As a Catholic primary school kid in the seventies, I vividly remember the culture of fear generated around two super popular horror movies at the time: The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Both were made when I was still very young, but their legend continued for years after their release, and an excitement around their subject of choice: essentially, the devil. We all searched our mates’ scalps for any sign of the number “666”, and every time someone had a tummy bug we screamed “demonic possession”. It was hilarious but also more than a little scary, especially to children raised with the possibility that Lucifer was a very real thing.
Tonight’s great documentary, SATAN LIVES touches on the cult of fear around the devil, and how the way we think of him has evolved over the years. From Texas to the Vatican, the fast-paced and well-made film meets with practicing and former Satanists, exorcists, cult icons - believers and non-believers alike - to ask why in the age of reason the man with the horns remains so powerful and seductive. The film even features The Exorcist’s child star Linda Blair, whose life went pretty damn pear-shaped after she became the kid the great unwashed deemed most likely to follow in his footsteps.
It’s no surprise that music features heavily in the film, due to both the nature of its subject and the CVs and hobbies of its makers. Scot McFadyen is an award-winning director, producer and music supervisor, and after starting his own theatre company, ran the largest music production company on Vancouver Island. His first feature documentary was the awesome Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, and now he and his partner Sam Dunn’s production company, Banger Films is one of the world’s best-known documentary filmmaking operations focusing on heavy metal and hard rock. Dunn is also an anthropologist and musician, and his film Global Metal explored the globalization of metal in China, Japan, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and the Middle East. The metal genre is inextricably linked with Satanism, and their work in music reportedly influenced their work in SATAN LIVES.
I was really interested in the way that the filmmakers carefully divided the documentary into several sections, one of the most shocking being the daycare witch hunts in the early eighties after the release of the book ‘Michelle Remembers’. For those unfamiliar with the tome, it was the story of a young woman named Michelle Smith, who was a patient of distinguished psychiatrist Dr Lawrence Pazder, in Victoria, Canada, during the late 1970s. Pazder was married, a devout traditional Catholic family man, and Michelle presented originally with symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Pazder suspected child abuse might be a factor in Michelle’s psychological problems, but she had no memories of such, so Pazder started probing her subconscious memory through hypnosis. These hypnotherapy sessions became more and more frequent, sometimes lasting a day. Sometimes they were conducted in settings beyond Pazder’s office, including in hotel rooms located in quiet tourist retreats towns. After several years of treating Michelle, Pazder divorced his wife, Michelle divorced her husband, and Lawrence and Michelle got married to each other and published ‘Michelle Remembers’. The book detailed the horrific sexual abuse and torture that Michelle supposedly suffered at the hands of a sadistic satanic abuse cult, as a very young girl. Pazder became an expert in “recovered memory”, and as more and more everyday parents began to question the slightest changes in the behaviour of their toddlers, the US became obsessed by the idea of satanic abuse in the childcare system. The specific cases detailed in the film are terrifying, and it goes without saying that the book has subsequently been discredited by several investigations that found no corroboration of the book's events. Others have pointed out that the events described in the book were extremely unlikely and in some cases even impossible, but nonetheless, lives were ruined on both sides.
The film also explores the evolution of Satan as the ultimate figure of blame: for bad behaviour, for brutal killings, for all that is bad in the world. He has also effectively become the “enemy” over the last hundred or so years, giving governments and armies a reason to hurt what they don’t know. Communists, Jews, atheists and more have been killed for being an unfamiliar other, and if the actions of the Alt Right are to be believed, he has morphed into those who threaten the future of the United States.
The film also talks to the aforementioned Blair and occultist Anton LaVey’s daughter Zeena Schreck, who is now a Buddhist. Says Schreck: “Satan is someone I no longer need to have around”, and perhaps we should no longer have a use for him either.
SATAN LIVES premieres Thursday 7 September at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel
Watch trailer here
Remote record here