SXSW 2023 Interview: Steven J. Adams and Sean Horlor on Having a Devil of a Time with “Satan Wants You”

It all seems innocent enough when Michelle Smith makes a talk show appearance on CBC Radio in 1980 to promote her memoir “Michelle Remembers” at the start of “Satan Wants You.” Polite to a fault surely owing to her upbringing in the relatively quiet community of Victoria, British Columbia, Smith sounds every bit a serious author in her calm, measured tone and what she’s promoting has the imprimatur of a scholarly tome, co-written by Dr. Lawrence Pazder, a psychiatrist who parlayed experiences learning of tribal rituals in Nigeria during missionary work in the 1960s into a specialty of studying group behavior as it might apply to cults. However, this is one book you actually can judge by its cover, as co-directors Sean Horlor and Steven J. Adams reveal that “Michelle Remembers,” with its “Godfather”-esque title font and portrait of Michelle looking like the heroine of an Italian “Exorcist” knockoff, was far from a legitimate academic work, where no matter what you believed, the devil was in the details.

If Smith was pushing what appeared to be a fake horror film, said to be true account of how her parents gave her up to a satanic cult where she was mercilessly abused and witnessed horrific practices such as infant sacrifice, Horlor and Adams finally make a real one out of her story without ever having to stretch the truth themselves, observing how the publication of “Michelle Remembers” was ground zero for the Satanic Panic phenomenon that swept up North America during the 1980s and inspired literal witch-hunts that destroyed innocent people’s lives. Talking to friends and family of Smith and Dr. Pazder, the directing duo learn that there indeed was some fascinating psychology at play in Smith’s case as she became convinced that she had come into contact with Satan, with the filmmakers getting their hands on haunting recordings from her therapy sessions, but when an unhealthy relationship developed between the doctor and patient and notoriety was prized over treatment, the foundation for which an entire area of psychiatric study was created was beyond flawed.

Still, “Michelle Remembers” became a sensation and after inspiring claims of Satan sightings where the lack of proof was used by bad actors to actually justify their beliefs, “Satan Wants You” holds up Smith and Dr. Pazder to scrutiny that was never done at the time, showing how their chase for fame disillusioned the people around them and how eagerly they were pursued by the media when they had a juicy story to tell, never mind the facts. Horlor and Adams have plenty of fun presenting the story as any genre filmmaker would, but rather than going through the motions for a story of demonic possession, they find an even more chilling tale in the hold Smith’s bestseller had on the public’s imagination and although the public eventually caught on to them, “Satan Wants You” suggests that Smith and Dr. Pazder’s appeal was hardly limited to the specific time and place in which they became popular when conspiracy theories continue to spread like wildfire. If there’s any justice, “Satan Wants You” will catch on as well following its premiere at SXSW later this week and shortly before its bow, Horlor and Adams spoke about their engaging doc, scoring access to many of those closest to the central couple and the voluminous archives they kept as well as the story’s modern parallels.

You seem like the perfect duo to make this film when I understand Sean grew up hearing about this story, but then Steven was an outsider to it. Did that create an interesting dynamic?

Steven J. Adams: It was a big learning experience for myself because I’d heard about the Satanic Panic, but I didn’t realize that it was like this decade-long, insane journey and [Sean] was familiar with it, but you weren’t like [that familiar now]…

Sean Horlor: Forty years had passed, right? And the weird thing for me is that my auntie Cindy trained under Larry when she was completing her nursing degree, so it’s like I grew up in Victoria and everyone talked about this and I didn’t realize until we started making this movie, this affected millions of people around the world. But you live your life and I’d forgotten a lot of the stuff from my childhood until a few years ago when we were working on this documentary series about books and authors. This was one of the titles that came up and as soon as Steve saw that cover with Michelle with her tight satanic perm and that dress — and he had never heard of this story and [asked me] what is this book about? — that for me was like, okay, we have to do a film about this. Because he got so excited and he had never heard of it, and this is the reaction we get from everyone.

Steven J. Adams: Then trying to find a [copy of the] book took us a little while to get our hands on because it’s been out of print for so long. When we finally got one through eBay, it was like a hundred dollars and we read it and we were like, “Wow, this is insane.”

This seems like something that most involved would want left forgotten. What was it like getting the involvement of the families of Michelle and Dr. Pazder?

Steven J. Adams: It’s funny [because] some people didn’t want to talk about it at all, but then other people were dying to talk about this because this was one of the first times that people had reached out to them and said, “Hey, do you want to tell your side of the story?” A lot of the family members had lived under the shadow of the book and they never had their opportunity to actually speak about it on their own terms, so those people were really excited to actually get this off their shoulders.

Sean Horlor: Hundreds and hundreds of articles have been written about “Michelle Remembers,” and podcasts have been done, but this was the first time for Larry’s ex-wife [Marylyn], his daughter, and for Michelle’s sister, Charyl, and it’s a reoccurring thing with satanic panic. If somebody said, “My parents took me to a satanic cult and made me sacrifice babies,” no one ever talks to the parents or the sisters or the aunts and uncles and ask, “Did this really happen?” And when we started interviewing them, this is not like dragging memories out of people. It was like it happened yesterday. In documentary, we’ve talked to so many people [who can’t remember things after] 40 years had passed and it was like no time had passed at all for all the people in the film.

Steven J. Adams: What I found really interesting was a lot of the people who participated in the doc, like the police investigator, the FBI people, the investigative journalist, Marylyn — people who had really focused on this, it had become a large part of their lives and because it was they’d saved all this material, so they gave us a lot of access to it.

What was it like talking to law enforcement, particularly Ken Lanning with the FBI?

Sean Horlor: Oh, they kept all the receipts. The police detective who was the first police detective in North America to actually come out and say, “I’m Wiccan,” his whole career was about religious freedom and actually educating people that Wicca is different than Satanism and he was there to debunk the satanic panic. And then Ken Lanning was part of the Mindhunter group, the part of the FBI that they made the Netflix series about. He was purely cult crime and the occult and he is a fascinating, fascinating man. As soon as we called him, he was like, “I’m in.” [laughs] With his New York accent, “I’m in.”

When there’s a bunch of fascinating characters like this, was there any interview that you were particularly excited for?

Sean Horlor: Blanche Barton, a former high priestess of the Church of Satan, and she was a one-time lover of Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, she was fascinating, and it was important for us to get Michelle’s perspective in the film, so her friend [Adele] who decided to speak for Michelle and tell that side of the story was also really surprising and interesting to hear how that part of the book was written and how that all unfolded at that time.

You actually do get her voice into the film with recordings of her therapy sessions. You’ve said it was an anonymous drop, but what was it like to get your hands on those?

Steven J. Adams: It was near the end of the editing process and we literally were in the fine cut stages when the tape came and we sent it to our editor, Graham Kew, and he had it in the film in about two days. It changed the feel of the film and really just brought it to the next level. We were really grateful that we were able to get that in.

Was there anything else that happened along the way that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Sean Horlor: If you read “Michelle Remembers,” it is a horror story, so she’s having all these memories of satanic cults and her parents giving her away to the devil, and [she says] Satan actually appears in a fire, and you forget that element of the book over time, but when we reread it again, it was like, “Wow, I don’t know how many documentaries have a B-movie horror component to it,” and we were trying to rack our brains and [think], what other films do this? We couldn’t actually come up with any, but [thought] this is a really unique mystery horror with some documentary true crime storytelling in it, so it’s special.

Steven J. Adams: That’s what really excited us about it, especially knowing that this book was so gory. When towards the end of the book, there’s like a satanic conference and there’s 4,000 people in attendance and they’re all bringing babies and they’re ripping the babies apart, we were reading this thinking about this movie and we’re like, “How are we gonna do this?” [laughs] We knew the book was completely made up, so it gave us some creative license to play around with the form of it.

Was the structure tough to crack when there is a bit of reversal involved, though not even in the way you just set up?

Steven J. Adams: It was just part of the storytelling process. We kept on speaking to people and would get more pieces of the story and as we got elements in, there were so many times Sean and I were just flabbergasted, like the story as we’re like finding out about it, it’s twisting and turning, so being able to actually like turn that into a film was tricky, but a lot of fun. And we really wanted the audience to experience the satanic panic as it unfolded in the ’80s as they watch our film [where] that first chunk of the film, you’re like, “Is this true? What should I believe?” And then you start getting into the family stories and where you start and where you end with this film are two different places.

This gets into the present-day parallels with QAnon and conspiracy theories. Did that actually contribute to how you were telling the story?

Steven J. Adams: That was something that really attracted us to the story, just knowing that this happened 40 years ago and the same thing is happening today and it’s probably going to happen in the future. We found the cyclical nature of this whole thought process of satanic influences on our lives super fascinating.

Sean Horlor: It’s been really cool to watch. A whole generation was born after all of this happened and one of the takeaways we’re hoping for is that this film will be interesting for this new generation who’s lived through QAnon and Pizzagate through Rihanna’s Super Bowl performance [where there’s talk about what she was wearing] and Balenciaga and the Satanic campaign, so this just keeps going over and over and over again and there’s something to learn in this film.

Steven J. Adams: A lot of people who are younger than us have watched the film and they just look at us and they’re like, “We had no idea.”

“Satan Wants You” will screen at SXSW on March 11th at 9 pm at the Alamo Lamar A, March 13th at 12:30 pm at the Violet Crown Cinema 1 and 1 pm at the Violet Crown Cinema 3, and March 15th at 9 pm at the AFS Cinema.

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