Satan Wants You (2023), directed by Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor. (Photograph courtesy of Game Theory Films)

Topics: October/November 2023, Spirituality | Culture

‘Satan Wants You’ revisits the ritual abuse scare of the ’80s and ’90s

The new documentary recounts how unfounded fears about demonic possession and cults changed our culture


As titles go, Michelle Remembers was hardly the most arresting on bookshelves in the 1980s. It was up to publishers to show readers what they were getting. Words emblazoned on the salacious cover of one edition proclaimed the book was nothing less than “the shocking true story of the ultimate evil — a child’s possession by the Devil!”

The book’s co-author, Michelle Smith, lived in Victoria in the early 1970s. Seeking help for feelings of depression after a miscarriage, Smith began seeing Dr. Lawrence Pazder, a local psychiatrist. The revelations that emerged from their therapy sessions were shocking to doctor and patient alike. As recounted in Satan Wants You — a fascinating new Canadian documentary that delves into the discredited book’s role in stoking fears of hidden devil worshippers — the two spent months excavating what they believed to be Smith’s long-suppressed childhood memories of horrific abuses inflicted on her by a satanic cult that included her mother (who died when Smith was a teen).

These memories became the basis for Smith and Pazder’s 1980 bestseller. There was no factual proof of Smith’s purported experiences, but that did not impede the book’s success. Instead, to believers, the lack of evidence proved how insidious satanic cults were at disguising the depraved activities taking place in even the most ordinary suburbs. Rampant through the 1980s and early 1990s, this fear became known as the Satanic Panic. Michelle Smith and her book were, in the words of one of the film’s interview subjects, its “patient zero.”

Directed by Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor, Satan Wants You recounts a story so bizarre, it may be hard for viewers to believe it was treated with the utmost seriousness not just by sensation-seeking talk-show hosts (Oprah Winfrey included) but by psychiatrists and law enforcement. Accusations of satanically inspired ritual abuse in daycare and preschools — including one in Martensville, Sask., in the early 1990s — led to prosecutions, prison sentences and ruined lives.

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Exactly how much blame should rest on Smith and Pazder remains an open question — media figures and religious leaders helped encourage a frenzy of accusations, too. But Adams and Horlor convincingly show how Michelle Remembers let something very powerful out of the bottle.

The impact of the book’s success on its authors’ lives is also plenty weird, with Pazder capitalizing on his new-found “expert” status and much of Smith’s family left perplexed by her account. (Several of her relatives were interviewed in the film. Smith declined to participate.) The directors also point out that however outlandish the Satanic Panic may seem now, the insidious appeal of conspiracy theories may be stronger than ever judging by the millions of QAnon believers.

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The fact that Smith and Pazder left their spouses to marry each other demonstrates the intensity of the bond forged in those original sessions, eerie excerpts of which are heard throughout the film. In those moments when we hear the terror in Smith’s voice, the documentary becomes something closer to a horror flick. Whatever credence one may give to Smith’s account, there’s no denying the evil felt real to her.


Jason Anderson is a writer and film programmer in Toronto.

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