Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams’s documentary SATAN WANTS YOU tells the untold story of how the Satanic Panic of the 1980s was ignited by “Michelle Remembers,” a lurid memoir by psychiatrist Larry Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith. Supported by the Catholic Church, the bestselling book relied on recovered-memory therapy to uncover Michelle’s childhood abduction by baby-stealing Satanists. Amplified by law enforcement and America’s Daytime TV boom, satanic rumors spread through panic-stricken communities across the world, leaving a wave of destruction and wrongful convictions in their wake.
For the world premiere of SATAN WANTS YOU at SXSW 2023, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew spoke with co-writers/co-directors Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor. During their interview, they discussed everything from the cultural impact of “Michelle Remembers” to what they hope viewers take away from it.
Thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with me today. As someone who grew up in the Church and has subsequently left, I found this documentary to be very eye-opening. How did you learn about “Michelle Remembers?”
Sean Horlor: I grew up in Victoria where Michelle Smith and Larry Pazder are from, and this very much is a story from my childhood. A really weird thing is that my Auntie Cindy trained under Larry when she was getting her nursing degree. So, this was something in my town everyone talked about. What was also really weird for me when we started doing this film was realizing that the story has impacted millions of people around the world way beyond where it started in Victoria.
Steve J. Adams: When we started researching the project, it actually came to us. We were doing a different project about books and authors and the “Michelle Remembers” book came up on our research list. Sean was like, oh my God, that book. I didn’t know anything about the Satanic Panic, really. I was familiar with the name but I didn’t know what it actually was. And, after we started to look at it, Sean was like, it is so much bigger than just Victoria, and that’s kind of where it all started.
What was your reaction upon reading “Michelle Remembers”?
Steve J. Adams: It’s really poorly written. It’s barely a book [Laughs].
Sean Horlor: The whole concept of the book is that they had these two years of therapy, Larry and Michelle, and they tape-recorded everything. Basically, they got their therapy sessions transcribed and then they literally cut and pasted in some sections just chunks of therapy tape. It’s a little documentary in terms of a book. It has that kind of raw feeling.
What pushed you into making a documentary about this? And how relevant do you think the book is today?
Sean Horlor: So I have a Google Alert set up for “Michelle Remembers” to see what people are saying, and I swear it’s maybe two or three articles per week, still! This is 40 years after this book’s been published. Hundreds of articles have been written about this. There’s podcasts now…
Steve J. Adams: They always reference it as being one of the things that kicked off the Satanic Panic, so it’s always brought up. When we were looking at the whole panic and we were looking at where we are today and we began to look at QANON and Pizza Gate, that’s when we were really like, oh, okay, this has an origin story that goes way back further than just this time period we’re in right now. That’s when I think we really began to get interested because it’s so relevant right now.
Sean Horlor: Another interesting thing for us, too, is there’s a moment in the film where the sociologist Jeffrey S. Victor, who wrote the book called “Satanic Panic,” says, oh no, here we go again when he is talking about QANON and Pizza Gate. It’s just cyclical, repeating these same sorts of thinking over and over again throughout history.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in doing this documentary?
Sean Horlor: One of the surprising things for me was, because I grew up with the story, you read all these things every week saying this is the book that is believed to have started the Satanic Panic. For us to actually really dive into this and see how connected Michelle and Larry were, not just because of the book but for all the events that happened after when the Satanic Panic was actually unfolding, that was surprising.
Steve J. Adams: They really participated. We were kind of wondering how involved were they. Then, as we began to investigate further, like when the McMartin Preschool incident happened, Larry and Michelle were kind of pivotal in speaking to the kids and guiding this Satanic ritual abuse out of them. Then they just continued on for years afterwards, too. At some point, somebody had told us that Michelle stopped giving interviews around 1986, but then we found footage of her in 1992 where she was still talking about this, her and Larry together. So we were like, they were much more involved and it was all because they were just making money.
And she’s not interested in speaking about this anymore? To give readers her side of the story?
Sean Horlor: We reached out to her a few times to invite her to participate in the film. She declined and made it pretty clear to us that she does not want to talk about it in a film format. The reason why her friend Cheetie participated in the film, I think she wanted to do this to speak for Michelle since they were so close and Cheetie went through this period of time with Michelle, to actually tell Michelle’s side of this. So there is that voice in the film.
When bringing in participants for this documentary, I found it fascinating that there was an openly Wiccan police detective. How did that come about?
Sean Horlor: Charles Ennis, who is the Wiccan police detective, was the very first person to say yes to the film. He was waiting with the receipts. He had all of his investigation materials. Him as a character and what he actually did as a police officer to speak out during the Satanic Panic for religious freedom and to say, Wicca isn’t what you think it is, and this is what we stand for and all this other Satanic ritual abuse stuff, this is my opinion on it. He is such a cool guy. Even FBI agent Ken Lanning, who was one of those original guys who was responsible for Satanic cults/cult crime; talking to him was like 40 years hadn’t passed at all.
Steve J. Adams: They spent 10 years of their lives looking at this and trying to debunk it and they were so intrinsically involved in all of it. If you spent 10 years of your life on one subject, it’s gonna stay with you for a really long time. When we reached out and said that we were doing this film and we wanted to talk about these things, everybody was so quick to say yeah, we want to talk about this. I don’t think a film has been made about the Satanic Panic like this film.
Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from this?
Steve J. Adams: I hope that people look at this and realize where conspiracy theories come from and how two people can have such a gigantic effect on the world.
Sean Horlor: One of the big takeaways for me was when the Wiccan police detective, Charles, said in the film, that this is a story about money, power, and influence and what people will do to get those things and what they’ll do to keep them.
SATAN WANTS YOU had its World Premiere at the 2023 SXSW FIlm Festival. For more on the documentary, check out our review. Make sure to read our SXSW coverage here.
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