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‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ and the Power of the Individual

There is something otherworldly about teenage girls. To those of us who have never been teenage girls, or those of us whose adolescences have receded into a dim bubblegum-scented, glitter-strewn past, they seem inherently alien. The intensity of their friendships, their indecipherable slang, the complexity of their social rituals: all of these things serve to mark them off as the Other. Yet, while adult society may often regard adolescent girls with contempt or patronisng dismissal, there is also a degree to which adults fear these young women. Their ranks are closed, and they are comprehensible only to each other; their language is their own, a secret code that pays no heed to the grammar and conventions of adult speech; they are unpredictable, metamorphic, changeable. It is this Otherness, this unsettling difference, that has so often caused teenage girls to be viewed as somehow supernatural or closely bound to the occult. According to the critic Barbara Creed, young girls who experienced prophetic dreams at the time of their first period were thought by many cultures to be witches. In more recent history, the mediums who presided over the spiritualistic seances of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were often young women: their youth and fragility were believed to render them uniquely suited to the task of channelling spirits.

Teenage mediums Margaret and Kate Fox, via The Paris Review

Yet, while adolescent girls may always have been intimately linked to the supernatural, it was only in the years following the Second World War that we encountered what is perhaps the most pervasive and culturally ingrained manifestation of this connection: the teenage witch. The teen witch emerged alongside the birth of a distinct adolescent culture in the affluent lull of the 1950s. This was an era when, for the first time, teenagers acquired their own fashion, music, slang, purchasing power. At the same time, however, there was an anxiety about the rebellious nature of teenagers, about their seditious potential: think of James Dean’s suburban malaise in Rebel Without a Cause or the hordes of sensational juvenile delinquent films produced during this period. Female adolescence was a particular cause for concern during the 1950s and ‘60s, as the teenage girl appeared to pose a distinct threat to the social order. Caught between childhood and womanhood, emerging into sexuality but unconstrained by the rigors of marriage and motherhood, the teenage girl seemed possessed of a dangerous femininity. No wonder, then, that the teen witch was born out of these hysterical fears about juvenile delinquency, rebellion, and uncontrollable sexuality. One of the most iconic conflations of cultural anxieties about adolescent sexuality and witchcraft comes in the form of Arthur Miller’s classic, Intro to American Lit. staple, The Crucible (1953), where the paranoia that grips seventeenth-century Salem is attributed to frustrated, teenage lust of Abigail Williams and her adolescent cohorts. Although the real-life Salem witch trials saw accusers and witches drawn from all age groups and social demographics, Miller’s post-war re-imagining of the atrocities laid the blame for the destructive witchcraft hysteria squarely at the feet of malicious, unruly teenage girls. These young women, socially disenfranchised and condescended to by adults, were nevertheless terrifyingly powerful. Throughout the subsequent decades, teen witches would become increasingly visible in popular culture, as magic and the occult were reconfigured as ideal fictional analogues for the transformative, disconcerting experience of adolescence.

1982 issue of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, via Wikimedia Commons

It is out of this popular juxtaposition of adolescence and witchcraft that the character of Sabrina Spellman emerges. First appearing in Archie Comics in 1962, Sabrina swiftly became an iconic character, headlining her own comic books series from 1971 onwards. Those of us who came of age in the 1990s will probably harbour fond memories of the ABC sitcom and the vaguely inappropriate one-liners uttered by Sabrina’s feline sidekick, Salem Saberhagen.

However, the consistent thematic thread running through the various incarnations of Sabrina is that she is a half-witch, half-mortal who is made aware of this fact and its significance on her sixteenth birthday. Most iterations of Sabrina centre on her attempts to navigate this dual identity and learn to use her powers effectively. The tried and tested Sabrina formula usually involved the eponymous teenage witch learning the importance of responsibility and altruism in her employment of magic. Both the comic and the television sitcom, therefore, construct Sabrina’s attempts to understand her magical nature as a metaphor for puberty and the journey to adulthood. Learning to be a witch, like learning to be a woman, means exercising self-control, caring for others and behaving in a responsible, socially acceptable manner. These messages about growing up were, of course, delivered in an essentially child-friendly manner: Sabrina would become addicted to pancakes and learn how to mediate her desires, she would use witchcraft to conjure up a fashionable outfit and learn the folly of vanity. In 2014, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Robert Hack introduced a new vision of Sabrina, one based on the occult horror of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Devil Rides Out (1968), and The Omen (1976).

In this version, entitled The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the aesthetic was heavily influenced by the popular EC horror comics of the 1950s, and the witchcraft as puberty metaphor was front and centre of the comic’s narrative. In the first arc of the comic series, aptly entitled The Crucible, half-mortal witch Sabrina Spellman prepares for baptism, her initiation as a witch when she must sign her name in the Devil’s book of acolytes and pledge herself to him for eternity. That her rebirth as a witch serves as an explicit reference to puberty and the emergence of adult sexuality is clear throughout the comic. Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda, for example, describes the young witch’s impeding baptism in a manner that draws together the magic of the lunar cycle and images of menstrual blood:

As discussed, the ceremony would customarily take place on the first full moon after your sixteenth birthday… but I’ve already had your astral chart prepared … and your sixteenth birthday falls not just on a full moon, but on the best kind of full moon … a blood-moon… the same night as a lunar eclipse… on Samhain… (Chapter 3)

The Netflix series based on Aguirre-Sacasa’a and Hack’s creation is no less overt in its positioning of witchcraft as a metaphor for the trials of female adolescence and the unsettling self-estrangement of puberty. Like the comic series which it adapts, Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina centres upon Sabrina Spellman’s ambivalent preparations for her upcoming “dark baptism” and her entry into the Church of the Night. The series has a distinct fairy tale tone to it, Sabrina who is played with equal parts vulnerability and perspicuity by Kiernan Shipka, is often seen running through the woods in a red peacoat reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood. The opening lines of the first episode tell us that “In the town of Greendale, where it always feels like Halloween, there lived a girl who was half-witch, half-mortal, who, on her sixteenth birthday would have to choose between two worlds: the witch world of her family and the human world of friends.” This introduction feels like storybook narration, situating the tale in a faraway kingdom, and the fairy tale aspect is further emphasised by the show’s aesthetic: bright blocks of colour, dreamy woodlands, a dark crumbling mansion that looks like someone built a dollhouse based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables.

At the same time, however, the main thematic concerns of the show remain firmly grounded in the notion of witchcraft as a metaphor for female adolescence. Sabrina is caught between two worlds: the traditions and rituals of witchcraft versus the bright promise of high school and a normal, exuberant youth. The familiar staples of Sabrina’s universe are all present and accounted for, along with some new additions. Her aunts, Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto), along with her cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) and various representatives of the Church of the Night embody the obligations of family and tradition. While, her friends – Harvey (Ross Lynch), Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson) – speak to the restlessness of adolescence and the desire to forge one’s own community of peers, far from the constraints of family. Sabrina is caught between the staid conventions of the old world and the dynamic potential of the new world. Perhaps somewhat uncomfortably, this conflict is manifested in the show’s casting: Sabrina’s witch family is comprised entirely of Brits (or actors feigning British accents), while her friends are lively young Americans. At one point, Sabrina even articulates the relationship between witchcraft and puberty by likening her baptism to a bat mitzvah or quinceañera. By drawing parallels between her initiation into the coven and these well-known celebrations of burgeoning womanhood, Sabrina highlights how accepting her identity as a witch reflects the process of maturation whereby a young girl must grow into a new identity as a woman.

On first viewing, particularly in the initial moments of episode one when Sabrina says goodnight to her high-school sweetheart, Harvey Kinkle, and magically sets the radio to play an upbeat sixties pop tune, it appears as though Chilling Adventures is following in the footsteps of so many literary and cinematic works that depict witchcraft as a liberating alternative to an oppressive patriarchal society. However, as the first few episodes progress, this binary opposition, which figures human society as oppressive and sexist while the world of the witch is feminist and free, is gradually broken down. The sisterhood that is often viewed as the defining feature of witchcraft is conspicuously absent here. Sabrina’s primary antagonists in the first episodes are not just male oppressors but other women and fellow witches. She has a combative relationship with three other adolescent witches, the Weird Sisters (played by Tati Gabrielle, Adeline Rudolph and Abigail Cowen), while the central villain of the series is the manipulative entity possessing Sabrina’s teacher Ms Wardwell (Michelle Gomez). Likewise, in the second episode of the series, Zelda unceremoniously murders her sister Hilda. This is not a spoiler because Hilda resurrects shortly afterwards, and their relationship seems to be defined by repeated murders of this kind. Unlike recent witchcraft texts, like Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), the occult does not provide a communal, feminist alternative to a hierarchical patriarchal society. Instead, it simply reflects that social order.

As her baptism approaches Sabrina’s main reservations about signing the Book of the Beast and giving herself over to the Devil centre around the notion of free will. She wonders if, once she has pledged her service to the Dark Lord, will she be able retain her own agency and freedom of choice. Afterall, she will be signing away her autonomy and agreeing to be the servant of a powerful patriarchal figure. Chilling Adventures subverts the common fictional convention whereby witchcraft signals liberation from an oppressive, masculinist society. In this version of the teen witch narrative, witchcraft means abandoning your freedom. The unsettling patriarchal connotations of this become apparent when Sabrina is reminded that witches being initiated into the Devil’s service must be pure and virginal. She retorts with a phrase that is perhaps familiar as a distortion of the pro-choice slogan “my body, my choice,” when she asks why the Dark Lord gets to decide what she does with her body. Indeed, the Church of the Night appears to possess an inherently patriarchal structure. The Devil’s emissary on earth is the high priest, Fr Blackwood (Richard Coyle), who with his black robes and high cravat appears more like a conservative Puritan minister than a radical Satanist. In Chilling Adventures, authority is constructed as fundamentally male. In a later episode, whose storyline I won’t spoil, it is hard not to view Sabrina’s treatment by the Church of the Night as reflective of the manner in which sexual assault victims are tried, both in legal courts and in the court of public opinion. In another telling scene Sabrina is told that the Devil imbues women with power in exchange for their freedom. To become witches, they must relinquish their agency because the Devil, who we are reminded is still a man, cannot tolerate women possessing both power and freedom.

Witchcraft in Chilling Adventures is not an escape from an oppressive male dominated reality. Instead, it is hierarchical and patriarchal in its own right. However, this does not mean that the series is bleak and pessimistic. Witchcraft does not offer an escape from real world injustices, so Chilling Adventures suggests that rather than escape to some mythic other realm and imagined sisterly community, one should instead fight the wrongs of this world. While Sabrina may be oppressed by the pressures of her witch identity, she finds freedom with her friends and a social justice organisation they create together, which goes by the acronym W.I.C.C.A. (clearly a nod to the second-wave feminist organisation W.I.T.C.H.). Spurred by cruel attacks against her non-binary friend Susie (who is played by a non-binary actor), Sabrina and her friends create an activist group to oppose prejudice and cruelty. Although somewhat naïve in its execution, Chilling Adventures (at least in its early episodes) reminds us that rather than escaping into magical fantasy, we must fight real-world evils directly and at a grass-roots level.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is not a perfect show. In fact, it has many egregious flaws. As with many teenage supernatural drama series, logic takes a back seat to sensation. Certain plot points are melodramatic (the revelation about Sabrina’s friend Roz or Harvey’s conflict with his blue-collar father), the acting is occasionally clunky, and the dialogue is often unnecessarily expository. Perhaps the most disappointing element of the show for nostalgic ‘90s kids is that Salem doesn’t talk.

New Salem is adorable, though.

Although I enjoy his new origin story as goblin-cum-familiar, and the quasi-Lovecraftian design of his true form, I feel like this more feline Salem dispels much of the wonder of both the comics and the ABC sitcom. Indeed, I don’t think that a talking Salem would diminish the dark tone that the series is aiming for. Afterall, in Aguirre-Sacasa’s and Hack’s comic series, Salem spoke, and this did not detract from the cannibalism, necromancy and unsettling atmosphere of that work. That being said, there is much to love here. While some might find Chilling Adventures grim in comparison to its whacky ABC precursor, it is an entirely different show, drawn from very different source material. The humour that does exist here is black, gallows humour. The set design is engaging and the opening credits, based on Hack’s artwork, are stunning. Moreover, there are some great performances throughout the series. Michelle Gomez and Richard Coyle appear to be having an amazing time as campy, satanic villains; Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto are wonderful as Hilda and Zelda; Kiernan Shipka is a precocious and endearing Sabrina. I also loved the highly charismatic Chance Perdomo as Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose; he has the kind of eccentric charm that reminds me of Jack Lemmon in 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle (another great warlock sidekick). The show is also full of wonderful treats for fans of literary and cinematic witchcraft. Characters with names like Putnam and Hawthorne abound. There are innumerable references to Rosemary’s Baby and Suspiria. The first episode is even entitled “October Country”, an homage to horror/sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, himself no stranger to teen witches. Although an over-reliance on meta-reference can, of course, become tiresome, Chilling Adventures does seem to be a sincere love letter to all things witchy. Most importantly, however, Chilling Adventures overtly and self-consciously deconstructs the myth of witchcraft as inherently empowering or feminist. It is a show that locates power not within a cult or a craft, but within the individual. This new iteration of Sabrina may come from a long line of fictional teen witches, but her adventures deviate greatly from those of her literary and cinematic precursors.

About Miranda Corcoran

Miranda Corcoran currently teaches American literature in University College Cork, Ireland. Her research interests include Cold-War literature, genre fiction, literature and psychology, and popular culture. She also enjoys researching and writing about topics related to horror, the supernatural and witchcraft.

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