Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Inside the Horrific (Contested) Abuse Story That Ignited the Satanic Panic

By Laura Bradley, Daily Beast

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.”


Leave a Reply