madness of crowds to which Michelle Remembers contributed.
Meanwhile, actual cases of abuse and sexual abuse went uninvestigated, ones that occurred in respectable homes and institutions, and whose perpetrators were not wild-eyed kitten-killing cultists and whose victims, far from having to recover their memories under (mis)guided therapy, could not forget them. That the local Catholic Church helped fund Michelle Remembers is an irony not lost, given the number of religious institutions that helped conceal allegations of abuse by individual predators.
In Total, Satan Wants You receives 31/42
- In a film understandably critical of religious fanaticism, we also receive no hint of the role the evangelical Christian magazine Cornerstone (1971-2003) played in debunking the Satanic Panic, doing the legwork and research that mainstream talk shows would not.
October Countdown 2023:
Oct. 1: Tales of Halloween (2015)
Weekend of Oct. 7/8: Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
Weekend of Oct. 14/15: Hell Baby (2013)
Satan Wants You (2023)
Weekend of Oct. 21/22: Last Night in Soho (2021)
Weekend of Oct. 28/29: Anime Explorations: Vampire Hunter D (1985)
October 31: Renfield (2023)
Haunted House (2023)